Last weekend, I was at the Southern California Writers Conference in Newport Beach, California where I’d been invited to speak about screenwriting on the Now Write! Screenwriting panel. With 40 television movies and four indie features interminably gracing my IMDB page, I often get asked to participate in panels and seminars which I’m happy to do — especially the Now Write! panel, because I contributed to the book by the same name and feel it’s one of the best screenwriting books on the market (yes, a shameless plug but it doesn’t mean it isn’t true!).
When it comes time for questions, I usually get the same ones:
“How can I break in as a TV writer?”
“What inspires you to get up and write everyday?”
“Do I need an agent?”
But this past weekend, a gentleman asked me a question I’d never been asked at a panel or seminar before: “Why do TV movies suck so much of the time? Are the writers really that bad?”
I happen to love honesty. And I can’t disagree with his assessment. While the quality of episodic television has been steadily increasing in my opinion, there is certainly a chasm between both network and cable TV shows and TV movies. Why is that?
Here’s what I explained to him and I’m going to explain it to you too.
First off, comparison inevitably brings disappointment. Even though they’re created for television, TV movies are rarely compared to episodic television. More often than not, they’re compared to theatrical movies because they’re, of course, movies. But when you compare, TV movies will almost always fall short. Why? Because at the end of the day, television is about one thing: ratings. Pure and simple. And ratings equate to dollars.
Anything you see created for television is designed to pick up new audience members at each commercial break. For network television, there are on average, seven commercial breaks within a two-hour TV movie. That means 22 minutes of that 120 minutes is dedicated to commercials, and we all know sponsors pay for those spots based on the number of people watching and the demographics of those audience members.
What does this have to do with content? A lot, actually.
After each commercial break there’s an opportunity to pick up new viewers that got bored with some other show they were watching. To make sure they can quickly understand what’s going on and don’t flip again to some other show, TV movies often repeat some of what’s already been seen just so new people won’t be lost. Is that fair to the folks that have been watching since the beginning? Not really, but then again, if you’ve been watching from the beginning, you’re less likely to turn the channel than someone that just jumped on board.
The longer you watch, the more invested in the show you become. Unlike movies made for theatrical distribution where there is a captive audience and no need to pick up new viewers, TV movies often seem a bit repetitive or even ‘dumbed down.’ But that’s not because we think you’re dumb, or the writer forgot she already explained that character’s backstory. It’s because picking up new viewers is more important than anything else.
Second, there are a lot of rules when it comes to TV movies. Theatrical films are subject to the MPAA for a rating. It’s not a simple process by any means, but it does involve fewer requirements than TV movies are subjected to.
Most TV movies are not produced by the networks themselves. Some are, but most are what’s called ‘acquisitions.’ That means that independent producers make these movies and then try to sell them to the networks. Back in the ‘golden age of TV movies,’ when every network seemed to be making big-budget television movies, there was pretty good money in this. But things have changed in the past 15 years. A producer can rarely make his money back by selling his movie to one network. He has to sell foreign rights as well. It’s only with the sale of both domestic and foreign that he can make a profit — which, don’t forget, is why he’s in this business.
Each territory has its own requirements and preferences with regards to what they’ll air. You may have a territory that is willing to put on explicit sexual content, but no violence. And in the United States, networks don’t generally like sex but are perfectly fine with violence. How can you be sure to sell your movie in both territories? The only way is to accommodate everyone’s requests. That’s why people in TV movies can get shot and there’s about as much blood as a pin prick, which, now that we’re so used to seeing violence depicted realistically in theatrical movies and in episodic television, strikes us as horribly fake.
Then you have the new niche style of television. Never before have networks and cable channels been so specific about what they air. Everyone is searching for a niche to grab an audience that they hope will be loyal. The more niche they are, the more rules they create for their content, and the less creative they can be. A TV movie that airs on Hallmark Channel would rarely be a good fit for say Lifetime Network, or Bravo. The Hallmark audience loves Hallmark movies. Networks aren’t going to risk losing those loyal viewers by giving them something new and unexpected that they may not like.
Keep in mind, it’s about ratings.
My explanation may oversimplify the business of making TV movies a little, but at the very least, it gives you some insight into why comparing TV movies with theatrical movies usually gives theatrical movies the advantage.
That doesn’t mean that TV movies can’t be good, and many of them are. But compared to theatrical movies and episodic television, TV movies are actually the toughest to make. The more rules and opinions and parameters imposed on the writer, the less opportunity they have to be creative. Combine that with additional restrictions like low production budgets, requirements for tax credits, and an increasing need for original content with all these new channels popping up all the time, and you start to see how many hurdles there really are to making good TV movies with organic stories and characters.
But then again, sometimes the writers just choke big time. It happens to all of us.