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What Is a TV Movie in 2020, Anyway?

Time and time again, TV movies have adapted to fit an evolving medium, but 2020 marks an end point. Now, they're just movies.

"Black Mirror," "Bad Education," and "Let Them All Talk" TV Movies Netflix HBO HBO Max

“Black Mirror,” “Bad Education,” and “Let Them All Talk”

Courtesy of Laurie Sparham and Netflix, HBO, HBO Max

In 2013, HBO rolled out its most award-winning TV Movie of all-time. “Behind the Candelabra,” an aptly extravagant biopic on the turbulent late-’70s romance between iconic singer Liberace and his young lover Scott Thorson, featured bonafide movie stars Michael Douglas and Matt Damon being directed by Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh. The $23 million production from HBO Films debuted to raves at the Cannes Film Festival before premiering on HBO just five days later. In a few months, it would go on to win 11 Emmys, including trophies for Outstanding TV Movie, Lead Actor for Douglas, and Director for Soderbergh.

No HBO film has been more highly decorated.

Later this year, Steven Soderbergh will release another film that could easily be mistaken for a TV Movie. Premiering via a HBO’s sister platform, HBO Max, “Let Them All Talk” is an original story about a celebrated author who takes a healing trip with old friends; it stars the legendary Meryl Streep alongside fellow Oscar winners Dianne Wiest and nominee Candice Bergen. It will debut via the new streaming platform — but it’s not an HBO movie, nor is it a TV Movie. HBO Max films, like so many streaming competitors, will compete for Oscars, and thus, “Let Them All Talk” is not a TV Movie.

This is weird, right? In Hollywood, if a partnership worked once, it’s typically milked for all its worth, either duplicating the success or trying until the original triumph is just a faint memory. So, shouldn’t the creative mind behind HBO’s most honored TV Movie of all time — who signed an overall deal with WarnerMedia, the company in charge of both HBO and HBO Max — be releasing his next in-house, at-home feature with HBO? Isn’t it weird that he’s not?

“I actually don’t think so,” Casey Bloys, HBO’s president of programming since 2016 and newly appointed original content head for HBO Max, said in an interview. “One of the things that’s great about Steven as a filmmaker — and always has been for the decades he’s been making films — he is very experimental about platforms and formats. I think that’s what’s so great about him: He continues to innovate and not be caught up in [labels], like, ‘I won’t make a film this way. I won’t show a film here.’ He’s very, very open and experimental, and I think that’s great.”

The thing is, Bloys is right. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that weird is the new normal, and that lesson absolutely applies to the state of TV Movies. Coined as a term so self-explanatory a definition was never needed, TV Movies have become a lightning rod for debate amongst critics, a particular point of contention at the Emmys, and a meaningless descriptor for general audiences. How did we get here?

Even though it’s been good for nothing else, 2020 might hold the answers. Saturday night, a new Best TV Movie will be crowned at the Creative Arts Emmys. Only two outlets, Netflix and HBO, earned nominations, and the nominees consist of an anthology episode, an interactive special, and a handful of movies. The anthology series has plagued this category and bewildered audiences for years: Why are some TV episodes considered movies and some aren’t? When and why do such labels matter, anyway? Similar questions surround interactive ventures, though it hasn’t stopped the TV Academy from embracing them.

Outside of awards, TV Movies are in a state of disruption. From the streaming boom to the pandemic, the line between television movies and traditional movies has worn thin. Maybe it’s gone. But before we look ahead, we have to go back to a simpler time, when TV Movies had clear and obvious ties to television.

"Behind the Candelabra"

“Behind the Candelabra”

HBO

It’s Not TV Movies, It’s HBO

Over the first half of TV Movie history, made-for-TV movies aired via the only available venue: broadcast networks. Typically billed as “Movies of the Week,” TV Movies stood in contrast to the “live” nature of most television. Some TV Movies had big stars (the first made-for-TV movie, 1964’s “See How They Run,” starred John Forsythe and Leslie Nielsen), many had decent budgets (for TV), and some were simply failed pilots that the network aired to make back production costs (though a few actually spawned successful TV series, like the ’70s version of “Battlestar Galactica” and “Babylon 5” in the ’90s).

