A television film (also known as a TV film, television movie, TV movie, telefilm, telemovie, made-for-television film, direct-to-TV film, movie of the week (MOTW or MOW), feature-length drama, single drama, and original movie) is a feature film that is a television program produced for and originally distributed by a television network, in contrast to theatrical films, which are made explicitly for initial showing in movie theaters.
Origins and history
Though not exactly labelled as such, there were early precedents for "television movies", such as Talk Faster, Mister, which aired on WABD on December 18, 1944, and was produced by RKO, or the 1957 The Pied Piper of Hamelin, based on the poem by Robert Browning, and starring Van Johnson, one of the first filmed "family musicals" made directly for television. It was made in Technicolor, a first for television, which ordinarily used color processes originated by specific networks. (Most "family musicals" of the time, such as Peter Pan, were not filmed but broadcast live and preserved on kinescope. A kinescope is a recording of a television program made by filming the picture from a video monitor. This was the only way to record a television show until the invention of videotape.)
Television films had a rough start when the idea was first presented in the 1950s to major networks. The production for the films was an unstable business with certain challenges facing early participants. Many television networks were hostile toward film programming, fearing that it would loosen the network's arrangements with sponsors and affiliates by encouraging television station managers to make independent deals with advertisers and film producers.
Television networks were in control of the most valuable prime-time slots available for programming, so syndicators of independent television films had to settle for fewer television markets and less desirable time periods. This meant much smaller advertising revenues and license fees compared with network-supplied programming.
The term "made-for-TV movie" was coined in the United States in the early 1960s as an incentive for movie audiences to stay home and watch what was promoted as the equivalent of a first-run theatrical film. Beginning in 1961 with NBC Saturday Night at the Movies, a prime time network showing of a television premiere of major studio film, the other networks soon copied the format, with each of the networks having several [Day of the Week] Night At The Movies which led to a shortage of movie studio product. The first of these made-for-TV movies is generally acknowledged to be See How They Run, which debuted on NBC on 7 October 1964. A previous film, The Killers, starring Lee Marvin and Ronald Reagan, was filmed as a TV-movie, although NBC decided it was too violent for television and it was released theatrically instead.
These features originally filled a 90-minute broadcast programming time slot (including television commercials), later expanded to two hours, and were usually broadcast as a weekly anthology television series (for example, the ABC Movie of the Week). Many early TV movies featured major stars, and some were accorded higher budgets than standard series television programs of the same length, including the major dramatic anthology programs which they came to replace.
Possibly the most-watched TV movie of all time was ABC's The Day After, which aired on November 20, 1983, to an estimated audience of 100 million people. The film depicted America after a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, and was the subject of much controversy and discussion at the time of its release due to its graphic nature and subject matter. Five years earlier, ABC's Battlestar Galactica premiered to an audience of over 60 million people on September 17, 1978.
Another popular and critically acclaimed TV movie was 1971's Duel, written by Richard Matheson, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Dennis Weaver. Such was the quality and popularity of Duel that it was released to cinemas in Europe and Australia, and had a limited cinema release to some venues in the United States. The 1971 made-for-TV Brian's Song was also briefly released to theatres after its success on television, and was even remade in 2001. In some instances TV movies of the period had more explicit content included in the versions prepared to be exhibited theatrically in Europe. Examples of this include The Legend of Lizzie Borden, Helter Skelter, Prince of Bel Air and Spectre.
Many 1970s TV movies were a source of controversy, such as Linda Blair's Born Innocent (1974) and Sarah T. - Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic (1975), as well as Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway (1976) and its sequel, Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn (1977), which were vehicles for former Brady Bunch actress Eve Plumb. Another renowned film was Elizabeth Montgomery's portrayal of a rape victim in the drama A Case of Rape (1974).
My Sweet Charlie (1970) with Patty Duke and Al Freeman, Jr. dealt with racial prejudice, and That Certain Summer (1972), starring Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen, although controversial, was considered the first TV movie to approach the subject of homosexuality in a non-threatening manner. If These Walls Could Talk, a film which deals with abortion in three different decades (1950s, 1970s, and 1990s) became a huge success, and HBO's highest rated film ever.
