Damian Dovarganes/associated press


Spike Lee directed the pilot for Shark — a CBS legal drama starring James Woods — and recently signed a deal to develop another drama pilot for NBC.

SMALL SCREEN GETS SMALLER: Director Spike Lee has signed a deal with NBC to develop a drama pilot, according to a Hollywood Reporter story this week. “The search is underway for a writer to pen the drama project,” read the story, “which Lee will develop, executive produce and possibly direct.”

Lee also directed the pilot for Shark, an upcoming CBS legal drama starring James Woods, which makes it look like his agent has made a convincing argument that regular TV work is probably as lucrative as making movies, and hardly a step down these days, even for a director with Lee’s considerable — but hardly spotless — critical reputation.

Coming a day or so after another Hollywood Reporter story on actress Holly Hunter’s negotiations with TNT to appear in a pilot for the supernatural drama Grace, one can’t help but speculate. Either movie work is drying up for actors like Hunter and directors like Lee, or the taint that TV work once brought to a career is no longer an issue.

Going over Hunter’s Internet Movie Database filmography, it’s not like the work has bottomed out — she’s averaged at least a couple of roles every year, and has four films due for release in the next couple of years, and while none of them look to be big budget productions with name directors, Hunter has always been happy to work on low profile films in between A-list projects — for every Broadcast News or The Firm in her career, there’s been a Crash, Thirteen or Nine Lives.

And if Lee had started taking TV work after She Hate Me, it might have looked like something like desperation, but his work on Inside Man — a taut, pyrotechnic thriller that has made back its budget almost twice over on the verge of its DVD release — has shored up his reputation in the movie business very nicely.

The fact is that TV is looking like a sweeter deal for ambitious actors and directors these days, and when you factor in dismal news like Disney’s announcement in Variety last week that it would be scaling down production from 18 to 8 films a year, TV work looks like it will at least shine some flattering light on one’s bank balance.

Considering that the biggest victims of Disney’s cuts will be its Touchstone and Miramax subsidiaries — producers of the sort of risky projects that Hunter and Lee are known for — you can’t blame them for looking for TV work. A sequel to the Disney/Pixar animated hit The Incredibles — Hunter’s last big hit, in a starring voiceover role — might be years in the future, and it’s unlikely that either a role in a hit TV series or even a brief stint in a failure constitutes a black mark anymore.

A hit TV show can do serious numbers on DVD nowadays — proof that audiences aren’t making the distinction. Either the TV is getting better or the movies are getting worse, and writing this, midway through a decidedly lacklustre summer movie season, I’d say it’s probably a bit of both.