Why Can't TV's Top Hitmakers Find Movie Audiences?

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Amazon's 'Life Itself' (inset: Dan Fogelman)

Dan Fogelman's 'Life Itself' becomes the latest cautionary tale for film studios looking to capitalize on hot small-screen creators.

Not everyone can be a J.J. Abrams. The former TV wunderkind may have turned his Felicity and Lost cred into impressive box office returns on Star Wars and Star Trek, but other small-screen hitmakers — including, most recently, This Is Us' Dan Fogelman — are flaming out at the multiplex.

Amazon had hoped that fans of Fogelman's NBC drama would show up for the director's Sept. 21 release Life Itself — a tearjerker that also features interconnected storylines and tragic events. But the film took in just $2.1 million in its opening weekend despite playing in 2,609 theaters. It has earned a paltry $4 million.

Fogelman joins a list of such luminaries as The Sopranos' David Chase and Mad Men's Matthew Weiner, whose films that followed their breakout TV successes were busts. The late Brad Grey, an executive producer on Sopranos, financed Chase's $20 million Not Fade Away, which couldn't crack $1 million. Weiner's Are You Here was eviscerated by critics and never received a theatrical release. David E. Kelley was never able to replicate his television success in film.

TV success often is the result of exploiting underutilized niches, be it paranormal sci-fi (like X-Files) or fantasy (Game of Thrones). By following that strategy in film, TV megaproducer Greg Berlanti enjoyed a modest success with Fox's Love, Simon. That film, which marked the first from a major studio to focus on a gay teen romance, has earned $66 million worldwide off of a $17 million budget.

In the Life Itself aftermath, speculation swirled that an Amazon shake-up was afoot given that the studio bought the film for $10 million sight unseen. But an insider says it was former film head Jason Ropell who made the deal — and "to be fair, it looked great on paper." So great, in fact, Universal and Paramount made sight-unseen bids.

But the window to reach an audience is much smaller for a film than a TV series, making reviews all the more important. "Film really is a merit-based system," says comScore's Paul Dergarabedian. "It doesn’t mean that movies from a TV hitmaker are not going to be good. It just means that if the preponderance of them are not good and they get bad reviews and audiences are not interested in either the concept or been struck by the marketing that gets them compelled to go to the theater, you’re not going to have a hit."

Perhaps that's why Shonda Rhimes — one of TV's biggest moneymakers — has largely stayed away from movies. Rhimes, whose only film credits are for writing the Britney Spears star vehicle Crossroads and a Princess Diaries sequel, will be handling the TV component of the would-be TV-film franchise being launched by Netflix based on the upcoming sci-fi novel Recursion. Matt Reeves will handle film duties.

This story first appears in the Oct. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.