No matter the origin or intent, TV Movies were always self-evident: They aired on TV, they often had ties to TV shows, and despite being filmed, they were considered disposable entertainment, like most of television at the time. The concept of a TV Movie really started to change in the ’90s, when cable and premium cable created more competition, and HBO built a prestigious brand on the back of motion pictures. Elevated by the popular slogan, “It’s not TV, it’s HBO,” the Home Box Office network aired theatrically released movies around the clock as well as its own in-house programs and, of course, HBO original films.

The network earned considerable acclaim. Subscribers grew. Other outfits followed suit, with premium cablers like Showtime and basic cable stations like TNT both seeing similar success from movies. Still, HBO was dominant, and its original movies stood out. After landing its first Emmy nomination for Best TV Movie in 1989, HBO won the category eight times in the ’90s alone — and in doing so, the network helped push back on the idea that TV Movies had to be inferior to theatrical films.

“Once you get into the HBO era, the lines get a little more blurred,” said Kathryn VanArendonk, a television critic at Vulture and co-host of the Appointment Television podcast. “HBO is when you start to get into productions that have bigger names [and] higher production values. You then start seeing stuff like ‘The Normal Heart’ and ‘Grey Gardens,’ and you think, ‘Well, this could be in a theater.’ For me, that HBO [era] is when it really becomes tougher to remember, ‘Was that a theatrical release?'”

Still, even if HBO movies were being taken more seriously, they were clearly still TV Movies. HBO was a TV network, and their movies aired on television. Also, while HBO’s library featured an array of genres and styles, common themes stretched across its most successful TV Movies. Many were biopics, like “Stalin,” “Truman,” and “Don King: Only in America.” Others were true stories or adaptations, like “And the Band Played On” or “A Lesson Before Dying.” The 2000s saw a boom in star-driven movies, as film studios focused on franchises and mid-budget films became better suited for TV (Soderbergh said “Behind the Candelabra” was turned down at film studios for being “too gay,” and thus too niche for theaters.) Many of HBO’s offerings were about current events, especially when it came to the political dramas  “Recount” and “Game Change,” which were championed by the 12-year president of HBO Films, Len Amato.

“With the success of ‘Recount’ and ‘Game Change,’ I feel like that set the template in terms of current events, or something nonfiction-based, using stars,” Bloys said. “The benefit of doing that is it allows you to examine something that people have some awareness of and some interest of, so you’re not starting from nothing. [It’s] not IP, but a news story that people have some interest in and want to know more about. […] I think the combination of a story that people are aware of, wanted to know more about, and having an interesting take from a director or stars, felt like a good template that Len and HBO found.”

Mank

“Mank”

Netflix

Netflix Sets an Oscars Standard for Streaming

Amato has now left the company, as part of the ongoing WarnerMedia shake-up at HBO, which itself is part of the ongoing, industry shake-up brought about by streaming. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and now dozens more have all contributed to blurring the line between film and television, but few have eradicated distinctions quite like Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos’ company. (Netflix declined comment for this story.)

Just look at David Fincher. The Oscar-nominated filmmaker agreed to direct the first two episodes of “House of Cards,” Netflix’s flagship original series, and later went on to helm episodes of “Mindhunter” and produce the animated anthology “Love, Death, and Robots.” All of these Netflix series won or were nominated for Emmys. Now, his next feature film, “Mank,” the pseudo-biopic on “Citizen Kane” writer Herman J. Mankiewicz, will compete for Oscars, despite premiering on the same service, in the same fashion, and quite possibly without even a limited theatrical rollout (due to the pandemic).

“Mank,” like HBO Max’s “Let Them All Talk,” could very well be considered a TV Movie, if not for the expert ways (and tens of millions) Netflix has spent distancing itself from that very comparison. The streamer paid for select films’ costly theatrical rollouts, both to appease a wary film community and meet qualification standards set by the Film Academy; it shelled out the big bucks to buy independent films at popular festivals, ingratiating themselves to the indie crowd even when many of their movies get buried under a deluge of content; and, perhaps most importantly, it even drew a hard line when it came to awards by keeping all of its films out of Emmy contention — even the ones that weren’t submitted for Oscars.

And yet Netflix has still seen incredible success in the Emmys’ Outstanding TV Movie category. Since its first nomination in 2016, TV Movies from Netflix and HBO have made up 76 percent of the nominees. By 2020, even though many streamers and networks have adopted Netflix and HBO’s tried-and-true Emmy tactics, four entries come from Netflix, and one stems from HBO.

