Last week, I finally caught up with HBO’s celebrated 2014 mini-series Olive Kitteridge. Adapted from Elizabeth Strout’s novel of the same name and told over an expansive four-hour runtime, it’s broken into four parts that align with its somewhat episodic “chapter” structure.
Few people would contest the fact that Olive Kitteridge is a mini-series. In terms of narrative scope and format, it’s perfectly suited to hour-long segments. Yet in the opening credits, it’s labelled as “a film by Lisa Cholodenko”. And that feels valid too. Olive Kitteridge has a cinematic feel to it and Cholodenko, whose past films include The Kids Are All Right and Laurel Canyon, clearly brought a Hollywood pedigree to the project.
So with all of that in mind, I began to wonder, where exactly is the line between television and film?
One simplistic and perhaps obvious answer is, “it doesn’t really matter.” Great art is great art regardless of how or where you consume it. And whether something is distributed as a theatrical film or a television mini-series could very well come down to practical decisions related to its potential marketability on a given platform. When you look at it that way, the division doesn’t feel all that artistically significant.
But still, labelling something as “film” or “television” brings certain consequences. In this supposed golden age of television, the line between the two formats is blurring, but many viewers and critics still hold onto the idea that television is “lesser” than cinema. Calling something a “made for TV movie” still has a somewhat withering connotation, even in an age where it’s not uncommon for A-list Oscar winners like Al Pacino or William Hurt to star in said movies.
Even big-name talent might not get the same respect for their work on TV. Frances McDormand won an Emmy for Lead Actress in a Limited Series or a Movie for her work in Olive Kitteridge, and in my opinion quite deservedly so. We’ll never know if she would have won her second Best Actress Oscar had Olive Kitteridge been eligible for that award (her first being in 1997 for Fargo), but if you were going to introduce McDormand by her credentials, it seems a lot more likely you’d say “Academy Award winner Frances McDormand” rather than “Emmy Award winner Frances McDormand”.
It’s not all bad news for television, though, since the format obviously also affords some artistic freedom that film doesn’t. By having the luxury of taking four hours to track 25 years in its protagonist’s life, Olive Kitteridge obviously has the room to fully develop its characters. Who’s to say that it would have been so effective pared down to a standard “movie” runtime of half the length?
And it’s not as though television is so ghettoized nowadays. Series like Stranger Things or Game of Thrones are arguably bigger cultural phenomenons than almost any recent movie to hit theatres. If the quality is there people will catch on, and with online platforms enabling viewers to “binge watch” hours of content at a time, it seems the tides are turning in favour of longer-format series that fans can get invested in and discuss for longer than a “one and done” standalone movie.
One film that really worked to blur those lines was O.J.: Made in America (which I reviewed here), Ezra Eddelman’s nearly eight-hour documentary about the notorious O.J. Simpson. Documentaries have always lent themselves nicely to episodic, multi-hour miniseries, whether it be Ken Burns’ lengthy PBS examinations of American history or the Netflix sensation Making a Murder. And O.J. did break into five logical and vaguely self-contained parts to air on television or streaming. But those involved with O.J. stayed adamant that it was in fact a feature film, riding that classification all the way to a (well-deserved) Oscar win for Best Documentary. Some quibbled with the idea of O.J. being a movie, but considering it initially screened at film festivals like Sundance and Hot Docs as a single 463-minute unit, it seems illogical to argue that it’s not.
With that example in mind, perhaps the best way to classify whether something is film or television comes down to intent. If the filmmakers envision their work as an eight-hour film, then so be it. There are certainly examples of arthouse and experimental films that run nearly as long or longer, but they’d also never be broken into smaller, more easily digestible segments simply because they lack marketability, regardless of how you dice them up. If we accept those works as “films” at face value, why do we try to “punish” something like O.J. by claiming it’s not a film, simply because a studio or distributor took the opportunity to get the film out to a wider audience by choosing an alternative format for their film?
Since we’re talking about intent, let’s close with some thoughts from one of the filmmakers in question. When asked about Olive Kitteridge’s format, Cholodenko had this to say:
“When I saw it back for the first time on a screen, it’s got this really lovely title sequence and says ‘A Film by Lisa Cholodenko’ — and I watched it and I thought, wow does it feel like that? Is that going to be strange?
And then at the end I really felt like, gosh, that really is a film, it was really such a great opportunity to make this four hour film, you know? It does have these chapters but for me it feels very coherent. It’s all in the piece and it hangs together and it is like a film. We shot it like a film, I approached it like a film, I think visually it feels like a film and narratively I thought of it as a film with the whole arc: Where does she go, where does she start, does it have a midpoint? All these things weave together — even though they’re episodes — into a bigger picture.”