House of Cards creator Beau Willimon wonders if “television” is a good word for describing what we’re seeing in long-form storytelling:
If you start thinking, well a TV show is a half-hour to an hour long and it’s in chunks, and a [movie] is an hour to two hours and it has a beginning, middle, and end and then it’s done—those are pretty weak definitions, right? It really just comes down to formal, structural things. It’s like if I said to you there’s no fundamental difference between a sonnet and a haiku. Like, they have different meter structures. But they’re both poems. They’re both trying to express something. The words within them don’t know that they’re a haiku or a sonnet. If a television show has an episode that is 90 minutes long, could that episode in itself constitute a film? And what if you have a movie that’s 45 minutes long? We typically call that a short. But how different is that than a standalone episode of TV?
I’d argue that the Marvel franchise is essentially a mega-budget series. Both narratively and financially, these movies are designed to fit together in a way that’s unusual for something not based on a book like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. The actors who signed on to Marvel committed to far more films (episodes) than typical.
Willimon says the biggest freedom he felt with House of Cards wasn’t the length of the episodes, but the length of the run:
There are still certain fundamental parameters. Our show still generally has to be around an hour because we still sell internationally to networks that will traditionally air it week-to-week with commercials sometimes. But I didn’t think about commercials or act breaks or anything like that.
I guess the biggest thing that affected the writing of our show was not releasing all 13 [episodes] at once—we didn’t know we were going to do that until about halfway through production of Season One. It was always a possibility, but a traditional week-to-week release was a possibility as well. So were other permutations between those two extremes. The biggest thing was knowing we had two seasons guaranteed. Because it meant I could think about something layered in early in Season One that might not boomerang back till the end of Season Two. It meant a much broader canvas, and not having to force arbitrary cliffhangers or frontload Season One for the sake of jacking ratings for the fight for one’s survival. It makes you think about story in a totally different way.