The streaming giant’s first nomination came for “A Very Murray Christmas,” a holiday “film” from Sofia Coppola which snuck in on the unspoken understanding from cinephiles that it was obviously a TV special, not a film, while TV voters were just happy to see Bill Murray again. (He’d just won an Emmy for HBO’s limited series “Olive Kitteridge” a year prior.) Similar exceptions were made for movies with clear ties to TV, be it “David Brent: Life on the Road” or this year’s “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie.” But in 2017, Netflix submitted “San Junipero” — an hourlong episode from the third season of “Black Mirror” — and all hell broke loose. (You know, for TV nerds.)

Black Mirror

“Black Mirror: USS Callister”

Jonathan Prime / Netflix

The Emmys Debacle

At this point, the “Black Mirror” Emmys saga has been explained enough times to require only the briefest of recaps. “Black Mirror” won, and then it won again, so the TV Academy changed the rules requiring all TV Movies to be a certain length, so “Black Mirror” submitted an interactive movie that had 1 trillion different lengths — and “Black Mirror” won again.

For three years, many critics and TV fans raged over whether these wins were unwarranted, be it because an anthology episode wasn’t a movie or because the TV Academy had failed to define what a TV Movie actually was. Or both.

“Anthology episodes, however long they are — which seems to be the primary distinguishing factor [as movies] — they’re unlike anything else in that category,” VanArendonk said. “A feature-length film is not a film because it’s feature length. It’s a movie first, and it doesn’t really matter if it’s 90 minutes or 60 minutes, or 120 — it’s a movie. [Anthology episodes] follow classic TV episodic structure. To call it a movie denies the most interesting stuff about it, which is how it plays into the whole series’ larger worldview. There are enough [episodic anthologies] now that it’s awkward, [and] they deserve to be in their own category.”

Before the 2020 Emmys, the TV Academy did (eventually) restrict “Black Mirror” from competing as a TV Movie in a long overdue decision. Bloys, whose acquired and original HBO films have lost to anthology episodes three years in a row, said he was glad the TV Academy has finally taken steps to “discourage” anthology entries from competing in the TV Movie field. (“Black Mirror” was only banned for this year’s entries, not for all episodes moving forward.)

“I do think the intent matters. The intent to tell a complete story in 90 minutes to two hours that is, as we know it, a movie. And I think if the intent of something is to inform a larger anthology, that’s not the same thing. So I’m glad that that, at least with a time limit, that kind of supports the idea of a standalone movie.”

Supporting standalone movies is what the Emmy category is supposed to do, and VanArendonk noted that lumping too many things into one category creates the opposite effect.

“When you’re calling all these different things a TV movie, particularly something like an interactive [episode] or anthology episode, you are not just making it unfair to give an award to an apples and oranges and, like, footballs kind of a situation, you are also not really fully allowing the people who have made these things to let their work get recognized and appreciated, because you are shoehorning it into this category where it doesn’t really belong — or maybe it does, but nothing else in there does.”

All of the debate, qualifications, re-qualifications, and general confusion has led to a batch of 2020 Emmy nominees for Outstanding TV Movie that are still absolutely haywire: a 90-minute anthology episode, an interactive episode, a filmed adaptation of a play, an epilogue to a TV show, and a standalone feature that was acquired from a film festival.

That last entry is “Bad Education,” which debuted at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival before becoming HBO’s latest acquisition to then be nominated for Best TV Movie. First was Jennifer Fox’s “The Tale” in 2018. In 2019, they picked up Rashid Johnson’s “Native Son” out of Sundance, but it missed out on a nomination. Now, HBO has another frontrunner, and it looks very similar to their classic, pre-streaming success stories. Cory Finley’s drama is a sharp-minded true story based on national news and powered by movie stars like Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney.

“I think we had all made it assuming it would probably wind up in more traditional, theatrical distribution, but as soon as we spoke with HBO about their plans for it and seeing how much they got what the movie was trying to do fundamentally — and how much it was clear they were going to really support it and push it out in a big way — that just became really exciting,” Finley said. “There are other types of movies I might’ve made that would have really needed a big screen. […} But we were neither a giant, action blockbuster nor a tiny, contemplative art film. So it’s a type of story that works well in an at-home situation.”

