• Actor Kevin Spacey urges innovation in storytelling as he insists barriers between television and film are breaking down
• Oscar-winner once described television industry as lost cause and said his agent would not have allowed him to work in television after Oscar win in 1999
Describing traditional film and television labels as “useless”, the star of American Beauty and The Usual Suspects told a 1500-strong audience at the McEwan Hall that they had to give audiences “what they want, when they want it.”
But the American, also an acclaimed director and producer, urged the Edinburgh International Television Festival delegates to embrace the “warp-speed of technological advancement” and try to emulate pioneering figures like Henry Ford and Steve Jobs.
He said: “We need to be that innovative. In some ways we need to be better than the audience. We need to surprise, break boundaries and take viewers to new places.”
Spacey, who currently lives in London, admitted to personal “disappointment” that not enough was being done to support new talent across the industry.
Describing culture as “not a luxury item, but a necessity”, he insisted age should not be a barrier to unearthing the next generation of “storytellers and trailblazers.”
Spacey - who admitted he was an “Edinburgh Festival virgin” - also paid an emotional tribute to Jack Lemmon, the late Hollywood actor he had first met when he was just 13 when he was encouraged by a teacher to attend a drama workshop in Los Angeles, where he grew up.
He said: “I don’t think we do enough. I want to encourage the best of the storytellers coming up in this industry - because I believe in sending the elevator back down.”
Although he was giving the TV festival’s keynote MacTaggart Lecture, he insisted his speech should not be seen as a television event, urging: “Let’s throw those old labels out.”
The 54-year-old described television drama as a “lost cause” 15 years ago and said his agent would not have allowed him to consider working on a TV show after an Oscar win.
But he predicted the end of any differentiation between film and television within the next two decades, saying the TV industry had already “taken over” from the big screen over the last 10 years
He said: “Is 13 hours watched as one cinematic whole really any different than a film? Do we define film by being something two hours or less? Surely it goes deeper than that. The device and length are irrelevant. The labels are useless.”
Spacey, star of new US drama House of Cards, launched exclusively on internet video service Netflix, said its success had proved the value of investing in a “sophisticated, multi-layered story with complex characters.”
And he suggested the fact people were now watching an entire season of a TV drama in one day proved they had an “incredible” attention span - contradicting the common misconception that the internet had shortened attention spans.
Spacey said: “History proves that commitment to ideas and keeping faith in the talent has to be preferable to a pilot system that just throws everything at the wall in the hope that something.
“When the story is good enough, people can watch something three times the length of an opera. We can make no assumptions about what viewers want or how they want to experience things. We must observe, adapt and try new things to discover appetites we didn’t know we were there.
“Clearly, the Netflix model - releasing the entire House of Cards season - has proved one thing. The audience wants the control. They want freedom.
“If they want to binge - as they’ve been doing on House of Cards - then we should let them binge. Many people have stopped me in the street to say: ‘Thanks - you sucked three days out of my life.’
“I think we’ve demonstrated that we’ve learned the lesson the music industry didn’t learn. Give people what they want - when they want it - in the form they want it.”
Spacey, artistic director of the Old Vic theatre in London for the last decade, urged the industry to “make space for the single-minded geniuses”.
He pointed out that 28 different productions at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe were written, directed, produced or performed by alumni of a new talent scheme he set up at the theatre.
He added: “I suspect more will be said about talent this weekend than anything else.
“We all know that it’s always been about creative talent, right? And I’m not just talking about emerging talents, because talent can come from anywhere and anyone. Although there is usually a focus on young talent, age is not a barrier to great ideas or good stories.
“Storytelling helps us understand each other, translate the issues of our times, and the tools of theatre and film can be powerful in helping young people to develop communication and collaboration skills, let alone improving their own confidence.
“But for those who do have a passion for the arts and have a voice - I believe that we have a responsibility to seek them out, because if we don’t they may never find their way over the walls we’ve built so effectively around our theatres, networks and studios, and we may lose their stories forever.”