Kevin Spacey Says Digital Platforms Are Killing the TV Pilot—and That's a Great Thing

Four points he's learned about creating for the Web

Kevin Spacey and SapientNitro CMO Bill Kanarick SapientNitro

Academy Award-winning actor Kevin Spacey made headlines when he agreed to star in the Netflix original series House of Cards—and then made even more headlines when the critically acclaimed show began winning Emmys and Golden Globes.

Spacey was the keynote speaker at SapientNitro's Idea Exchange dinner during Advertising Week, where he delighted the crowd with his thoughts on creating for digital platforms and his most memorable star encounters, including the time he bought flowers for Audrey Hepburn as a teen.

We spoke to Spacey about working on the Web series and test driving the upcoming Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, which he stars in. Here are four points Frank Underwood wants you to know about how to play politics with online creative.

1. There's Just One Difference Between Filming for TV and a Digital Web Series

"Sometimes people ask me, 'When you’re making a movie or a TV show, is it different?'" Spacey explained. "Actually, that camera that is photographing us doesn't know it's a movie camera or a TV camera or a webisode camera or a Vine camera; it's just a camera. Whatever platform it ends up on, it doesn’t affect the way we go about doing our work."

However, there is one main change—and it's something Spacey likes. Most Web platforms don't require a pilot, that tedious 45-minute episode that presents the characters and storyline. It's why the House of Cards team decided to go with Netflix, which backed the show because data suggested its consumers loved David Fincher films, Kevin Spacey films and the original British series.

"While data can only tell you what has happened in the past, it can in some ways give you a sense of what might be of interest to an audience in the future," Spacey pointed out.

"By giving us that runway, we were able to start the story the way we wanted to start the story. We didn't have to come up with these arbitrary things. Also because we weren't on a network, we didn't have to create those cliffhangers that you have to do on each commercial on the hopes of getting an audience to come back," he added.

2. Web Content Is Creating a New, Connected Audience

Spacey strongly believes the future of television is online. "I think it's exciting the way these platforms are finding out how to create an audience of their own without a network, without a studio, without a publisher. There is no barrier to entry. It's an incredibly exciting time. I wish it had been around when I was starting," Spacey said.

SapientNitro CMO Bill Kanarick added that the shop has long understood consumers connect with great ideas—regardless of platform.

"This idea that you would think about something as digital or TV or something else, the lessons in the advertising industry are pretty clear right now: That's clearly not the way to think about something," he said. "That's a decision rooted in trying to protect an economic model. That's not a decision rooted in trying to birth great ideas into the world. We believe and we certainly are learning this lesson every day: The consumer now has an expectation that he or she is in control. The more you try to wrestle control from your consumer, it's going to be at the peril of your brand or business."

3. Great Ideas Are Ushering in the 'Third Golden Age of Television'

Spacey cites Richard Linkletter's Boyhood—which took 12 years to make—as a prime example of a time when money-making sensibilities didn't cloud creative judgment.

"The risk inherent with an executive in a company saying, 'I believe in this idea. It's a little fucking crazy because I know from an investment point of view I can't even tell our board when we might see our money back for funding a movie over a 12-year period—or I'll even be an executive in a company in 12 years time—but he took the risk, and look at the remarkable reward," Spacey said. "I have every suspicion that it's going to get a slew of nominations, if not actually winning Best Picture.

"That's a great example of somebody on the executive level who took a roll of the dice because an idea was more valuable to him than all of the arguments that somebody might make economically against it. What we saw 15 years ago when HBO executives—and AMC executives—really started the incredible role towards taking chances on character-driven series with anti-hero kind of characters has really shaped television into what I believe is the third golden age of television."

4. Virtual Reality Is Making Room for Ingenuity

Spacey, who will portray the villain in the newest installment of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, recently got to test the virtual reality technology Oculus Rift. After getting the immersive gameplay experience, he's in awe of the possibilities.

"The technology is here, and now it's up to us what content we put in it. That for storytellers, content builders, advertisers—how you get your story across, how you reach your audience—it's going to be a landmark idea that's going to build and build and build," he said. 

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