Film & TV

What is a Feature Film?

Motion picture, movie, film, flick. While there are numerous names used to describe what most of us know and love as either a movie or a feature film, what many people don’t realize is what accepted criteria – at least according to Hollywood – distinguishes one from the other.

The deciding factor is to do with the duration of the production, with experts in the field unanimously agreeing that the following rules apply. A feature film must be a minimum of 40 minutes in length, compared to what the industry refers to as a movie, which by contrast can amount to any given length of time; more or less than 40 minutes, yet typically varying from 80 to 180 minutes.

So effectively, all feature films are movies, yet conversely the same can’t be said with regards to all movies being classed as feature films.

The thing is, not even all filmmaking organizations sing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to what constitutes the required running times that define feature films. Take for example the alternative view of what’s considered minimum durations by the Screen Actors Guild, which habitually sets the minimum length at 80 minutes, yet the AFI and BFI’s definitions refer to any film more in excess of 40 minutes in length to be deemed as a feature.

Meanwhile, the respected Sundance Film Festival sets the benchmark at 50 minutes. But that’s not all as, under the rules set about by no lesser authority on the subject than the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, a feature-length motion picture must have also been exhibited theatrically on 35mm or 70mm film, or in a qualifying digital format.

Returning to the running times, the term ‘feature film’ is also said to be implemented to differentiate between films that are first shown cinematically, versus those made for television. As you can see, there’s no out-and-out definitive explanation as to precisely what qualifies a feature film to be recognized as just that, yet several solid arguments from respected bodies help us to understand.

History of the Feature Film, and Popular Early Examples of the Genre

Now that we’ve determined what constitutes a feature film, we can look at history; which, thankfully, is far less ambiguous. The very first one came kicking and screaming into the new cinematic world as of 1906 and hailed not from Hollywood but Australia.

Defined by its length of 70-minutes (please see above) as a dramatic feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang beat a 90-minute French film entitled L’Enfant Prodigue (1907) by a mere 12 months to claim the accolade officially. Although, purists are the first to admit that the latter European entry was effectively an unmodified record of a stage play. Still, just two years after that, the continent’s first feature explicitly adapted for the screen was released. And the name of that ground-breaking work? The somewhat familiar Les Misérables.

Despite the above, some Americans often dispute the facts by counter-claiming that the much earlier (1897) Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight should hold the title of the world’s first feature film. The only issue with the unedited boxing match is that – despite its length 100-minute running time – is technically classified as a sports programme/documentary. Other well-known feature films from those very early days of film include the likes of L’Inferno (1911), Defence of Sevastopol (1911), Quo Vadis? (1913), Oliver Twist (1912), Richard III (1912), From the Manger to the Cross (1912), and Cleopatra (1912).

How the Feature Film evolved into today’s Recognisable Form and Function

Despite the strides being made in the fledgling film industry around the turn of the 20th Century, movie-goers had to wait for another couple of decades before sound played a pivotal role in feature films. The Jazz Singer (1927) was the first of this type and enjoyed its initial release courtesy of Warner Bros.

The Hollywood studio also pioneered a brand-new recording technology which it called the Vitaphone around the same time, which was facilitated to much acclaim within the ever-changing industry. Before this means of introducing sound to movie-making, most studios had been reluctant to explore the possibilities of what was widely regarded as an expensive process of having to add microphones to their sets. In the aftermath of witnessing the plaudits received for The Jazz Singer, rival studios quickly amended their policies and started producing their own ‘talkies’ with sound.

The next chapter in feature film evolution focused on the application of color film; an area which had habitually fascinated filmmakers from the outset as a means by which to visually enhance their art of storytelling. Among early techniques, hand-tinting proved popular, while toning was acknowledged as a more widespread development and practice during the 1920s; not least because it was both faster and more cost-effective than hand-tinting methods. After that followed film-processing lab, Technicolour’s ‘Three-tone’ coloration technique, which eventually grew to become the color film standard-bearer.

Although only after studios surmounted teething problems cited as the complexity of procedure, time-consumption, and perceived expense. At the vanguard of the three-tone system, Disney’s decision to early-adopt certainly paid dividends, while The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Gone with the Wind (1939) were among the most celebrated feature films which utilized this approach to color.

Fast forward if you will to the late 1980s/early 1990s, and one of the other most notable transformations in feature film production was the advent of ‘digital video’, or DV camera technology. The inception of this had a major impact on how films were made in a relatively short period, while the assemblage also gave rise to the phenomenon known as ‘special effects’, along with setting the tone for future animated movies a short time later.

And one director operating on the cusp of this new tech was George Lucas, who in 2002 shot Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones entirely on digital cameras; the first major feature film to do so. Promoting various advantages over more tried and tested – yet archaic – filmmaking kit and caboodle, digital cameras allowed instant playback footage together with ease of transfer to another fast-emerging multi-media platform: computers.

Editing footage via digital camera ensured that post-production times were slashed, while the shift to computers has of late seen the feature filmmaking sector embrace numerous modern means of story conveying (think internet movies, tablets, smartphones, Netflix, etc.). This vibrancy goes to show that the future is as vividly colored, dramatic, and accessible to viewers as it always was, and then some!

Richard Hammond

I am the founder of 9Mousai and am deeply interested in creativity and what inspires it. My main passions are writing, film and music but I have huge respect for all the arts. I'm also an animal lover and have a little cat called Winston and enjoy the occasional whiskey or two...

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