Straight to video. Direct to cable. Movie of the week. B Movie. Though these terms have faded with changing times, the implications of their quality was always the same. I still often use the term ‘B Movie,’ without considering its origins or the possibility there are other letter designations for subpar filmmaking. There are.
Firstly, this has nothing to do with the MPA rating system nor the animated Seinfeld failure. A B movie is a low-budget commercial production, not an independent film aimed at a select audience. Originally, the term identified films intended for distribution as the less-publicized bottom half of a double feature, akin to the B-sides for recorded music.
After the 1950s, with the emergence of commercial television, B-movie production departments converted to TV movie production divisions, producing the same content for a different medium. B movies often refer to all manner of genre, notably westerns, sci-fi and horror, where audiences were more welcoming to blood, makeup effects and action over high drama and dialogue.
While B movies transitioned away from theaters and into television, they made a huge resurgence in the emerging home video rental and cable markets, and it’s in cable television we find the next tier down from B movie: The C movie.
Low quality filler programming, the C in C movie referenced not only the quality below B but its established home in cable. Mystery Science Theater 3000 helped popularize the love of both C programming and B movies for new audiences by presenting and commenting on low-grade films, primarily sci-fi from the 50s and 60s.
Z movies, Zed movies for my Canadian friends, characterizes low-budget films with quality standards well below most B and C movies. Think Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space, often called ‘the worst film ever made.’ More modern Z movies often focus on violence, gore, and sexual content with a minimum interest in art or message.
With the move to streaming services producing original content, we still see a variety of films being made, making it harder to predict a movie’s quality based on where it airs, but B movies will never go away. As bad as they are, we still love them. As are fine and dandy, but Bs and Cs are good enough for a diploma, and they’re good enough for cinema too.