First, it depends on what you consider a movie. If you define “cinema” as broadly as I do, then the answer is probably “countless.” So let’s pick something more discrete: feature films (which is what most people mean, anyway, when they say “movie”).
There’s no hard and fast rule as to what constitutes a feature. The term itself is a relic of theater-going: the feature film was the featured film—it was what the theater advertised outside, and presumably what compelled you to purchase a ticket and enter—as opposed to the various newsreels, cartoons, and serial installments that also ran (and then, eventually, stopped running). Theater-going in 2012 seems an increasingly old-fashioned hobby (see Roger Ebert’s recent article on declining ticket sales), but we still use the word to mean “a long film.”
But how long? The Wikipedia informs us:
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the American Film Institute, and the British Film Institute all define a feature as a film with a running time of 40 minutes or longer. The Centre National de la Cinématographie in France defines it as a 35 mm film longer than 1,600 metres, which is exactly 58 minutes and 29 seconds for sound films, and the Screen Actors Guild gives a minimum running time of at least 80 minutes. Today, a feature film is usually between 80 and 210 minutes; a children’s film is usually between 60 and 120 minutes. An anthology film is a fixed sequence of short subjects with a common theme, combined into a feature film.
Let’s go with that 40-minute cutoff. Are we ready to start counting?
As of today, the Internet Movie Database records 268,246 features (that’s counting from 1888 to 2017—it includes films that are only in production). I’m not entirely sure how they define “feature,” but it does seem pretty thorough—for instance, they presumably include Jacques Rivette’s masterpiece Out 1 (1972), despite the fact that it was never released in theaters or on video, or broadcast on television. (It’s been shown only at festivals, retrospectives, and a few special events.) This kind of situation is more common than you might think: many films play festivals but fail to get distribution (i.e., no one thinks they can sell them). Just this week in the Chicago Reader, critic Ben Sachs called attention to the fact that Takeshi Kitano’s recent “autobiographical trilogy” was never distributed in the US. And one of my favorite films of 2003, the Japanese feature Warabi no kou, has to date screened only in Japan and Hungary. (However, I saw it in Thailand—so there’s one example of the IMDb’s incompleteness.)
I actually think it’s safe to assume that the IMDb figure is far too low. I doubt it includes every Bollywood film, not to mention many other movies from other parts of the world. For instance, during the 1960s, over 300 films were produced in Cambodia alone, and none of them seem represented here. But, the IMDb number—268,246—does offer one possible answer to our question—one possible count of all of the movies that are 40 minutes or longer and that were at least intended for theatrical distribution. Or to be released on video. Or to be shown on TV.
What about, however, when films get revised? I adore Blade Runner (1982), but I adore only Ridley Scott’s 1991 director’s cut. The original 1982 domestic theatrical release is terrible. (I haven’t seen the 1982 international version.) I was similarly unimpressed with Scott’s “Final” director’s cut, theatrically released in 2007. The IMDb records these as “alternate versions” of the same film, but can an argument be made that they’re separate films? I think so—if you told me that you watched Blade Runner last night, and then said that it was the 1982 domestic version, I’d say, “You haven’t really seen Blade Runner!” And that’s not just because you missed out on some missing footage: the two films are different visions of what Blade Runner should be.
And the IMDb does sometimes count different versions of a film as different features: the 1980 theatrical release version of Superman II, which was started by Richard Donner and finished by Richard Lester, and the 2006 video release, which is Donner’s original cut. (This makes me wonder why it didn’t record Scott’s 2007 Blade Runner re-edit as a separate film, especially since it was released theatrically.)
What about DVD commentary tracks? If I buy a DVD copy of Total Recall and watch it only with the (superb) commentary track by Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger, can I claim to have seen the film? Or a film? I’ve seen something, certainly. Some commentary tracks are pretty highly regarded. (I’d half-argue that, until you’ve watched Lair of the White Worm with Ken Russell’s brilliant commentary, you haven’t really seen that film. Or at least all of that film.) And what about things like Rifftrax? Or Mystery Science Theater 3000? MST3K is the only way that I—and I suspect most people—have seen Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966). Can I include that as a feature film that I’ve seen? (The recent Shout! Factory release includes both “the classic MST3K episode, AND the original Manos feature film as well.”)
Mind you, I’m not suggesting that watching the MST3K Manos is akin to watching the original feature; rather, my question is: is it is own feature? To claim that it isn’t raises two problems. First, it suggests that new features can’t be derived from other ones. Second, it questions what it means to see a feature—it starts pushing us in the direction of film critic Fred Camper, who refuses to claim that he’s seen a film unless he’s seen it projected on film in a theater:
Sadly, though, viewing any film on video is now seen by most as an equivalent to viewing the film. “I rented (insert title here)” is a common locution. “I saw (insert title here) last weekend” can be used to mean that one viewed the video, though almost no one would say that they’d been looking at Michelangelo’s paintings last weekend unless they’d been to Italy. I’m constantly correcting people by replying, “You mean you looked at a video reproduction of the film,” and everyone finds my corrections quite quaint and amusing. [emphasis in the original]
By Camper’s logic, I’ve never really seen Blade Runner, because I’ve never seen it projected—which is what Ridley Scott intended when he made it. (I’ve seen only the 2007 cut theatrically.) This may seem a snobbish quibble, but there’s real substance to it, especially given that we now can watch movies on our cell phones—not to mention the fact that one often can’t see films the way they were originally intended. (I encourage you to read Camper’s full article, which I return to regularly, and which never fails to impress me.) Another, related issue: I saw a restored print of The Red Shoes in 2009—one of the best theater-going experiences I’ve ever had—but the print I saw probably looked better than the one that greeted audiences in 1948. Along the same lines, a key selling point for the Star Trek: The Next Generation Blu-Ray DVDs slated for release throughout this year is that they will look better than what we saw first-run broadcast in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
It’s worth pausing to mention that TVs are substantially different these days, too. Whenever I go home to my parents’ place, one of the first things I do is turn off the “motion smoothing” feature that their flatscreen keeps resetting as default. And the actual material of the TV is different, including the ways in which it renders the image. In some ways the quality is better than the old vacuum tube models of the past, but in some ways it’s worse: there are new, unwanted artifacts to deal with. My point is: watching Star Wars on TV now is quite different than in the 1980s, and not necessarily because it’s “better” or “closer to” the original theatrical release (and that’s without even getting into Lucas’s endless changes to that film).
