Movie, TV Show or Web Series? Choosing the Right Format For Your Story

Categories Producing

So you’ve got a story you want to tell. Now the question is: how are you going to tell it? There are the obvious options: you could make a movie, a TV show or a web series (that’s assuming you’re reading this because you’re a filmmaker). Then there are the less mainstream options of new media, such as interactive storytelling or even virtual reality.

I’m going to focus on the mainstream stuff, partly because I don’t have a lot of experience with new media, and also because I’m focused on telling my stories in the most-consumed formats.

So how do you determine which format will suit your story best? Here are a few guidelines I use to make that decision for my own projects:

It should be a movie if…

You don’t want your story told without a foreseeable end.

There could be a couple reasons why you might feel this way:

  1. The story is too important for it to be ruined by the pressure of keeping it going longer than it should.
  2. You don’t have the time, stamina or resources to continue the episodes indefinitely.

If the latter, then always remember that you can later pitch a series version. Fargo, Lethal Weapon and The Exorcist are examples of films that were later adapted into series.

You want people to see it on the big screen (eventually). 

Sure, most festivals accepting a TV pilot or web series will screen the submission in large projection. But they’ll do it only once, or only those few times in that weekend.

What I’m talking about is whether you want the possibility of having a theatrical release. If you want that and you’re disturbed by the thought of people watching from their phones and laptops, then make a movie.

Keep in mind, the route to a theatrical release is not an easy one. The chances are extremely slim, even if you make it to bigger festivals like Sundance or even Cannes.

And even if people have the option to see it on a big screen, they will still probably watch it at home if they have the choice. That said, it takes a highly cinematic film to coax people to the theater these days, so keep this in mind when you’re assessing your story.

The Revenant or Captain America are examples of movies you’d want to see in a theater. Bad Santa, not so much. That said, you’ll want to ask yourself (and probably a few, unbiased third parties) which category your film falls into.

It should be a TV show if…

You can stretch out the narrative without it feeling forced.

Can you imagine endless scenarios for your story’s characters? If so, you probably have episodic material.

A quick tip on these kinds of stories—they’re, more often than not, character-driven. Take the classic Friends example: you’ve got the same personalities in different situations over the course of ten seasons. Same thing with Parks and Recreation (seven seasons) and The Office (nine seasons). That said, if your story is full of quirky characters who will make any circumstance entertaining, definitely get going on shooting that pilot.

It’s comedic.

Did you notice that the shows I mentioned in the last point were all comedies?

Obviously, that genre isn’t the only one to make a successful series (i.e. Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones), but let’s face it: the majority are comedies.

Again, returning to the last point, this is because it’s a lot easier to make a long-running, character-driven narrative happen when things are funny.

In comedy, you can break a lot more rules. Things don’t have to be perfectly believable because you can write them bigger than life. There are many more possibilities and a lot fewer real-life consequences that would otherwise cut your series short.

On the other hand, non-comedic series can see success if they’re circumstance-driven.

For example, crime shows and police procedurals like CSI have a new case each episode. That way, they can virtually go on forever without the story ever feeling forced. The same is true for shows like Black Mirror and The Twilight Zone—they are linked by subject matter, atmosphere and tone rather than narrative or recurring characters.

You have connections to TV networks.

Finally, remember that it’s not easy to get your pilot in front of a network.

Most producers do not accept unsolicited material, so your best bet is to get an agent. However, agents also do not typically accept unsolicited material (at least the ones who can actually get you noticed).

So if you don’t have an agent, then you’ve got to take things into your own hands. Your next step is to create consistently good material on your own, get it out in the world and build up your portfolio. If you can make this happen, the agents will soon be coming to you.

With all this said, you probably shouldn’t be trying to make a TV show unless you’ve already got the street credit to get a network interested. That said, let’s move on to the last option.

It should be a web series if…

You don’t have connections to TV networks.

Don’t have any connections out in Hollywood? No problem. There’s still YouTube.

Of course, putting good content out on YouTube and hoping that the right people stumble upon it is a pretty ineffective strategy. If you’re going the DIY route, your best friend is going to be a really good marketer. Even better if that really good marketer is yourself.

Viral content doesn’t go viral by itself. (Rather, it rarely does.)

We live in a world of content over-saturation. Everyone has something they want you to watch, and realistically, no one has enough hours in their whole lifetime to consume all the media that exists today.

That said, what you make has to be well worth someone’s limited time on this earth.

You can also stretch out the narrative without it feeling forced.

Same rules apply here as they do to TV shows.

You don’t have much of a budget. 

Don’t have money? Neither did Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer when they made Broad City. Audiences are much more forgiving to low production value in a web series.

If you have great material and no money, take the web series route. If you don’t have great material, figure out how to make it better.

It’s short form.

Today, people and fish share the commonality of short attention spans.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stopped watching something on YouTube because of the time commitment involved. Most people on social media want quick, minute-long distractions. They’re usually not in the mindset to watch something long-form. Many times, they’re at work or taking a break from studying.

That said, if your story can be told in bite-sized chunks, you’re in good shape to make a web series.

It’s high concept.

Right now, I have a web series underway called Drag Queen Bible Scenes. I don’t even need to explain it to you because the title says it all. That’s high concept.

Whether you’ll click on something on YouTube with that title is another story, but at least I know that the right audience will immediate understand what they’re about to get into and are that much more likely to click on it.

In full disclosure, you can probably take almost any story and turn it into any of these three formats. The more important question is what do you want for that story and what resources are available to you. If you get enough traction with one route, you can easily retell the story in the other formats, too.

Hopefully these guidelines have given you some useful insight. Was there anything I missed on this list? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

Leave a Reply