Should TV Movies Count Among the Year's Best Features?

Roger Ebert today takes his sequel angst to Newsweek, where the beloved critic inveighed once more against the slow, suffocating death of original, sophisticated projects for grown-ups coming out of Hollywood. Of course the End of Ideas at the movies is nothing especially new, nor is the migration that Ebert cites of filmmaking talents like Mike Nichols, Barry Levinson and Todd Haynes -- to say nothing of actors like Al Pacino and Kate Winslet -- to the more expansive narrative climes of premium cable TV. But here's a somewhat radical idea: What if, at the end of the year, we held theatrical films to the standard of the made-for-TV movies that have often surpassed them?

That's the proposition of Paul Schrader, the writer-director (and onetime critic) who challenged Ebert to taking one last swing at the already-crumbled conceptual wall between theatrical releases and and movies first broadcast on cable -- principally on HBO, where Ebert claims to have not even known the superb Levinson/Pacino collaboration You Don't Know Jack even premiered when it aired a year ago:

"A veteran film critic -- by this I mean you, Roger -- should take it on himself by unilaterally abandoning the distinction between theatrical and nontheatrical films in year-end best-of lists. All long-form audiovisual entertainment, released on any distribution platform, would be eligible for consideration. The Academy, of course, would regard this as a nightmare. It would downgrade the 'specialness' of theatrical films. But this is all happening anyway. Why not get ahead of the curve?"

Why not? It's tempting, Paul. I could relax before my big eight-foot home-theater screen, and the work would come to me. The problem is, that goes against my grain. A movie is shown in a movie theater, and I like to sit there and see it. That's how it's supposed to be. I'm not ready to bowl alone.

Well, yes and no. We all like to sit there and see movies in a movie theater (at least until our rude neighbor's mobile phone rings -- and he answers it). But this idea of "how it's supposed to be" seems immaterial at best and irrelevant at worst to the issue at hand, which is that HBO's feature-film supremacy pretty much is how things are whether we like it or not. Movieline itself declared Mildred Pierce -- directed by Haynes and starring Winslet, Guy Pearce and Evan Rachel Wood in five hours of glossy, big-budget, Emmy-ready glory -- the film event of the year so far. And we still have the cable giant's all-star adaptations of topical nonfiction bestsellers like Too Big to Fail and Game Change head our way in 2011.

Under the circumstances, it seems not only reasonable but also responsible to assign credit where credit is due when media conglomerates take chances on material for grown-ups. It seems equally responsible to recognize creative triumphs by actors, directors and writers for whom "studio filmmaking" is today synonymous with "comic-book adaptation."

Furthermore, these in-house developments at HBO and elsewhere can influence Hollywood by edging their most valuable blocks of programming toward work for an older demographic vastly underserved at the multiplex. If, as studio output deals come up for renewal with their respective networks, the bulk of the feature content it can offer is movies for 15-year-old boys, it could (in theory, anyway) diminish the value of that content to the network. Which would mean less money for the studios, which need to wring every dollar from every revenue stream available to them -- thus an incentive to produce more complex movie fare with an appeal to the audience HBO has been carefully cultivating since debuting The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and Six Feet Under.

Again, this is all in theory. But it does start with influencers in the media (Roger Ebert, for example) who have both the audience and the insight to usefully leverage cable's power to demand more of theatrical film producers. There is a very real chance that HBO will yield at least one of the best films many critics will see in 2011. Why not reward it, especially if it can make a difference for the development and exhibition of films the way they're "supposed to be" -- if it can possibly help stanch what Ebert calls the "erosion of community" around moviegoing by reversing such destructive mainstream cinema trends as sequels, toy/video-game adaptations and overwrought teen franchises?

