Watching a movie once required a significant investment of time. You had to page through the newspapers to find the ads, decide what you wanted to see, look at showtimes until you found one that worked with your schedule, travel to the theater, buy a ticket and travel home afterwards. Today, just sitting here in my living room I can watch thousands of films with the click of a button over the Internet, or for that matter can reach out and grab any of the hundreds of DVDs on my bookshelf.
It’s therefore incredibly easy to switch away from one movie you are not enjoying to a different choice. This simply wasn’t possible in the old days. If you didn’t like how a movie was going you would probably sit through it anyway because of sunk costs (travel time, ticket purchase) and because the alternative film might be a week away. Even if you were watching the movie on television, there were not that many channels then and there probably wasn’t much else to switch to.
In the days when you were more or less stuck with one movie to watch, it was easier for movies to overcome really bad openings. Poseidon Adventure was a smash hit at the box office, but its opening 20 minutes are almost comically dreadful. The film opens on a doomed ship, with each key character getting serial ham-handed introductions of their stereotypical back story. The Simpsons parodied the opening moments of the film thus:
Marge: What a fascinating cross-section of humanity. You got the lonely, but lovable loser…
Jeff (sitting with dolls of Charlie’s Angels): Hello, Angels. Your mission today involves going undercover at a wet t-shirt contest. (pours his water over the dolls) Just get you wet… (grins)
Marge: Maybe not so lovable.
Lisa: And you got the elderly Jewish couple making their first trip to Israel.
Wife of Old Jewish Man: Our son Shlomo is working on a kibbutz in Haifa. We’re schleppin’ him some kreplach.
Old Jewish Man: We’re Jewish all right.
This dreadful narrative “technique” is accompanied by painfully wooden acting. In particularly, Leslie Nielsen, as the Serious, Strong-Jawed Ocean Liner Captain with Integrity, seems to be parodying himself as he later would do so well in The Naked Gun…but his part here is putatively dramatic rather than comic.
And yet, about 20 minutes into this torment, the boat flips over and the movie becomes one heck of a good time as the survivors try to travel its length and escape. There are good special effects, exciting action scenes, some suspense and some hard to forget visuals of upside down kitchens, bathrooms etc.
It would be hard to persuade a modern viewer to sit through those first 20 minutes when there are a thousand other film choices a touch of the button away. Now, of course there is nothing wrong with film makers not making a bad opening 20 minutes, but what about films that take some time to develop but are more rewarding as a result, such as Vertigo? Would a film maker be as likely today to risk telling a story that was initially confusing (e.g., The Long Good Friday), or challenging, or leisurely in pace?
Directors and producers want their films to be watched and watched in their entirety for artistic and commercial reasons. In an age of so much choice they must feel more pressure to put more action/sex/plot twists in early so that people don’t flip around to another cable channel or Internet streaming site. They must also feel some pressure to be ingratiating rather than challenging to their audience.
I’d be curious to hear the perceptions of people who have been watching movies for a long time whether they perceive any trend toward “front-loaded” narrative structure in movies as film makers compete ever more intensely for viewers with countless other easily accessed options.