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Film, Television: What’s the Difference?

By Sarah Druhan

Photo: Elle – Source

Film and television remain some of the biggest sources of entertainment in our modern culture. But tradition dictates a strict divide between them, a divide that mostly has to do with their modes of packaging and distribution. Historically, films were introduced solely through the silver screen, a special location designed just for movie showings that constrained the stories film could tell within an allotted slot. The stories viewed by moviegoers needed arcs that fit within a certain time frame, but were allowed more time to establish a story overall. Television, on the other hand, has always been the ‘living room storyteller’, a portal that could beam easily accessible narratives right into any home. This led to many common conceptions of film as a place where grand, sweeping epics thrived, and its decreased accessibility in comparison to television associated it with higher levels of stature. Television offered lighter fare, but film could be more experimental. The annual Emmy awards never quite carried the same polished glamour as the Oscars. And until around the early 2010s, that was how it had always been.

Before this period, it’s true that television wasn’t totally dominated by lighthearted sitcoms. Story arcs could last over the course of an entire season, but for the most part, that was it: rarely were there any conflicts that developed consistently throughout an entire series. It was around 2010 that material like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones started to creep onto cable television. Shows like these imitated the epic nature of filmic stories, ingeniously taking what has always worked against complexity on television—its longer lengths in increments—and using it to create breathing room for the thrilling sagas of Walter White and the Iron Throne. Entrusting their viewers to remember content from previous episodes gave the showrunners potential to go even further than films in the stories they could tell. Shows like these demonstrated how TV could be just as much a source of innovation as film. Once streaming service Netflix released the first season of its own political thriller House of Cards, it only made the truth clearer. Television was entering a new, more experimental era, and it was bigger than just cable. Everything about the medium had changed, for good.

For almost all of the 2010s, all kinds of television started to realize the potential of the medium and to push themselves to new standards. True Detective pushed the gritty ‘crime drama’ to new heights through its experimental combination of anthology and episodic storytelling. Parks and Recreation’s dedication to character development gave it an engagingly wholesome heart that differed it from the more one-dimensional sitcoms of the past. During this time, aspects of film seemed to be learning just as much from television: the Marvel Cinematic Universe is crafted of different ‘phases’ of blockbuster stories that all take place in a certain order and all connect many themes and characters to build to one epic finale, sharing more in common with a season of television than with the typical movie franchise structure. Marvel would later continue to straddle the border between mediums by using television shows like Hawkeye and WandaVision to expand its universe. And cinematic reboots like Ocean’s Eight and Mad Max: Fury Road acted less as remakes and more as further entries in a canon that the creators entrusted their audiences to remember, almost episodic in nature. All the while, the rising popularity of streaming platforms was creating a space where film and television could coexist, blurring the lines even further.

Amidst movie theaters falling to streaming and fans counting down the days to Stranger Things Season Four as you would for an anticipated movie premiere, it’s worth wondering if any sort of divide remains between cinema and the small screen. Martin Scorsese’s comments about the Marvel franchise stirred up plentiful controversy in 2019. But they likely stemmed from timely fears about the film art form losing its value at the intersection of these mediums’ increasingly murky boundaries. The average movie feels more likely to land on a streaming service than on any actual silver screen, distanced from the sacred location that once gave cinema its distinct magical prestige and struggling alongside inherently more digestible episodes of television. There came a certain breathless quality from watching a movie in a theater and knowing that this story was only going to unfold once in front of your eyes and had to conclude once credits rolled. And as much as we love a good binge-watch, there’s value in sometimes not having the “Play Next” button.

These worries are certainly valid. But at the end of the day, the heart of both film and television is storytelling—and this past decade has been nothing if not a watershed for new kinds of storytelling. Could television like the devastating fourth-wall-breaking comedy of Phoebe Waller-Bridges’ Fleabag have gotten made in 2008? What about BoJack Horseman, an animated series about an anthropomorphic horse that utilizes stunning writing to explore issues like depression, addiction, and the human experience? It’s noteworthy that television’s creative boom also established more space for stories from underrepresented voices like Pose and One Day at a Time to flourish to an extent that the film industry has never quite been able to achieve. To leave the direction of storytelling solely in the hands of cinema would have denied us unthinkable amounts of radical art and cultural gold mines.

One day, film and television may very well become inseparable. But if these uncertain boundaries mean more opportunities for storytelling, then so let them. With room to experiment and innovate in the way that it has been, there’s just no reason that we won’t continue to see stories from all kinds of media be elevated to newer—and better—heights.


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