What makes a film a film?

What makes a film a film? I don’t mean “as opposed to a book”, or “as opposed to a pile of rubbish”; but rather, “as opposed to a TV special”, or different to a direct-to-DVD movie — indeed, is there a difference?

This is the sort of thing that’s bothered me for a while, mainly thanks to the Radio Times. The Radio Times’ film section frequently features reviews for things they label as “US TVM” — translation: an American TV Movie. Not everything falls into this category. The 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie (the clue’s in the title) was just listed as a TV special, as was the recent one-off episode of 24, Redemption. Why are these different to other feature-length made-for-TV one-off dramas? The former was a British co-production, perhaps, but the latter wasn’t. The latter is part of an on-going series, made between seasons, however. But then, one-off editions of other (older) series have been reviewed as “US TVM”s, so why are they different? It’s not even a hard rule in that instance, as some old series have their feature-length episodes screened as a matter of course among other repeats.

On a different tack, what about Paul Greengrass’ excellent Bloody Sunday, simultaneously screened on Channel 4 and released in cinemas? Or more recently, Ballet Shoes — just part of last year’s Christmas schedule in the UK, but it received a limited late-summer theatrical release in the US. So is that a film, or ‘just’ a TV special? Is a cinema release the key? Well, no — at least as far as the Radio Times are concerned — because Ballet Shoes wouldn’t now feature in their film review section were it repeated, while those other “US TVM”s will continue their circulation. [2015 note: A few years after I wrote this, Ballet Shoes was indeed repeated, and not listed as a film. Whenever Bloody Sunday is on, the Radio Times list it as a film.]

Is length the issue? Clearly not — look at the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmeses, some of which struggle to make the hour mark, a running time that Midsomer Murders or Poirot tops with every new episode.

And all this without even considering direct-to-DVD movies!

Perhaps it’s not a scientific rule-driven process, but just a “feel”? But that’s rubbish too — I’d wager 24: Redemption is at least twice as cinematic as most of the ’80s “US TVM”s awarded a proper film section review. Maybe it’s production method, then? But Redemption was produced as an individual piece, outside of the series’ production — much as a ‘proper’ 24 movie would’ve been, though surely with a smaller budget. So too was the Doctor Who TV movie, and obviously all one-off UK productions are made in a similar vein. And many of them, like Ballet Shoes, are surely just a theatrical release away from being a ‘film’ rather than a one-off TV drama, aren’t they? Perhaps it’s stylistic conventions — production company logos at the start, for example. But that seems a tad arbitrary to me, and plenty of independent films dispense with such.

Or perhaps, in this modern world, IMDb is the decider — whether it has that little “(TV)” after the title or not (it does for Ballet Shoes and 24, but not for Bloody Sunday). But then, why are the people at IMDb — and, we should remember, most of their content is user-generated anyway — any more qualified to decide than you or I?

It’s all down to the individual then, is it? Perhaps. If I declare 24: Redemption a film and review it as a numbered entry in 2008, would anyone care? But would it mean that, ‘morally’, I should go back and review Ballet Shoes as part of 2007? Or last month’s Einstein and Eddington as part of 2008? Or afford any of the countless other feature-length TV specials I’ve seen in the past two years the same treatment?

I don’t have any answers here, just more questions. I’m not going to go back and review Ballet Shoes though. Nor am I going to add Einstein and Eddington, or this Christmas’ The 39 Steps when it comes around. I may well count 24: Redemption, though [I did]. I don’t have Sky, so as far as I’m concerned it may as well be direct-to-DVD, especially in its extended DVD-exclusive form.

And direct-to-DVD movies definitely still count… don’t they?

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2 thoughts on “What makes a film a film?

  1. My rule of thumb is based on whether or not something was shot with a view to being released in the cinema – I call it a “film” if that’s the case.
    Having said that, it can be a bit of a grey area, and increasingly so in recent years.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think I’d ever thought of it like that, but it seems a very good starting point. Certainly, that rule could be applied in most instances. As you say, it’s a grey area, so much so that I think it’s genuinely impossible to come up with a foolproof definition anymore — there are always examples to slip through the cracks, like Behind the Candelabra, which seems to have been intended as both a TV movie (in the US) and a theatrical film (for the rest of the world) from its very conception.

      Like

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