Home > Movies > Film vs. Movie: Should There Be A Difference?

Film vs. Movie: Should There Be A Difference?

I was talking with an artist in New York recently, and she told me one of the reasons New York is such a great city.

“New York is a great movie city. No. New York is a great film city.”

The Poster for Blue Velvet

We all know the inherent difference in the term. A film is a piece of art, something that is considered to work on many levels and not pander to the lowest common denominator. Think Blue Velvet (1986), the brilliant David Lynch film serving as a social commentary. On top of the layers of meaning to the film, we have tremendous performances from the likes of Isabella Rossellini and Dennis Hopper.

Hopper and Rossellini in Blue Velvet

A movie, on the other hand, is everything a film is not. It is not meant to be intellectual or layered. Instead of aiming for a higher plane of moviemaking, a movie settles on trying to please the largest possible audience. This is the realm of the summer blockbuster. A movie like Star Trek (2009) fits into this category, placing fun and adventure for an audience above forcing the audience to think through literal issues.

The Cast of 2009's Star Trek

Having established the definition of these terms, my question is: why is there such a negative stigma to movies, while films are considered to be the realm of the elite and superior to movies. Simply because movies and films target different audiences doesn’t mean one should be immediately considered superior to the other. Instead, we should judge based on how well a film achieves its end goal, and how the target audience enjoyed it.

Let’s start by looking at Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). By all accounts this motion picture by Michel Gondry can be considered a film. It is a high concept film, asking what viewers would do if they could systematically eliminate people from their memory. As we go Joel (Jim Carrey) struggles to hold onto the memories he has of Clementine, realizing she is as much a part of him now as he is. The film did well and hit its target audience, remaining a favorite among film students everywhere to this day. Everything about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind points towards film.

Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Now, let’s look at a movie. Take away the high concept of film, and enter the realm of basic storytelling. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is a perfect example of a successful movie. Following in the same serial drama format as its predecessor, Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back is a fun and fantastical film aimed to please a large audience.

The Poster for Empire Strikes Back

The target demographic, however, didn’t hold Empire back from some of the finest storytelling we’ve seen on screen. Who can forget arguably the most famous plot twist in history? The revelation of Darth Vader as Luke Skywalker’s father still resonates today. Despite the fact that this is supposed to be a ‘feel-good,’ blockbuster movie, the only reason the audience has to feel good at the end is because the rebels escaped. They did not win, they were decidedly defeated. Luke loses his hand, Han is captured and held by Boba Fett, and we still aren’t entirely sure we can trust Lando. For all these reasons, it’s hard to keep Empire Strikes Back off of a list of the greatest motion pictures of all time.

The Defining Moment from Empire Strikes Back

How about comedies? Comedies are normally entirely left off the film list, and relegated to movie territory. Look back at, in my opinion, the greatest comedy ever made: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Directed by film favorite Stanley Kubrick, and starring the extremely talented Peter Sellers, Strangelove has all the elements of a film. It’s a social commentary on Cold War politics, not to mention the commentary on capitalist culture.

But, because of the laughs, Strangelove is rarely thought of in the film world. It doesn’t take itself seriously enough to be considered a film.

The Poster for The Adjustment Bureau

Take a look at many of the films in theatres right now: the predictable, yet enjoyable, The Adjustment Bureau (2011) comes in with a rating of 71% on Rotten Tomatoes (as of the release of this article), while the also predictable, yet enjoyable, Just Go With It (2011) is rated at 18%. For the purpose of this article, I chose to look at two mass marketed motion pictures with a wide appeal. This left out the likes of Incendies (2011), Hall Pass (2011), and Your Highness (2011).

The Poster for Just Go With It

When I look back at how much I enjoyed The Adjustment Bureau and Just Go With It, I would rate both equally. Both were entertaining and engaging, but neither blew me away and took me to the next level. Yet, the film of this pair is obviously The Adjustment Bureau based solely on the subject matter, while the lowly movie is the comedic Just Go With It. I would hardly say that these two deserve the 53 point difference on the Rotten Tomatoes ratings.

What are your thoughts? Is there a difference between film and movie? Does it even matter? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Zac Hogle is a writer/director who has worked on several nationally broadcast series and documentaries. You can follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/zhogle.

All images and videos are the copyright and property of their respective holders. No infringement is intended.


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Categories: Movies
  1. steve hammill
    May 20, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    Interesting discussion. I understand the distinction drawn by snobs, but to me, they’re all movies. If they succeed in getting me to suspend my disbelief and I enjoy the resulting experience. It’s a good film…errrr…flick.

    BTW – I wasn’t accusing you of snobbery, just those who would argue the distinction.

  2. Judith M. Chapman-Ward
    May 20, 2011 at 11:16 pm

    Following your lead, there is a distinction between film and movie, as noted. However, the average person would merely see either-or when discussing their visual form of big-screen-entertainment. Those of us that actually want to take it to that next level would believe that a film can also be a movie, but a movie can not be a film. The content and the creative process employed to design the content into its finished form makes the difference. What’s the difference between a McDonald’s hamburger and a top-sirloin beef burger at a 5-star restaurant? Aren’t they both from the same animal and served on a bun? No!

    With all that being said, we then consider the pricing factor, the target audiences, the marketing strategies and how they all differ between film and movie. There is definitely a difference, in spite of the fact that the average person is oblivious to it. Those who need to know, know.

  3. Blabla
    January 8, 2013 at 2:16 pm

    That’s new to me…
    Maybe film is British English and movie American English.
    Thought about that?

    • zhogle
      January 11, 2013 at 10:11 pm

      I think that is a very real difference. However I was attempting to discern the perceived differences in film style when comparing a film to a movie. Traditionally a film has been seen as something more artistic and worthy of viewing, while a movie usually refers to something born of pop culture and is considered a lesser product. I’m arguing that difference may not have a right to exist.

  4. Anonymous
    April 10, 2013 at 9:37 am

    I think the distinction between movie and film is a form of linguistic racism (well segregation actually, but I wanted my point to come across more violently). Grammatically, both are perfectly fine, it’s social conditioning and the desire to draw intellectual hierarchies based on mere words that makes the distinction between the two words. If anything, taken at face value, movie describes motion pictures in a better way, as film is restricted to the medium it refers to. Also, linguistically, “movie” is also more fun and/or poetic than “film”. It’s time someone stood up for “movies” and instead of ascribing external qualities to it, we should accept that lexically, it’s just a better word for what “films” are.

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