Netflix’s 2020 nominees also embody plenty of traits that typical of TV Movies. “American Son,” directed by Kenny Leon, is a stage adaptation with a big-name star (Kerry Washington), much like “King Lear,” “All the Way,” and “The Normal Heart” before it; “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” continues the rich tradition of beloved series with TV Movie epilogues, similar to “Deadwood: The Movie” and “Extras: The Extra Special Series Finale.” But then there’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s” interactive special, which follows in the footsteps of “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch,” while the rest of “Black Mirror” paved the way for “Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings: These Old Bones” another anthology episode nominated for TV Movie.

“I do feel like this category has been kind of like a catchall: If you don’t know exactly where it fits, [let’s] stick it in that category,” Bloys said.

“Look, the award categories are always going to lag behind the things that they are actually awarding,” VanArendonk said. “The landscape of what people are making is going to change before any kind of award-nominating body figures out what to call them, how to group them, what deserves to be put up against what. And, unfortunately, we are in a moment where that lag has gotten pretty exacerbated because the landscape has changed very, very quickly.”

“It is just a very difficult moment to know what to call things and how to compare things, and thus give awards to things,” she said.

"Let Them All Talk"

“Let Them All Talk”

Screenshot/HBO Max

TV Movies Are Dead. Long Live Movies.

Given the continued controversy surrounding the TV Movie category, as well as many new streaming services pushing their films toward Oscar voters, the category is in desperate need of a revamp. But a solution isn’t obvious. The 2020 ballot featured only 28 submissions for Outstanding TV Movie, and the nominees still included a few critical bombs. (“Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings” averages a “mixed or average” review score of 59 on Metacritic, while “American Son” landed the rarely-seen red rating of 34.) Without more movies to choose from (in other words, without the movies released by streamers), the category could become non-competitive, making a win literally worth less than whatever it’s worth now.

“It’s like they should switch to a high school yearbook superlative system,” VanArendonk said, citing how awards can simply recognize individual programs worth honoring, rather than create categories based on the number of contenders. “You just let that award be for that one [program] and not pretend that it was going to be up against anything else — if there was nothing else that it deserved to be up against. I mean, I’m happy to just sweep into the Emmy’s and completely remake their entire system of awarding things.”

Another option would be to let TV Movies compete at the Emmys and the Oscars. That might sound crazy right now, considering the persistent bias against “made for TV” anything in Hollywood — if a movie carries the faintest hint of being “made for TV,” that’s enough to turn off certain stuffy cinephiles (plenty of whom are Oscars voters), and the value of film trophies still trumps television in this town. But the way things are going, market values could even out. The onslaught of entertainment options is slowly eradicating our preconceived notions of movies and TV altogether, so the difference between TV movies and traditional movies may be the next outdated idea to go.

“You know, it’s funny, there have been really great streaming-only movies, but, as with the rest of TV, there’s also just been a ton of streaming movies,” VanArendonk said. “Even if you were to say, ‘We have reclaimed the idea that a TV movie can be an impressive Oscar-worthy piece of filmmaking,’ OK, that’s great. But just because it’s a Netflix streaming movie does not mean [it’s Oscar-worthy]. There are lots of bad ones.”

Finley acknowledged there’s still a lingering inferiority around the term TV Movie, but he feels like prior descriptors for modern programming are losing relevance — just as they did when streaming shows proved their merit to the TV industry.

“I definitely think there’s a certain baggage to that phrase,” Finley said. “But I really think we’re at a moment where those categories are all collapsing, and you could have said the same thing about the early really amazing, ambitious Netflix shows. You call those web series because you have to access them from the web, but ‘web series’ makes me think of the things that my friends get Kickstarter funds together for and shoot in someone’s basement. Hopefully, [‘Bad Education’] is a TV Movie in the sense that a giant streaming TV show is a web series; that we’re one small chapter in the category collapse and reorientation that all of visual storytelling is going through right now.”

