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Game of Thrones showrunners ignite debate over whether it’s a TV show or movie

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“A 73-hour movie”

ramsay bolton HBO

If you’ve ever thought Game of Thrones played out as a giant, hours-long movie instead of an eight-season television show, you’d be on the same page as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.

Benioff and Weiss took part in a panel over the weekend at South by Southwest about HBO’s flagship series. Besides confirming that the final season season would only be six episodes and English singer Ed Sheeran would be joining the seventh season, Benioff and Weiss also made a comment about the way they viewed their show. Instead of looking at Game of Thrones as an eight-season television show, the two admitted they always thought of the series as a very, very long movie.

The off-hand comment about working with Game of Thrones like it’s a show instead of a movie caught the attention of fans and critics who scoffed at the idea. To understand why this is an issue, you have to go back a few years. Around the “third golden age” of television, as the era ushering in Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire and other prestige shows is referred to, critics started comparing the shows to movies. One of the most common sentiments was the proverbial, “TV is better than film right now,” which has become a heavily detested phrase.

Still, filmmakers started heading toward television, citing the creative freedom and better stories as a reason to leave the world of Hollywood. Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Steven Soderbergh and others took exclusive contracts with studios like FX, Cinemax and HBO, bringing with them some of the biggest actors and screenwriters. As film became known for producing small, independent movies that no one was seeing and blockbusters that spanned the entire year, the idea became that film was no longer the place for interesting storytelling; TV was.

Entertainment Weekly’s film critic Chris Nashawatay broke down the problem with the “Golden Age of Television” mentality. Nashawaty said the reason people liked the new wave of television they were seeing was because it felt cinematic.

“I watch a bunch of them. But I also look around and I don’t see a lot of Breaking Bads or Mad Men or Sopranos,” Nashawaty wrote. “To me, the closest thing was Netflix’s Bloodline. And what made that show so compelling and addictive (aside from Ben Mendelsohn) is how cinematic it is in both its look and in its storytelling. But there’s the problem: when folks try to explain what they love about a particular show that they’re hooked on, what they inevitably say is how cinematic it is. In other words, how much like a movie it is.”

The debate stirred up again recently following the release of ESPN’s OJ: Made in America. The documentary is almost eight hours long, the same as a mini-series, but critics fought over whether it was a mini-series or a full-length documentary. In her review of the show, Los Angeles Times television critic Mary McNamara said it was, without doubt, a television series — and would probably be the first to win an Oscar.

And though it makes its debut theatrically in the hope of receiving an Oscar nomination, “Made in America” is also clearly built for TV. The five 90-minute episodes fit together seamlessly, making it a plausible film experience. But the ambition of the project requires time of the audience. Not just to watch, but to think; those approaching "Made in America" as just another queasily nostalgic pastiche of facts we already know risk being overwhelmed.

It screened in theaters as a one-sitting experience, but it also played on ESPN as a limited series. The documentary just won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, silencing the debate over its category.

All of which is why Benioff and Weiss’ comments were scorned by critics and fans.

Regardless of whether people think of the series as an episodic television show or a 73-hour movie, Game of Thrones is gearing up for its seventh season. The eighth and final season will air in 2018 and consist of six episodes, nearly half of a regular, 10-episode season.

Game of Thrones’ seventh season will premiere on July 16.