The debate about what is considered film and what’s considered television has become more and more heated in recent years, as certain properties blur the lines, creating confusion, and some shockingly strong opinions on both sides of the conversation.
That divide reached fever pitch this awards season with Small Axe, the BBC and Amazon anthology series from 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen. The series consists of five films, varying in length from around an hour to a little over two, each dealing with West Indian immigrants living in London from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Whether Small Axe is film or television doesn’t ultimately matter in terms of assessing its quality, which has almost unanimously been deemed of a very high caliber. It was a foregone conclusion that the series would show up in some capacity on the awards circuit, and that’s where the debate was taken to a new level.
While some groups, such as the Golden Globes, placed Small Axe in their television categories, there were several critics organizations that awarded it alongside the feature films of the year. Making the confusion even more intense is the fact that some of those groups awarded Small Axe overall, as if it were one film (LAFCA gave the anthology as a whole their Best Picture win), while others awarded individual films from the anthology (Chicago Film Critics Association gave nominations to both Lovers Rock and Mangrove in select categories).
So, where does it land? Everyone is free to make up their own mind, but McQueen has his own opinion on whether Small Axe is television or film. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, he said, “This was always made for television, for the BBC, because I wanted my mother to see these stories on TV. This is nothing new to Europe. Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Alan Parker — that all came from made-for-TV movies. All I wanted to do was to tell as many stories as I could possibly tell in that time and place.”
On his reasoning for wanting to go to television, McQueen said that he wanted to use “a platform which was not beholden to advertising”, where he “could do whatever I wanted within that format”.
“Sometimes, you have to go where people are at, and that’s what Small Axe is about”, he stated.
That settles it then, right? From McQueen himself, Small Axe is television. Well, made-for-TV movies. In a year like 2020, where a movie like Wonder Woman 1984 went straight to a streaming service, what even constitutes a “made-for-TV movie” has become pretty obscured. Do McQueen’s comments settle the debate? Not really, but perhaps you’ll see some people using his stance to try and fuel their own ongoing debates as to whether this is television or film, or whether it even matters at the end of the day.