Ultimately, this isn't even a TV-versus-cinema issue. It's an art-versus-accountants issue, and one in which anybody who believes in the transcendence of film should probably invest him- or herself sooner than later: Laud the best movies, not the best movies that were exhibited the way things are "supposed to be." That mindset is as destructive as a sequel could ever be if only because it, too, fails to acknowledge the merit and risk and invigoration of something new. (They're not even that new, really; many of HBO's biggest critical and commercial success have books as sources.)

Anyway, think it over. What would you do?

· How Sequels Are Killing the Movie Business [Newsweek/The Daily Beast]


  • Dimo says:

    It's only 5 episodes in, but I can state with absolute confidence that Game of Thrones will hands down be better than anything that gets projected this year.

  • CiscoMan says:

    As a fan, I'd be all for a unified award for "audiovisual entertainment," as Schrader puts it. But even assuming the voting body for these uber awards is more daring than the Academy, I'm not sure I completely follow how it incetivizes more original thinking amongst feature film folk. If anything, I think the Academy's expansion to ten Best Picture nominees is a better solution, as it lends some of that award prestige to well-crafted genre films -- better to nudge the needle back toward originality than rip it off, I think.

  • bierce says:

    Game of Thrones? Really?? You like watching a cast of 100 characters talkity-talk-talk about how they're going to back-stab each other?

  • Dimo says:

    Yep...sure do!

  • Dimo says:

    Oh yeah, one more thing...I was on team Mildred Pierce right up to the very last line..."Let's get stinko." Are you kidding me? No amount of Kate Winslet boobage can make up for that clunker. FAIL!

  • MA says:

    Why not make the question of whether it's on TV first or not redundant by giving the likes of Mildred Pierce and You Don't Know Jack limited theatrical releases (NYC and LA) before they debut on the small screen.
    For those who don't have premium cable, a chance to see the shows. A boon for those who prefer the big-screen experience or who want bragging rights about having seen it first.
    Then critics (and even the Academy) could legitimately vote for them without having to worry what distribution platform they were meant for.

  • KevyB says:

    But they don't transform into cars or wear capes!! Oh, wait, some wear capes.

  • KevyB says:

    This is all basically moot because there are already rules for these kinds of things. If HBO wants their movies to win Oscars, they can simply release them in Los Angeles County for a week. They can have a big premiere and turn it into a form of advertising for the upcoming film on HBO. But unless HBO wants to get into the ridiculous Weinstein-like bribing... oops, I mean "campaigning", what will be the point?
    As for critics putting tv movies on their Best Of lists... why not? They put foreign films on there all the time, and some of these actually appeared on television in their home countries.

  • John M says:

    So, you can't know for sure, but you know for sure.
    Great, thanks.

  • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

    Sure, the qualifying runs happen (pretty much just for documentaries), but I don't care about the Oscars in this context. The Academy will always settle on a fistful of studio product and a couple anointed indies at the end of the year. That's their interest, that's ABC's interest, and that's the way it will be.
    However, this _is_ about tastemakers in the media using their influence to define where the state of the art is at today. And in many cases -- not _all_, but _many_ -- HBO is simply making dramatic features that are superior to those of the studios.

  • Andrew says:

    They did that with Carlos and it seemed to work out well. Cut it down to a theatrical length, screened it in select cities and it made #1 on quite a few year end lists.

  • john says:

    Ebert actually put Wit, an HBO film, on his top 10 of 2001 so I'm surprised he sees such a division between TV and theatrically released films.

  • KevyB says:

    Understood, but really, if HBO doesn't put the effort into making the change, then what's the point? Some television films DO end up on year-end lists; has this changed anything? Only we movie nerds ever check them out. People won't care unless something on HBO is nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, because allegedly that's all that matters. And the ratings for that keep dropping.
    It's already a given that television is better than the movies now anyhow. Not just HBO television. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Justified, The Good Wife... there's at least 20 shows on television where two hours of any of them is better than 95% of the movies Hollywood is churning out. So shouldn't it mean more if your movie was the Number One thing on television than the 7th Best Movie overall?