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April 5, 2022

What Is a Feature Film?

We've all seen movies. We feel familiar with movies. But what do we know about the term "feature film"? What is a feature film?

The definition of a feature film

The definition of feature film is "a narrative film with a running time long enough to be considered the principal or sole presentation in a commercial entertainment program." 

Well, that definition sounds a little confusing. In more straightforward wording, a feature film (or just "feature") is a full-length film. 

The term "feature" came about when moving pictures first started showing up on screens in vaudeville. Any film was known as a "movie" (pre-dating "talkies" because there wasn't sound yet), and the feature movie was exactly what it's called: it was the feature of the evening's program. Likely, it was the feature's title that was presented on the theater's marquee. 

This is because the feature film was one of many entertainment pieces, often accompanied by a short, a newsreel, and some advertisements. But the feature film was likely the advertised movie.

How long is a feature film?

The first feature film (1906's The Story of the Kelly Gang) was 60 minutes long, but today the average feature film is anywhere between 75 and 210 minutes.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences defines a feature as a film that runs for more than 40 minutes (with short films being 40 or fewer minutes). Still, the Screen Actors Guild asserts that a feature's running time is 60 minutes, so there's not exactly a widespread agreement.

Length (whether shorter or longer) doesn't necessarily translate to a better film. 1955's Marty was 91 minutes (1 hour, 31 minutes) and won Best Picture, while Lawrence of Arabia won the same award in 1962 and was 222 minutes (3 hours, 42 minutes).

Just because a feature like Gone With The Wind is nearly four hours doesn't necessarily mean it's the best length for a feature film.

What's the difference between a short film and a feature film?

From a technical perspective, the answer is simple: length. From an artistic standpoint, it gets a little bit trickier. 

Feature films tend to have subplots, and multiple sequences, whereas shorts will usually be more focused in their scope. But like all art, there aren't any hard-defined rules, and some shorts have multiple plots, and some features have just one (or none).

That being said, a filmmaker will usually understand their intent before making a film. You're unlikely to write/create something and then discover if it's under or over 40 minutes (the generally accepted short/feature threshold). However, defining a film as a feature or a short has implications beyond just the length and can indicate the scope of the story and the scope of the project.

What's the difference between a feature film and a movie?

The term we so often hear in regards to films is "movie." Movie is slang for motion picture. Thus, the terms "film" and "movie" are considered synonymous in the film industry.

How long is a feature film script?

Most feature films written are between 85 and 120 pages from a writing perspective. It isn't always a perfect one-to-one, but the standard of a page of a screenplay translating to about a minute of a film can help anyone reading a script understand the general length of the story unfolding on screen.

Spec scripts from aspiring writers will generally be on the lower side of those page counts. (Largely because if you're trying to break in and writing well, you don't want to overstay your welcome to the reader.)

It's important as writers to understand the relationship between page count and screen time. For example, it can be attractive to have a low page count for readers, but if dense pages achieve it, then what might be an 87-page script can read more like a 137-page script. Sparse writing can quickly pace, and a 120-page script may read more like a 90-page script. Balancing the page count with the density of words per page is a skill every writer must learn.

But, what is a feature film?

Technicalities of length aside, what is a feature? How do you know if your story is a feature, a short, a television show, or something else entirely like a play, a novel, or a video game?

Again, there are no hard rules with art, but feature films are best suited to singular stories. Stories in which the protagonist doesn't necessarily have multiple adventures or crises. For example, Erin Brokovich isn't exactly going to be a 22 episode TV show. This is why the Hero's Journey model is more usefully applied to features than something like tv. Some examples of ideal feature film stories are seen in films such as ET, Birdman, Arrival and Kramer vs. Kramer.

Movie still from the film, Arrival.

Lately, with the combination of franchises and cinematic universes and the limited series, these guidelines have become a bit convoluted. Something like Mare of Easttown seems like a very long feature, and the latest James Bond or newest installment from the MCU feels like the "next episode" of a larger piece. Even so, take a look at how singular episodes fit into a limited series and how films in a franchise largely stand on their own.

Write your next feature film

Examining the feature film as an art form reveals many of the decisions made about length and content.

While television has arguably displaced the feature film as the dominant form of mass entertainment in the past three decades, the feature film is still alive and worth exploring as a way of telling stories that deserve to be told.

Ready to start writing your feature film? Try out Arc Studio for free today!


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What Is a Feature Film?
David Wappel

David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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