Film vs. Television

In the past year, I have seen the hoary old question of film versus television come up in a variety of contexts regarding indie cinema. To be honest, I thought that the whole issue was a no-brainer. But people still ask. Should indie filmmakers be more focused on possible theatrical distribution or some form of television presentation for their movies?

There are two ways of looking at this question. One is to view the glass as half-empty. The other is to simply ask: “What glass? What water? Why are you even thinking this way?”

Virtually every technical difference between film presentation and television is gone. OK, that is a bit of an overstatement, but not by much these days. The visual gap between the sharp bright movie image and the dim fuzzy box is no more. In some cases, your high definition TV set will provide a much better picture than your local theater. Just depends upon where you live.

Unfortunately, the same is true regarding distribution access. It’s marginal at best. Basically the same companies that control and lock out most indie filmmakers at theaters also own all of the network and cable systems. So it is pretty much the same either way.

Except for a few differences. The IFC cable channel provides a much-needed outlet for indie movies. Other cable systems provide an occasional outlet. Though this is extremely limited, it is still more than is possible in theatrical release outside of a few of the largest cities. Any indie movie picked up for broadcast via a cable system will, at least in theory, reach a wider audience than it could achieve through theatrical release.

Which brings up the next question: Does the average indie movie stand to make more money through theatrical distribution or television presentation? That’s another easy one. Neither. You see how simple it is. In principle, there are many ways that an indie movie could be handled for theatrical distribution. There are also many, many issues that have to be negotiated before a deal is even signed. A few, and I do mean a very few, filmmakers will get a great (or at least great-sounding) offer. That has become the magic Sundance event. But the average indie filmmaker will be lucky to break even. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but not by much.

So how about television? Who knows? It varies. Like crazy. There are many different ways that a movie can be contracted into a TV presentation with lots of variables and only one consistent factor for the average indie filmmaker: You will be looking more for exposure than profit. The difference between movies and TV was best summed up years ago by Mel Gibson (and yes, I can’t believe I am quoting Mel Gibson) when he hosted Saturday Night Live. Movies are low effort, high reward. Television is high effort, low reward. Write this down. It’s the key to the whole thing.

What really makes this ironic is the fact that the television industry basically props up the entire movie industry. More people watch TV than ever go to the movies. The television audience is a larger and more diversified market. TV programs produce a relatively high and surprisingly steady stream of income. The average movie, if it’s lucky, will break even once it is sold for cable TV presentation.

So TV is basically the breadwinner of the media industry. It doesn’t get much respect for that, but it is the main profit generator. It is also a system in which the short-term ad profit is played off against the long-term revenue (DVD and syndication) that only a handful of participants in a production will ever see. At their most successful, movies are still just a flash in the pan. But television is more of a long, slow grind. And despite all of this, TV people are still largely treated as second-class citizens within the industry.

Despite the major differences between theatrical distribution and TV presentation, they both share a common problem. The digital revolution. Over the last several years, major movie companies have been torn between buying into digital distribution and fighting against it. Meanwhile, TV broadcasters have just gone before the US Supreme Court in their fight against Aereo while also trying to decide just how much they hate Netflix and what, if anything, they can do about it.

This is just the tip of the massive iceberg of contradictions and incoherent policies being pursued by virtually every major media company in town. It is a state of media corporate chaos, and for the indie filmmaker, chaos may indeed be opportunity. The foundations of the commercial film and television industry are in the process of crumbling. Heck, Disney isn’t slapping down $500 million for Maker Studios because it is worth that kind of money. They are doing so because they think it might become worthy of that amount. In reality, Disney doesn’t have a clue and they are simply anxious to be in some future position that might, just maybe, be the right spot.

Indie filmmakers are going to have to work the same way. They need to find their foothold in the digital universe and go for it. So I think we can skip any more questions about film vs. TV. That is just so 1990s.

Copyright © Dennis Toth 2014 All Rights Reserved