If a network orders a two-hour television pilot for a proposed show, it will usually broadcast it as a TV movie to recoup some of the costs even if the network chooses to not order the show. Often a successful series may spawn a TV movie sequel after ending its run. For example, Babylon 5: The Gathering launched the science fiction series Babylon 5 and is considered to be distinct from the show's regular run of one-hour episodes. Babylon 5 also has several sequel TV movies set within the same fictional continuity. The 2003 remake of Battlestar Galactica begin as a two-part miniseries that later continued as a television show. Another example is the TV movie Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, which launched the TV show of the same name, and used the same actress Melissa Joan Hart for the lead role in both. The term "TV movie" is also frequently used as vehicles for "reunions" of long-departed series, as in Return to Mayberry and A Very Brady Christmas.
Occasionally TV movies are used as sequels to successful theatrical films. For example, only the first film in The Parent Trap series was released theatrically. The Parent Trap II, III and IV were TV-movies, and similarly, the Midnight Run sequels have all been TV movies despite the first having a strong run in the cinema. These types of films may be, and more commonly are, released direct-to-video; there have been some films, such as The Dukes of Hazzard: The Beginning (a prequel to the film version of The Dukes of Hazzard), which have been released near simultaneously on DVD and on television, but have never been released in theatres.
TV movie musicals have become popular. One prime example is the High School Musical series which aired on the Disney Channel. The first TV movie was so successful that it came out with a sequel High School Musical 2 in 2007 which has since become the highest viewed cable broadcast and in 2008 its second sequel High School Musical 3: Senior Year was released in theaters instead of on Disney Channel. It became one of the highest grossing movie musicals.
TV movies traditionally were often broadcast by the major networks during sweeps season. Such offerings now are very rare; as Ken Tucker noted while reviewing the Jesse Stone CBS TV movies, "broadcast networks aren’t investing in made-for-TV movies anymore". The slack has been taken up by cable networks such as Hallmark Channel, Syfy, Lifetime, and HBO with productions, such as Temple Grandin and Recount, often utilizing top creative talent.
Production and quality
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A New York Times critic wrote in 1991 that "few artifacts of popular culture invite more condescension than the made-for-television movie". Network-made TV movies in the USA have tended to be inexpensively-produced and low quality; stylistically, they often resemble single episodes of dramatic television series. Often they are made to "cash in" on the interest centering on stories currently prominent in the news, as the Amy Fisher films were. The stories are written to reach periodic semi-cliffhangers coinciding with the network-scheduled times for the insertion of commercials; they are further managed to fill, but not exceed, the fixed running times allotted by the network to each movie "series". The movies tend to rely on small casts (rarely using established, major stars) and a limited range of scene settings and camera setups. Even Spielberg's Duel, while a well-crafted film, features a very small cast (apart from Weaver, all other acting roles are bit-parts) and mostly outdoors shooting locations in the desert. The movies are typically made by smaller crews, and they rarely feature expensive special effects. While it would have been less expensive to film on the new media form of video, as the movies were contracted by TV studios it was required that they be turned in on 35mm film. Various techniques are often employed to "pad" TV movies with low budgets and underdeveloped scripts, such as music video-style montages, flashbacks, or repeated footage, and extended periods of dramatic slow motion footage. However, the less expensive digital 24p video format has made some quality improvements on the TV movie market.
Movie-length episodes of TV shows
Occasionally, a long-running television series is used as the basis for TV movies that air during the show's run (as opposed to the above-mentioned "reunion specials"). Typically, such movies employ a filmed single-camera setup even if the TV series is videotaped using a multiple-camera setup, but are written to be easily broken up into individual thirty- or sixty-minute episodes for syndication. Many such movies relocate the cast of the show to an exotic overseas setting. However, although they may be advertised as movies, they are really simply extended episodes of TV shows, such as the pilot and the finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Most of these are made and shown during sweeps period in order to attract a large TV audience and boost television ratings for a show.
- Soap opera
- Television pilot
- Television special
- List of Movie Umbrella Titles in North America
- List of television films produced for American Broadcasting Company
- Marill, Alvin H. "Movies Made For Television, 1964-2004". Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2005 ISBN 0-8108-5174-1 (Vol. 1: 1964-1979; Vol. 2: 1980-1989; Vol. 3: 1990-1999; Vol. 4: 2000-2004; Vol. 5: Indexes)
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- Television and Hollywood in the 1940s
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- Why do we like Tom Selleck so much?
- O'Connor, John J. "A TV Movie With a Familiar Ring". The New York Times. 1 January 1991.