“With film you are closing doors. You’re telling a two-hour story, and you’re closing doors. With television you’re opening as many as you possibly can to leave yourself avenues for five or six years of storytelling.”
Film & TV Writer/Producer Melissa Rosenberg (Twilight, Dexter)
Filmmaker magazine interview with Alix Lambert
“TV is almost as different from film as the theater is from film, or a novel is from film. Story being told on the big screen is inside of 3 hours, and a story [like Breaking Bad] being told on the television screen is up to 100 hours so the two are entirely different mediums.”
Robert McKee, London Screenwriters Festival interview
How do you know if your story idea is a feature film idea or a TV idea?
Here are ten ways I’ve gleaned from various sources (listed below) that can assist you in knowing if you have an idea that is more film or Tv (broadcast/cable/other) friendly. This is not an exhaustive list, or a definitive one—and there are always crossovers and exceptions —but this gives you a pretty good track to run on.
1. Movie Moment vs. Slice of Life
Matt Damon getting stuck on Mars in The Martian is a movie moment. A once in a life time event. If that same character returned to earth safely and opened a bar, that’s a more television friendly slice of life. Kind of like Sam (Ted Danson) the ex-baseball player/bar owner in Cheers.
“What is the story of Cheers? It’s the story of people who show up at a bar where they find camaraderie in a way they don’t anywhere else. There’s nothing about that that suggests movie.”
Another way to look at it is ordinary vs. extraordinary. Much television takes place in ordinary worlds where place is important. And usually that place, that world, is a home/apartment or a work place that we return to again and again. It’s the bar in Cheers, the advertising offices in Mad Men, the living room in Seinfeld and All in the Family.
2. Status Quo vs. Transformational
In TV Status Quo is god. The focus in movies tends to be life-changing, whereas Tv is life-living. Tony Danza’s character in TAXI wants to be a champion boxer, but in one episode he gets a fluke shot to fight the champ. If he wins that fight he’ll quit his job and make his living boxing. But he loses and goes back to his job as a TAXI driver. The movie version of that concept is Rocky—who also doesn’t beat the champ, but the direction of his life is forever changed and transformed as he goes from being a debt collector for a loan shark to (in sequels) a champion boxer.
“Characters rarely develop on TV. Generally, TV characters don’t change. Their relationships with others change, and we learn new things about them. They may change jobs. But they don’t change who they are. This is changing as television gets more sophisticated and storytelling gets more linear. But it is still fundamentally true.”
Alex Epstein in Crafty TV Writing
*Note: Epstein’s book was published in 2006, two years before Breaking Bad began airing. Part of what made Walter White such a dynamic (and unusual character) was he not only changed—he changed for the worse. An audiences still cared. Epstein was right on both accounts; Tv is changing, and it’s still fundamentally true that TV characters don’t change —especially network programs.
3. Visual vs Verbal
While the opening of Social Network is over five minutes of two characters talking that is unusual in movies. Movies like The Revenant could be understood with the sound off. Television is more like theater where much more is communicated verbally. Sometime to save time and money there are expositional dumps of information.
Tony Soprano talking to his shrink is a good example of verbal writing. I find that there are more expositional dumps on television than in movies. (Spots where characters explain what’s going on.)
4. 2 Hours vs. 100 Hours
Sure some movies have a run time over over 3 hours but the majority are under two hours. Specials aside, television programs tend to only have run times of half and hour to an hour per episode, but the total running time is only limited to how many episodes run each year, and how many years the show runs. Could be just one season, five years, ten years— or even 25+ years like The Simpsons.
5. Big vs. Small
This is covered in so many areas; shooting days, budget, big named actors, etc.. The most I’ve paid to watch a single movie is $16.50, but I can watch TV 24 hours a day for free with a rabbit ears antenna.
6. Many Characters vs. Fewer Characters
“If you have a bunch of characters in your world, that’s probably television. If you have a very small number of characters, that is more likely a feature.”
TV shows often revolve around families—even if they are slightly dysfunctional. And sometimes the people at work are surrogate families. Movies often feature orphan characters. Men and women against the system. Again Matt Damon in The Martin is a good example of a movie character cut off from the world. Movie characters often resolve their issues, and overcome great odds—but they often pay a deep price in doing so.
7. Aspirational vs. Heightened Reality
The way life verses the way you want life to be. Traditional network television pays the bills by selling things. It has commercial breaks to sell cars, shampoo, beer, and a better life. But the commercials aren’t the only thing selling something—many of the shows themselves are selling an aspirational version of life.
Fitness gurus consider beer “liquid bread,” but in beer commercials, beer makes you slender, beautiful and happy. Driving an Audi also apparently makes you slender, beautiful and happy. In fact, Doritos, Close-up toothpaste, Nike shoes also make you slender, beautiful and happy.
“Advertising is based on one thing, happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car.”
Don Draper in Mad Men
TV shows (especially network programs) lean towards an aspirational life where families neatly resolve their problems in 30 minutes, crimes are neatly solved within an hour, and just like in Lake Wobegon, “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”
Movies (and increasing cable TV) reflect a fallen world. Sometimes a dystopia. And when they’re not doing that they are saving the world, playing in the championship game, or some other version of heightened reality.
8. Open Ended vs. Closed Ended
Being stuck on an island gives us a good example of how film and television handle the situation. On Gilligan’s Island there are seven people stranded on an island after a boating accident and they must learn to live together. Their conflict with each other is more the point of the show than actually getting off the island.
On the other hand, the major dramatic question of Cast Away is will Chuck Nolan (Tom Hanks) survive being marooned on an island. When he’s finally rescued and makes it back home he finds that everything is different—including himself. The movie moment version of his life is over. The circle is complete. (Even if technically in the case of Cast Away the closed ending is a bit open ended as we don’t know where Nolan is heading next. But we do know that chapter of his life is over.)
9 . Writing Alone vs. Writing Rooms
According to Larry Brody in his book Television Writing from the Inside Out, writers have been gathering in writers rooms since not only the early days of television, but back when Bob Hope and Jack Benny had radio programs. For the most part, that is a tradition that survives to this day. Writing for features is often a one or two person job.
10. Opportunity vs. Opportunity++
There are a lot more paid writing gigs in television than in feature films, and then when you dump in the other digital/online storytelling opportunities (that look more like TV than theatrical films) so it’s worth exploring those options and trends for your story ideas.
Closing fighting words:
“I think right now television is the best that it’s ever been and I think that it’s the worst that film has ever been – in the 50 years that I’ve been doing it, it’s the worst.”
Independent interview, 2015
Update 4/19/16: Check out Stephanie Palmer’s post The Best TV Books.
Crafty TV Writing, Alex Epstein
Elephant Bucks, Sheldon Bull
Television Writing from the Inside Out, Larry Brody
The TV Writer’s Workbook, Ellen Sandler
You’re Lucky You’re Funny, Phil Rosenthal
Websites, Podcasts & Blogs:
…by Ken Levine, The World As Seen by a TV Comedy Writer
Ellen Sandler’s Creative Approach to television Scripts
ONTHEPAHE with Pilar Alessandra
Scriptnotes episode 218