Why Movie Stars Are Losing Their Edge at the Emmys

Movie stars have had a built-in advantage when it comes to winning at the Emmys, but that's starting to change

We’ll know that television’s inferiority complex about the movies is over when TV stars start routinely beating their silver-screen colleagues at the Emmys.

There are signs it’s already happening. More film actors and actresses—especially actresses, for reasons we’ll get into soon—are doing TV. The internet is tearing down whatever walls remain between TV and film.

Oh, and TV is getting better.

It’s all contributing to what could be the end of a longtime built-in advantage for movie stars at the Emmys.

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“TV is family—it’s in our living room. We watch it in our underwear while gobbling dinner,” said Tom O’Neil, founder of the awards-tracking website Gold Derby. “It can’t be too great, we assume. By contrast, America has an absurd reverence for film as ‘the silver screen’ and its stars benefit hugely at the Emmys as a result.”

In recent years, movie stars have especially dominated in the categories that seem made for movie stars. HBO routinely draws A-listers to the movies and miniseries that have become a network calling card. Luminaries like Kate Winslet and Al Pacino seem to swoop into those categories year after year to scoop up Emmys to match their Oscars.

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But the situation is more complicated in the categories honoring ongoing series. It’s one thing for a movie actor to sign onto a one-time passion project and another to commit to a series that can last years. Lucrative as TV work can be, movie money tends to be better, and movie schedules less all-consuming. (That’s not to stop, say, Gwyneth Paltrow from doing three episodes of "Glee" and picking up a guest-actress Emmy in the process.)

But even when movie stars do commit to series, their fame doesn’t translate to an automatic win. Take the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series category. Last year, "Friday Night Lights"’ Kyle Chandler, best known for television, topped "Boardwalk Empire" lead Steve Buscemi, best known for movies. For the three years before that, "Breaking Bad" TV vet Bryan Cranston topped movie stars-on-TV Gabriel Byrne and James Spader. Spader won the year before that for "Boston Legal." (He also won twice previously for his work on that show and "The Practice.")

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Movie stars are more dominant in the dramatic actress category. Only one actress best known for television, Julianna Margulies, has won in the category in the last five years. The others have been Sally Field, two-time winner Glenn Close and Kyra Sedgwick. Field became famous for TV roles on "Gidget" and "The Flying Nun," but eclipsed her TV stardom with two Oscar wins; Close has six Oscar nominations in a long career spent mostly on the big screen; Sedgwick has gone back and forth between TV and film but broke through with the 1992 feature "Singles."

Female movie stars may be more dominant in the TV category because women, after a certain age, are less dominant on the silver screen. While actors in their 60s and 70s still get to play romantic leads, actresses find themselves stuck in mom and grandmother roles. The number of great actresses who turn to TV after their early careers creates an embarrassment of riches on the small screen—and an embarrassing shortage on the big one.

That may never change; actresses have complained about it for years. But the way we perceive movie stars is also changing. Sites like Funny or Die and videos like those on Jimmy Kimmel’s Oscar specials give them a chance to make fun of themselves, often while rubbing shoulders with TV personalities. That, O’Neil says, may break down divisions between film and TV.

It also doesn’t hurt that TV is better than ever. “I think a lot of the better writing has come to TV,” says "Parks and Recreation" star Nick Offerman, who has bounced between TV and film but is best known for TV. “I think that through the advent of great cable series, writers are finding that they have a better opportunity to flesh out their work.”

Julianne Moore, who is certain to be nominated for her role in "Game Change," said  that the HBO movie was “for all intents and purposes a feature film,” with no financial or time limitations.

“As far as I was concerned, there were no constraints,” she said. “I’ve done movies in 23 days for $4 million, and that’s when you’re talking about constraints. This was an ample budget for what we had to achieve. Timewise, I felt it was extremely generous. We had a lot of stuff to accomplish in a day, but it never felt like a strain.”