Quibi’s Launch Forces Us To Ask: What Is a Movie?

Are you ready for some semantics?

After what seems like years of hype and buildup, Quibi finally launched earlier this week. The timing of the launch, which has been set for some time, is nonetheless unfortunate given Quibi’s content model of sub-10 minute videos is meant to be consumed while on the go. Right now, of course, a lot fewer people are on the go, and this may be why initial downloads of the app were relatively low.

The lineup of 50 titles is a mix of news, reality series and, notably, what are being called “Movies in Chapters.”

The latter are scripted series, the final runtime of which is said to be roughly equivalent to a feature film. Hence the label, which is an attempt to spruce the content up a bit instead of calling them “shows.”

Traditionally when something is referred to as a movie, it’s understood to be a singular entity with a defined beginning and ending. It generally runs between 75 minutes and three hours or so, and when it’s done, it’s done. Sure there may be sequels and such, but each is still it’s own thing, standing on its own and clearly identifiable from its title.

In recent years there have been various attempts to chip away at that definition as producers and others work to associate themselves with the prestige factor that is the designation “movie.”

The Perpetrators

Peak TV: In many ways Quibi’s stab at rebranding their content is the next logical step in the rhetorical journey has been happening with the talent and platforms behind what’s been dubbed the “Peak TV” era. Producers and showrunners, especially those behind series at HBO, Netflix, FX and other outlets have frequently used some version of “It’s really more of a 10 hour movie” to describe their series, trying to not only get people to tune in for the whole thing but promise them one big arc, not lots of little ones.

Franchises: The debate has been running for several years now as to how to classify movies like those part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Those stories are so interconnected and keep picking up the baton where the previous installment left off that in many ways they’re more like episodes of a television series than the traditional movie → sequel progression. The manner in which the story never seems to end undoes the notion that movies are defined within the structure of themselves.

Too Staunch Defenders

On the other end of the spectrum you have parties like NATO and film festival organizers who insist a movie should be so narrowly defined as to exclude content that would otherwise easily be included. Unless a title plays or is guaranteed to play in theaters for a specific period of time and in a specific manner, they would argue it isn’t actually a movie and is therefore ineligible for awards consideration or showcasing to festival audiences. Feature releases produced by or premiering on Netflix, Hulu or other streaming services are cast aside, referred to disparagingly as “television movies” to set them apart and bestow lower-class status.

Both those who seek to loosen the definition and those who seek to restrict it too tightly are overdoing it. A movie should be a single moment, not a collection of material. Nor is a movie unique to its distribution platform. Those arguing otherwise have some sort of stake in the game, hoping to bend the definition to include whatever they’re working on in order to make it seem more valuable.

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