Emmys 2023: The Curious Evolution Of The TV Movie Category

While making Do Revenge for Netflix, Camila Mendes felt like she was working on a theatrical, not a made-for-TV movie.

“There was more of a priority in the art of it, you know?” says Mendes (Riverdale) of the campy film that follows a pair of high schoolers who go after each other’s bullies. Directed by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson and co-starring Stranger Things‘ Maya Hawke and Game of Thrones‘ Sophie Turner, the clever film penned by Robinson and Celeste Ballard had a “bigger budget than a lot of high school movies do.”

“There was more priority being placed in putting together these beautiful cinematic shots and making the costumes look really vibrant and character specific,” recalls Mendes. “I do think this movie is something that could have been in a theater, and I feel so lucky that I got to watch it in a theater for the premiere.”

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Instead, the movie dropped in 2022 on the streamer, making it eligible to compete against other so-called TV movies at this year’s Emmys. Though thrilled at the prospect of her adult-themed film possibly earning some recognition, Mendes admits, “I didn’t know that was even a category.”

Once a hot destination for films like The Burning Bed, Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story and Something the Lord Made so they could get the recognition they deserve, the Outstanding Television Movie race has evolved into an odd miscellany of flicks not quite big enough for theaters but not even remotely similar to the kind of issue-oriented projects that used to dominate the category. The trend has never been more evident than among this year’s top contenders, which include the queer romcom Fire Island, the much-ballyhooed sequel Hocus Pocus 2, and the feel-good family pic Dolly Parton‘s Mountain Magic Christmas.

Even Weird: The Al Yankovic Story — another big pick among prognosticators this year – is a wacky sendup of biopics that used to populate the category.

Only Reality, the docudrama about convicted classified document leaker Reality Winner, comes close to what used to get the nod (and is now considered one of the current frontrunners). But that movie began as a theatrical on the festival circuit before it was purchased in February by HBO Films.

“The truth of the matter is a lot of the movies that are now considered for best movie at the Emmys, really did start out as theatricals,” said producer Neil Meron, who, together with the late Craig Zadan, earned six nominations in the category over the years for made for TV films like Margarethe Cammermeyer and The Reagans. “And instead of just not making them, they thought, ‘well, if you can reduce the cost of it, it can probably live on our streamer and then be acknowledged in a great way for these TV awards. And by that time, you may have a lot of top name talent already attached.”

As a result, Meron says, few are making the kinds of movies that he and his producing partner Zadan used to excel at for the broadcast networks and basic cable. Only Lifetime is the true standout, with movies like An Amish Sin (inspired by a true story about a teen who refuses to obey her parent’s command that she marry the man who abused her as a child), Black Girl Missing (about a Black mother who investigates her daughter’s disappearance with only the help of a grassroots organization) and Gwen Shamblin: Starving for Salvation (the true story of the megachurch founder and Christian diet guru that stars Jennifer Grey). Those are some of the issue-oriented films that Lifetime will submit in the category this year.

Hallmark and Great American Family also crank out their fare share of (mostly feel good) TV movies but neither cabler submitted into the category this year.

“Lifetime does more of upscale TV movie, which is why I like working for them because they do sometimes get into issue oriented and more important thematic types of programming,” says Meron. “That doesn’t really exist because a lot of programmers do not believe it scores in in the ratings, and it’s all about ratings. Yeah. People, especially advertisers, kind of shy away from anything that has a whiff of controversy. It’s like what we used to do with gay rights in the Margarethe Cammermeyer story and What Makes a Family [the 2001 movie for Lifetime]. Some things were political, like The Reagans, which was a hot potato. But we got it made for TV. They were always meant for TV. And one of the last things we did, which probably couldn’t be made today, is a TV movie for Lifetime, about the Flint, Michigan water crisis.”

“Back in the day, we focused on socially relevant subject matter,” echoes Lindy DeKoven, who previously enjoyed great success overseeing movies and miniseries for NBC. “Now, that kind of programming is available in limited series starring famous actors … Very few execs are willing to take creative risks. And, yet often, that’s what produces hits.”

Instead, the made for TV movie pendulum has swung to more family-friendly titles like NBC’s Magic Mountain Christmas, which has great odds on Gold Derby and has Producer Sam Haskell declaring “The TV movie is back!” He has reason to sound so confident: As Gold Derby reports, a 2023 Emmy nomination for Mountain Magic Christmas would be the fourth Parton flick to earn a nod in the TV movie category after Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love (2017), Heartstrings (2020) and Christmas on the Square (2021).

But veterans like DeKoven are cautious about declaring the triumphant return of the made-for-TV movie (Sorry, Mr. Haskell) — at least to broadcast, if not elsewhere.

“Feel good holiday-themed movies do particularly well during the holidays whether it’s broadcast television or streaming,” she says. “That’s been a staple over the years. Sound of Music and The Ten Commandments still pull in ratings. Hallmark does very well during that time, also. But, it’s unlikely that their success will bring the TV movie back on the broadcast schedule.”

But she holds out hope that history will repeat itself. “TV movies were basically a platform to promote the network series,” DeKoven continues. “So, that two-hour block has to maintain and build. It’s always about a good concept and a compelling story that can sustain commercial breaks and keep the viewer interested. All it takes is one heavily promoted movie to break out big, then suddenly the TV movie is back!”

“I love the genre,” adds Meron. “I actually think making TV movies is quite a noble thing to do because the type of TV movies that Craig and I used to make and that I’ve made without Craig. They are certainly things for your soul and things that people want to see.”


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