“I think it is all blending together, and I think the only thing that’s worth protecting is the ability for writers or directors to have these [opportunities],” Bloys said. “In our case, it used to be HBO was a place you could go to tell a story in a movie that maybe you couldn’t get done at the time in a theatrical model, right? So to the extent that having more outlets, telling more stories, is good for filmmakers and the industry, I think that’s what’s important, and that’s what should be preserved. [It’s] less about, ‘What is a TV movie?’ [and] it’s more about, ‘How do filmmakers want to express themselves, and can we be a part of that?'”

Amid the reckoning, one thing is clear: Audiences want more movies. While original series have been what elevated major streaming services to success, movies are an expanding and essential part of any wide-ranging service. Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, and more are investing in films and seeing that investment pay off.

Cory Finley on the set of "Bad Education"

Cory Finley on the set of “Bad Education”

JoJo Whilden / HBO

“‘Bad Education’ has been a great success for us,” Bloys said. “Viewership numbers have been great. It is something that got great reviews. It got a lot of attention, especially Hugh and Allison’s performances. The tone and the story were interesting and unique, and also it got Emmy nominations. All of those things, I’d take any combination of them, but to have all of them at once, that’s a success for us.”

One unexpected contributor to such success has been the pandemic. With people self-isolating at home and looking for distractions, TV has been booming and the film community has been forced to reevaluate its release model.

“COVID hit and [premiering on HBO] looked like just the most obvious, master stroke decision in the world,” Finley said. “We were going to have this incredible, prestigious distributor, and we’re going to have the benefit of coming out right in the middle of this horrific crisis where everyone was stuck inside in kind of the biggest way possible.”

The ongoing global health crisis may have given “Bad Education” and more TV Movies a boost in the short term, but it could also eradicate the separation between TV Movie and “regular” movie for good. The Film Academy has eliminated the need for a theatrical rollout to qualify for this year’s Oscars, theatrical windows have been reduced or ditched altogether, and films that were never imagined for VOD have been launching via iTunes, Amazon, and even Disney+. With so many major motion pictures premiering at home, everything is being seen the same way: streaming.

“COVID has only, as you know, accelerated trends,” Bloys said. “[But] even within the last say two or three years, conversations with filmmakers at film festivals about the idea of taking a film that maybe they made thinking it was going to be theatrical, and [asking] would they be open to doing it for HBO, those conversations have gotten much, much easier. Streaming services have proliferated, everybody in television has kind of raised their games in terms of the creative chances people are taking, and the money people are spending. The conversation with talent — about being on HBO and going for Emmys — is much, much easier than it was, again, even two years ago.”

And that brings us back to Soderbergh’s “Let Them All Talk.” Not an HBO movie, but an HBO Max movie; not a TV Movie or an Emmy player, but a movie destined for the Oscars; not a movie made for theaters, but a movie that may have played in theaters if not for a global pandemic. So, what is it?

It’s a movie. That’s it. If this analysis has made anything clear, it’s that only one thing really matters: A movie is a movie — a whole, standalone story, conceived and executed with a beginning, middle, and end. On the contrary, an episode is an episode. It’s a part of something bigger. It can be episodic and exist on its own, or serialized and continue an ongoing story, but it’s still part of a larger whole. These distinctions still matter, but whatever still separates TV Movies and so-called traditional movies does not.

“It does not matter at all,” VanArendonk said. “I come at this question from the TV side, so I don’t have the kind of intense feeling about the importance of sitting in a theater that I know a lot of film critics have. And I completely respect that experience, but the useless hill to die on that I find myself clinging to, now that all of the terms are washing around, is: It’s still a movie. A movie is still a different thing than a TV show. I can feel this potential future where, because it is all ‘content,’ it doesn’t matter whether it’s a movie or a TV show. But I am still very attached to the meaning and the form of a movie, of a feature-length film, or a short film, and I still care about TV being labeled a limited-series vs. a continuing TV show. Those terms to me still have a lot more meaning from a storytelling perspective than TV vs. theatrical means for film. That just doesn’t have as much meaning in my life anymore.”

In other words, TV Movies are dead. There are just movies now. Sure, some viewers will wonder why Hugh Jackman isn’t getting his due at this year’s Oscars, or ask why “Mulan” isn’t up for Best TV Movie at Saturday night’s Emmy ceremony. But if they’re shouting for awards shows to pay attention, then they’ve already recognized those films as favorites. They’ve done their part. They found the movie. After all, that’s what really matters — the movies. The rest is just “Talk.”

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