What Are “The Movies” Anyway?

The lines between movies, TV and the web are blurring. Is it time to redefine "the movies?"

Last week I watched two episodes of Game of Thrones, a TV show, on an IMAX screen. When I got home I could have watched any number of feature films that were never released in theaters but were, instead, put direct to home video. Then I could have watched a TV series that was not serialized but rather released in one big chunk, like a long movie.

The feature film is just over a hundred years old* and I wonder if it is now essentially obsolete, at least as a descriptor. Looking at the media landscape today I have to wonder, what are "the movies" anymore?

Feature films didn’t just pop up, they evolved into existence. One-reelers gave way to two or three-reelers; production companies released movies we would recognize now as ‘feature length’ in chunks - the 1903 French production of Vie et Passion du Christ runs 44 minutes when assembled, but was released scene-by-scene. The first feature film was 1906’s The Story of the Kelly Gang (congrats, Australia - you invented the feature film!), which clocked in at 70 minutes. The term “feature film” comes from the era when you would go to the movies and get a whole bunch of shorts and newsreels and cartoons, the “feature” was the main bit of programming which took up the most time.

Eventually a feature film was defined as distinct from a short film, although the definition changes depending on who is defining it. AMPAS and AFI say a movie longer than 40 minutes is a feature film. The Centre National de la Cinematographie in France says it must be 59 minutes and 59 seconds. If you’re asking SAG they define a feature as at least 80 minutes (this ends up being the definition most used, which is why so many low budget schlock movies are padded out to this length).

But what else defines a “feature film?” It can’t be the word film - almost nobody shoots on film anymore. Can it be how it is distributed? Must a feature film play in cinemas? If we’re defining a feature film as something longer than 80 minutes that plays in a movie theater, then the IMAX presentation of Game of Thrones certainly counts. And I’ll tell you this - the two episodes screened (and they were screened as episodes, with “Previously On” and credits for both episodes intact) were more "cinematic" than many of the feature films I saw at Sundance this year. Once upon a time we could divide TV and movies by an aesthetic distinction; that distinction has been obliterated.

If we’re going to count only movies released in theaters we’re suddenly writing off a burgeoning subsection of the form - direct to video releases. Setting aside your television prestige movie - the HBO stuff, the kinds of big productions the networks used to do - demanding a movie play in a movie theater closes a door on a distribution model that has been exploding in recent years, transforming a dumping ground for garbage into a revolutionary way to get interesting films in front of audiences who don’t live in towns with arthouse theaters. The stigma of being “DTV” has been fading, and by the time we get to the 2020s it will be gone - led in part by accidental trailblazers like The Interview.

While we’re at it, what even is a TV series in 2015? When Transparent won the Golden Globe for comedy TV series it upended our every definition of what a TV series is. For one thing, Transparent isn’t a series. It’s all released at once; it’s no more a series than a novel collected between two covers is a serial because it has chapters. On top of that, it’s only available on the internet, which isn’t really a television (although you can watch it on your television… just as you could watch The Interview on a television on its initial release).

With 10 half hour episodes, Transparent is slightly shorter than Abel Gance’s Napoleon. It’s about the same length as Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. I mention that film specifically because it was created as a four part TV movie, and went on to win multiple Academy Awards. The distinction between TV and movies has been thin for far longer than we realize.

Distribution models are clearly no way to define what a movie is. Length is helpful in defining a minimum, but it’s useless when defining a maximum. The upper limit of a commercial movie’s length is decided only by an audience’s willingness to sit in a theater; digital distribution has removed any possible physical barrier to releasing a ten hour long movie into theaters. As many TV shows become increasingly cinematic aesthetic distinctions fall to the wayside. One could scramble for structural distinctions - a movie has a three act structure - but that disqualifies all sorts of films that are either experimental or working outside of normal structural restrictions. Plenty of commercial films have five act structures. Once upon a time TV had similar structural distinctions, dictated by commercial breaks, but modern cable and internet TV shows don’t have to build in the act structure that shaped old dramas.

Simply put, using the AMPAS definition of a feature film, every single episode of Game of Thrones is a feature film unto itself. Throw two of them together and they meet the SAG definition.

What’s the point? I’m a writer, and I like definitions. I like words that mean things. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that the words we have been using for decades - movie, feature film, TV show, TV series - have been getting thin around the edges, frayed. And we’re still in a transition period; I imagine that in five to ten years these definitions are going to become even more useless, and that slapping a "movie" label on one film in the serialized The Hobbit series while calling something like House of Cards a "TV series" will seem increasingly silly. These binge-viewing shows are in their infancy, and creators have barely begun playing around with this new structure. The fourth season of Arrested Development was one effort at approaching a binge series from a new angle, but more will come, and their connection to what we recognize as "TV series" will get thinner and thinner. And forget the high-falutin' term "cinema," which definitely restricts movies to things that play in cinemas. 

When I was a child there was a wall between TV and movies. The level of quality and type of content was starkly delineated. When I was a man there was another wall, one between movies and TV and web content. Those walls have fallen. When you see all the TV people seated way at the back at the Golden Globes it becomes clear that while the old borders have fallen we’re still uselessly marking them on maps. It’s time to just accept that we’re in a brave new world and the old categories no longer apply.

So what do you call these things? What’s the blanket term that covers Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven and Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick and Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble? My grandmother watches a lot of soaps, but she doesn’t call them soaps or even TV shows. She calls them her stories. Maybe “stories” is a good enough description for moving pictures delivered to us in theaters, on our phones or in our homes. Or maybe they're all movies, wherever they originate. Whatever definition we end up having, whatever words we end up using, I'm just thankful that so many great stories, from so many great storytellers, are coming at us in so many different ways. I'll watch cinema at home and go to the cinema to watch TV - I just want to watch the best stories in the best way possible. 

* don’t believe those who say it’s turning a hundred this year - Birth of a Nation is not the first feature film.