This is an article I’ve been thinking about for a long time. But I’ve never had the gumption to put it out there because it always seemed trivial, like a battle not worth fighting.
But today I’m going to dive into it and bare it all, because while this may seem inconsequential, the difference between making “films” and “movies” is why this site exists. It’s the very foundation for everything I do here.
On Monday, one of my favorite film bloggers these days, Stephen Follows, put out an article about the distinction between films and movies, using his delightful data visualization and analysis skills to dive into how the two words are used by various demographics all over the world.
Seriously, it’s a great article. Go read it.
With that said, while Stephen’s article is thoughtful and interesting, there’s one question that it just barely touches on, and I think it’s the most important question of all — is there any reason to make a distinction between films and movies, and if so, what is that distinction?
Put another way, should we just assume that both words refer to the same thing and move on with our lives? Or should we drive a wedge between the two, really defining what each term means so that we can tackle the filmmaking process with more intention and clarity?
That’s what this article is about.
So what’s the difference between a film and a movie?
Before we get into this, I should state that this is entirely an opinion piece. I (Robert Hardy) am far from an authority on filmmaking, linguistics, or philosophy. I’m just a dude who loves making films, believes in the unrivaled artistic power of the medium, and happens to have a platform to share his thoughts.
Also, I can almost guarantee that to some of you, I’m going to come off as sounding like a pretentious, arrogant douche throughout this article. I’ve made my peace with that, and I sincerely hope you stick around to hear me out anyway because this topic is more important than it might seem on the surface.
So as you might have gathered from the headline, I take a firm stance on this. I believe that films and movies can be largely separate entities (although there’s plenty of overlap), and that the primary difference between the two comes down to intention.
Let me say that again. The distinction between films and movies isn’t about the budget, scope, or reach of a film, nor is it about anything tangible or measurable for that matter. It all comes down to the intention, the philosophy, and the belief systems of the people making them.
I realize that’s an incredibly vague sentiment, though, so let’s dive into some specific examples of how films and movies differ. Again, these are opinions, so feel free to disagree:
A film can be commercial, but it has a larger purpose than just making money. A movie is a commercialized product created for mass consumption. Its sole purpose is profit.
A film is characterized by the personalities, beliefs, and artistic ambition of the people making it. A movie is characterized by a string of decisions that will appeal to the target audience.
A film is far more concerned with aesthetics, with how movement, light, and sound will emotionally engage and intellectually stimulate the audience. A movie is more concerned with plot and easy answers.
A film attempts to convey or explore something larger than itself. A movie is about giving the audience exactly what they want.
A film forces the audience to grow in some way, to leave the theater slightly better humans than when they came in. A movie leaves the audience happy, satisfied, but ultimately unchanged.
I can hear some of you groaning already, thinking to yourselves, “man, this Robert Hardy guy sure is a pretentious asshole.” You can’t say I didn’t warn you.
And honestly, I get it. I really do. But let me try to explain myself a little bit.
I don’t want to demonize movies. Not at all. Like most everyone else, I grew up watching movies. Movies were the backbone for some of my favorite experiences, forming the basis for great dates, gatherings of friends, holidays with the family, etc.
So for me to bash movies would be arrogant and misguided, especially considering I still go to the movies from time to time and enjoy the hell out of them.
However, I have a few fundamental beliefs that shape my life and how I choose to approach filmmaking.
I’m a firm believer in living with purpose and intention.
I believe in constantly challenging the status quo.
And most of all, I’m an unwavering believer in the artistic power and universality of film.
Considering those three fundamental beliefs, why would I choose to pursue the creation of movies rather than the creation of films? One of those things I care very deeply about, and the other I'm largely indifferent towards. For me, it's the easiest choice in the world.
Film is something I believe in with my whole heart. It’s something that motivates me to get up in the morning, to continue working on my craft, to continue writing articles like this.
Quite simply: Film is my purpose. Movies are not.
Why this debate actually matters
Is any of this 100% definitive? Of course not. There are plenty of high-budget productions made primarily for commercial gain that fit all of the characteristics of a film. As far as I’m concerned, these are films.
And there are plenty of no-budget productions that aspire to be nothing but entertaining stories. These are movies, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
I may have painted this question as fairly black and white, but in truth, most every film lives in the shades of gray between the two.
But what’s not black and white are your intentions. You have complete control over how you choose to view yourself, your work, and your larger role in society.
It’s these intentions that shape your work, that guide you towards some larger purpose, that draw the line between being a moviemaker and a filmmaker.
In the end, you’ll almost always have to balance your intentions with the realities and practicalities of what it takes to finance, make, and distribute a film. But none of that can or should change your intentions, especially if they’re deeply embedded in who you are.
This is some heavy shit. And it’s a decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Will you choose to be a moviemaker or a filmmaker?
I’ve made my choice. Now it’s your turn.
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