Camper’s essentially right that watching a movie on TV—no matter how large home sets get—constitutes a very different viewing experience than seeing it in the theater. Consider commercial interruptions alone (although does anyone still watch movies on network or basic cable?). Don’t they make for a feature film that’s constantly changing, because it’s constantly being interrupted by numerous other short films? (It’s a return, of sorts, to older theater-going!) And can’t those short films impact the way we see the feature? Or have value in their own right? I have a VHS copy of Star Wars, taped off of TV in the ’80s, which I value now just as much for the vintage commercials it captured as for the fact that Han shoots first.
This line of thought is pushing us into John Cage territory (it’s across a raging river from Camper Land), where one can have only experiences with a film, and never definitively see it. Reeling ourselves back in a little, it’s at least valid to point out that movies screened on TV are routinely fiddled with:
The following film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit this screen, to run in the time allotted and edited for content.
Isn’t a TV broadcast of Pulp Fiction, with its toned-down violence and dozens of minced oath substitutions, a substantially different movie from what appeared in ’94?
Most network television prints eliminate (or at least blank out) profanity and dialogue to an absurd degree. For example, the aftermath of the scene where Vincent shoots Marvin by accident is replaced by a fade to black and a John Travolta sound-alike saying “Oh man I just shot Marvin in the face”, and Butch’s profane outburst in the hotel room is silenced (both making his physical rage unintentionally comical and neutralizing the actual punchline, “It’s not your fault.”).
And what about the chronological edit of that film? Or Memento‘s younger sibling Otnemem? I think we could argue that some re-edits are unique feature films in their own right—e.g., Star Wars: Episode I.II—The Phantom Edit.
Returning to television, what about episodes of shows that play like features? For instance, Red Letter Media’s web-TV program Half in the Bag is of variable length. Most episodes are well under 30 minutes, but the most recent installment, a critique of Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill, runs over 58 minutes long. I thought highly enough of it to include it among my favorite new movies of 2011. Can I do that? I’ve watched Jack and Jill (well, most of it), and Mike Stoklasa and Jay Bauman’s takedown feels more cinematic. (Along similar lines, it seems somewhat arbitrary to call Stoklasa’s Star Trek reviews shorts, just because they’re all 3–10 minutes shy of 40 minutes.)
What about TV series, when taken as a whole? Over the past decade, cable television has produced more and more long-form serial narratives. Are shows like Madmen and Breaking Bad and The Wire and 24 and The Sopranos and Curb Your Enthusiasm not, in some sense, features (especially since so many people tend to watch them straight through on DVD)? What about earlier examples like Twin Peaks? The Singing Detective and Pennies from Heaven? Berlin Alexanderplatz? Perfect Lives? Are these less features—less long works of cinema—than, say, Green Lantern? And if so, why exactly are we counting features again?
What about home movies? They are often longer than 40 minutes. And while they’re not projected in theaters, they’re increasingly uploaded to YouTube, which seems by now a perfectly valid exhibition venue. (More people watch YouTube than go to theaters.) And while most home movies probably won’t interest anyone who isn’t in them, or related to someone in them, some demand broader attention: the shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the infamous found film Memorial Day 2000 (which has titles and credits and everything!). (One of the most experimental videos I ever saw was footage of friend’s birthday party, videotaped by his grandfather, who didn’t know how to use the camera in any conventional way.) It’s well worth remembering that the first films of many eventual “real” filmmakers—including Orson Welles—were amateur shorts they made in their backyards. (Indeed, that’s almost all that film legends like Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren and Jack Smith ever made.)
A lot of amateur films are short. But what’s so magical about that 40-minute limit, anyway? Recall again that it’s a relic of theater-going, which is increasingly passe. (The French Centre National de la Cinématographie criteria even expresses it in terms of 35mm film length, surely an irrelevant distinction in this era of digital projection.) There are some “technical” shorts that feel like features—Kanye West’s 35-minute-long Runaway (2010), for instance. Joseph Cornell’s 19-minute-long Rose Hobart (1936). One of Guy Maddin’s most critically-acclaimed film is the 6-minute short The Heart of the World, which was commissioned by the Toronto Film Festival as a festival trailer and went on to win several awards, including the National Society of Film Critics’ award for Best Experimental Film. Maybe the feature/short distinction is relevant these days only at festivals, and there only because of programming purposes? (I’ve argued elsewhere that it’s unfortunate how so many film critics consider only features for their end of year lists, as though features represent the entirety of cinema.)
So, taking all of this into consideration, how many movies are there? The conclusion I’ve come to is twofold:
- The number of feature films (let alone movies) that have been made is, for all intents and purposes, infinite.
- What matters more, therefore, is the reason why one wants to count them.