Writing A TV Movie That’s A Cut Above The Rest

The MOW factor!

The main difference between TV movies and theatrically-released feature films is their scope. Their costs are lower, rarely exceeding the $1-2 million mark, so they need to recoup lower costs in the marketplace. Consequently, they can tackle more intimate day-to-day issues rather than the universal four-quadrant themes of feature films. Lifetime, Hallmark and HBO are the key players in this market.

MOWs prefer emotionally and spiritually uplifting stories such as “diseases of the week”, while HBO favors grittier, edgier, more controversial material such as “You Don’t Know Jack” which focused on Jack Kavorkian the doctor who assisted terminally-ill patients to die. HBO is continually pushing boundaries with films and budgets that approach feature films.

TV movies typically run for 96 mins and are structurally (although not dramatically) different. They have rigid eight act structures to mimic TV shows around commercial breaks.

ACT 1 – is usually the longest and runs for around 20 pages. It introduces the characters, themes and the central conflict. Like all the acts, they end with a cliffhanger so the audience returns after the commercial break.

ACTS 2-3 –  each run for 10 to 12 minutes and outline the complications and boost conflict.

ACT 4 – is the most dramatic act and ends with the strongest cliffhanger to ensure audiences return after the hour break.

ACTS 5-7 – run for around 12 minutes each to show rising tension. A huge crisis normally occurs at the end of act 7.

ACT 8 – Ties up the story as the resolution is reached.

Given that the feature film spec market is barely solvent, MOWs may be a viable alternative to TV writing since you can still write a feature project. I’ve seen numerous advertisements with highly-specific remits such as female-driven character or Latino teenage boys.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Jon Stevens Alon says:

    Thank you. Very helpful.

  2. Thanks for laying out the structure – a great jumping off point. Much appreciated!

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