Movies vs. TV

There’s a lot of talk these days about whether contemporary television is better than film, meaning that mainstream TV nowadays is generally more interesting and innovative than mainstream films. Most of the talk has to do with how the economics of each medium has forced filmmakers to play it safe and take less risks than their television counterparts.

I’d like to take a step back and talk more about more fundamental differences in the art forms.

One of my writing teaches, Ela Thier (theindependentfilmschool.com/) once said in class that the difference between TV and movies is that TV presents episodes in a person’s life, whereas a film presents the most important event in a person’s life.

A bit of a generalization, but I think there is a lot of truth to this.

(And when I talk about “film” in this post, I’m talking about narrative feature films. Short films, documentaries, and experimental films are different animals, with different aims, different pleasures and different rules.)

This distinction illuminates a lot, for example why movie sequels so often fail. How many “most important events” can a person have in his or her life? You might be able to find material enough for a second film (Tim Burton’s Batman: Batman finds the person who murdered his parents, Burton’s Batman Returns: Batman falls in love), but there are only so many times you can return to the well before it runs dry and becomes just another episode in the protagonist’s life, especially when facing the pressure to give audiences “more of the same.”

Thus in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (as in the comic), Spider-Man’s defining moment comes when he discovers that the two-bit criminal he didn’t bother to stop went on to kill his beloved Uncle Ben. But by the time of Raimi’s third movie in the franchise, when it’s revealed that Uncle Ben’s killer was really another criminal, it all just seems both too much and too the same.

When I wrote for Marvel Comics, we were told that a good story involves the hero facing a moral choice that defines him or changes him. But can you really write this same story issue after issue, month after month?

Many episodic series solve this problem by sometimes having stories where the hero is not the true protagonist, but just plays a part in someone else’s story. Will Eisner’s weekly Spirit comic used this device often, where The Spirit would only be a tangential figure in the story of a small time hood or some other Everyman.

Another way that episodic stories can deal with this challenge is to have an ensemble cast. Not every Buffy The Vampire Slayer story is about Buffy. Individual stories could focus on Willow, or Xander or Giles, or any one of the large and rotating supporting cast.

Of course, sometimes films and TV can skirt these fluid boundaries, like the movie trilogies that plan from the start to tell one story, or the TV miniseries that do the same thing. And in pure, escapist action movies, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, you can have an exciting story that doesn’t necessarily tell anyone’s most important event.

My point isn’t to say that one form is superior to the other, but to point out how, even beyond the economics of production and distribution, there are inherent rules to any art forms (of course, rules are made to be stretched, broken, twisted and re-formulated), and whether you choose to write episodic TV or full-length films depends on which type of story you want to make.

Plot vs. Story

As I was working on the rough draft of my new screenplay, I found myself thinking about the difference between plot and story. We’re always told that we should eliminate anything that doesn’t advance the story, especially in a screenplay, which should be simple and direct. I recently took a 6-week intensive on film editing at The Edit Center (an excellent program), and they also stressed, if it doesn’t further the story, cut it out.

This is great advice, but you’ll get yourself in trouble if you confuse plot with story. Yes, everything should advance the story, but everything doesn’t need to advance the plot.

I can explain with an analogy and with a concrete example.

First the analogy. If you think of making a movie as bulding a house, you can think of the plot as the frame of the house. The frame, like the plot, needs to be well made and well-designed. The material needs to be durable. The rooms need to flow nicely into each other. You need to have good natural light from the windows. You shouldn’t put the kitchen on the third floor or the boiler room right inside the front door.

But all of that by itself doesn’t make a house you want to live in or visit over and over again. That takes the right color of paint, comfortable and aesthetically pleasing furniture, maybe some ornamental fixtures, or some stained glass on the windows, tasteful artwork on the walls, a nice carpet, a modern, clean and efficient kitchen, a luxurious bed, etc., etc. Those are the things that make a house a home. Those things are the story.

A concrete example:

We all know the film The Godfather (if not – and do I even need to say this? – spoiler alert). Think about the scene after Sonny has been killed and Don Corleone takes his bullet-ridden body to the undertaker and tells the undertaker. “Remember you owe me a favor? I want you to fix up Sonny’s body so his mother doesn’t see him like this.”

You don’t need that scene for the plot. You could perfectly follow the story if you just cut that scene out.

But it is such a wonderful scene for so many reason: it ties things back to the very opening of the movie, and it does it with irony, since that’s not the kind of favor we expected Don Corleone to ask; the opening scene seemed to portend something much more ominous. The scene also shows us how much Don Corleone loves his family and how he tries to protect the women in the family from the consequences of the business and so is echoed at the end when Michael lies to Kay for entirely different reasons.

It’s an amazing, rich scene that resonates throughout the movie. It’s one of the scenes that everyone remembers and talks about. But it’s not plot. It’s story.