When Size Matters

Film vs. TV ☛

What connects 12 Angry Men, The Last Seduction and Truly, Madly, Deeply? Give up? They were all originally written for TV but got a cinema release. I’ve just returned from the BBC Writers’ festival in Leeds where, although it was set up to discuss TV Drama, there was much to interest a movie man like myself. But it set me thinking, what’s the real difference between Film and TV? This issue is of particular interest to me as one of my feature scripts was once described by a producer as “feeling a bit too TV”, so I’m hoping I’ll learn something from this blog too.

On the surface there’s not much difference if we compare like with like: movies with one-part TV single dramas. Both have the same sort of dramatic shape and are similar in length (a TV series is a very different deal – it tells a longer narrative with more scope for twists and turns, in-depth discussion of issues and exploration of characters). The fact that those three dramas made it to the big screen suggests that the two forms can’t be too far apart. However most people you ask will think there’s a difference, even though they may not agree on the precise distinction. Many people consider cinema just to be a higher art form but, in the wake of the new Transformers film, movies have to be a little sheepish.

The X Files: paving the way in cinematic telly

At the festival, former X Files scribe Frank Spotnitz commented in passing that he loved TV shows that were cinematic; he claimed that to be one of the qualities for which The X Files had striven. I guess he was talking about style of visual storytelling, the way a film is shot and lit. It’s certainly true that the best of recent US TV drama is every bit as cinematic as a movie in the way it looks. Not much of a difference there.

But there is a difference in the way we pay for our entertainment. Cinema tickets aren’t cheap – two West End tickets would rent you 10 DVDs or buy you satellite for a month – whereas, if you pay for TV at all, you don’t even have to leave your home. Going to the cinema has got to be worth it. But TV drama has its own pressures to deal with: the pressure of a finger on the buttons of a remote control. If we haven’t paid to watch a specific TV show, we have no great allegiance to it: it bores us, we change the channel. It takes a lot to move most people from a £12 cinema seat and for that reason films can afford to tell stories more confidently, make us wait a little. TV dramatists live in constant fear of that hovering finger.

There is a disparity in audience too. Hollywood studios believe that no one over the age of 35 goes to the cinema. It’s true that attendance does fall off over that age, not least because most films are aimed at the under 35s: bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. TV, however, has to cater for audiences of all ages – different ages, mean a wider variety of stories.

The difference can even vary from country to country. For many British feature producers, the appearance of the police in a script might instantly cause them to dismiss it as being a TV drama, citing our long history of TV cop shows (when did you last see a British feature with a significant character who was a cop, let alone a policeman protagonist?) American TV is equally full of cops, but there are plenty of cops in Hollywood movies. So that’s a difference in culture, not format.

I think an important and overlooked differentiation is one of size. The silver screen is big, bigger than we are (unless you go to the Odeon Mezzanine!) and we humans have a powerful response to anything that dwarfs us – we feel awe. That feeling of being safe but overwhelmed is something we enjoy. It’s obvious to see why filmmakers have been drawn to the epic since the early days of cinema – nothing impresses like the big screen experience. A movie needs to be able to fill that screen, and that suggests that the film needs to have a certain grandeur to it.

Cabiria (1914): proving that size matters

“But”, I hear you cry, “I’m an independent filmmaker – I can’t afford to show the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the massed legions of Rome”. Clearly not all movies are epics; nor does ‘big’ need to be expensive. I heard Sergio Leone quoted as saying “all you need for an epic is two men facing each other in a vast landscape”. Big doesn’t even need to be visually impressive; there are plenty of great indy and art house films set in a contained environment. And when was the last time you heard a rom-com described as visually breathtaking?

So if a movie doesn’t have to be big in any of those ways, how does it achieve its grandeur? I think a movie has to at least be thematically big (great thing about themes: they’re free!); it needs to be about something universal. Even if it appears to be about nothing much – two men on a wine tour, a working class kid who adopts a kestrel, a Parisian waitress with an overactive imagination – it has to convince the audience that, within its humdrum reality, there lies a story that speaks to all people and for all time. A story has got to earn its place on the big screen.

Right now I can feel the lovely folk I met at the TV Writers’ festival preparing to tear up my business card; I’m not saying that movies are inherently better than television dramas. Perhaps the audience has grander expectations of cinema; just as an opera lover expects a bigger experience than does a theatre-goer. But if films are better at being universal, TV drama is better at being specific. Social or political issues tend to work best on television – it’s a medium that speaks directly to the nation. Despite its token cinema release, Paul Greengrass’s drama Bloody Sunday felt more powerful for being on television. The truth about what happened that day in 1972 was being beamed direct into the homes of anyone in the UK who had a telly. We switched on and saw the British army, our soldiers, being very publicly accused of an atrocity. Had it been kept to a few art house screens, would it really have had that punch?

David Schwimmer's Trust: making Clive Owen in Chancer feel so long ago.

Similarly David Schwimmer’s new feature film Trust, a surprising study of the effects of paedophilia on a father and daughter, I think would have been better placed and more impactful on the small screen. It’s not without its universal themes, but it felt to me more interested in the specific social issue.

In short, I think the difference between film and television presents a paradox – despite television being in a private space it presents a more public forum, on account of its reach. Conversely the more social experience of sitting with the general public in a cinema can reach a more intimate space. Go figure. But whether they have us rolling in the aisles or are pricking our consciences at home, both are alike in virtue. Why can’t they just be friends?

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2011

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2 Responses to “When Size Matters”
  1. Brian Barnes says:

    Interesting discussion, as always, Guy. This is a subject that I have hammered at with friends and colleagues for over 20 years. One thought we came up with was that cinema is about action – ie we watch someone *do* something or *think* something, whereas TV is about *talking* about it – radio with pictures. Think about it, when was the last time you saw a TV drama that had no dialogue for over 2-3 minutes? But you see that all the time in the cinema. In effect, TV conveys nearly all its narrative via dialogue, whereas cinema uses music, light & shade, sound design (including silence – just try that on TV!), framing devices, colour palette, facial expressions and dialogue – it’s a much richer medium. Just my 2-penn’orth.

    • guyducker says:

      Hi Brian,

      I think there’s much to what you say – much TV, particularly soaps are dialogue heavy specifically so that you can watch them while ironing or popping to the kitchen for a cup of tea. As you say “radio with pictures”.

      However there are some high-end dramas (there used to be plenty) which are more visual and don’t follow that rule. If you go back to ‘Traffik’ in the early 90’s almost half of that was subtitled from German and Pakistani – difficult to watch while eating your dinner. And if you look at the new wave of US TV drama they use everyone of those tools you list.

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