Commentary: Why our expectations of a movie — good or bad — can play into what we think of it
Moviegoing is always a game of managing expectations.
Low expectations? Perhaps you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Too high, and you risk disappointment.
That becomes even higher stakes when you’re in the business of watching and evaluating films as a critic where what we say — like it or not — becomes part of the expectation game (Be honest, how many times have you come out of a movie theater and said, what moronic critic liked that movie?). Critics are like first responders and some of those movies are, let’s face it, DOA.
As would-be summer blockbusters like “Baywatch,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” and “Transformers: The Last Knight” have withered under the heat of dismal Rotten Tomatoes scores, Hollywood studio execs are increasingly prone to cancel pre-release critics screenings of their biggest and baddest blockbusters, to save their opening weekend box office (before word gets out that the movie’s terrible).
Better to have no review the day a movie opens — usually Friday — than a bad one, according to the studio’s calculus. But that’s a gamble too — the label of “not screening for critics” can act as a giant scarlet letter for those films. Most writers and critics will assume the movie is a stinker, and often, it is. See: “Independence Day: Resurgence,” which tanked at the box office despite not screening for critics.
But those films that don’t offer press screenings still get the review treatment at major publications. Every critic at some point has purchased a ticket for a late night Thursday or Friday morning public showing of a film at the theater to file a quick hit review on Friday.
As a critic, my expectations for these films are usually beyond low, but my curiosity is piqued. What could be so ghastly that it had to be hidden from critics, the people who have seen everything — good, bad and ugly? I wish I could say that I’ve been proved wrong about the quality of some of these films but that’s generally not the case. What I’ve found is that there’s usually very good reason that these films don’t screen for critics.
A few of the films I’ve taken opening-night duty on include Kevin Spacey’s talking cat movie, “Nine Lives.” An older man sat in the same back row I did, but left about 15 minutes into the movie. Alas, I could not, as much as I would have liked. Another film I caught on a Friday morning was the horror movie “The Disappointments Room,” which lived up to its title.
Seeing the Will Ferrell/Amy Poehler R-rated comedy “The House” at the ArcLight Hollywood a few weeks ago offered some food for thought on this issue. The audience at a 9:30 p.m. Thursday showing for the film was sparse but enthusiastic. Everyone there had paid $17 a ticket (including myself), plus drinks and snacks, to enjoy a night out and have a good time.
The couple behind me laughed raucously, the couple next to me perused Yelp on their phones, I scribbled notes. Seeing the film with a regular audience offered a sense of perspective, but ultimately, I had to evaluate the film through my own lens and make my own call: The movie was horrible.
The environment of a public screening offers a far different experience from a “courtesy screening” publicists might schedule on Thursday night or Friday morning, where the only difference is that we don’t have to buy a ticket at the multiplex — however I’m not sure it’s a better option. One memorable courtesy screening was an absolutely dire 90 minutes sitting through “Dirty Grandpa” —only two other critics were in the screening room, and not a single laugh, chuckle or giggle was emitted by anyone.
Sometimes, studios and publicists attempt to stall the inevitable green splat of death on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer and avoid the “not screening for critics” label by scheduling press screenings late in the week of the opening, and enforcing restrictive embargoes on reviews and social media reactions. The “Wednesday screening” often leads to lowered expectations of a film.
But lowered expectations can be a good thing: If you go in expecting very little, there’s the opportunity to be charmed, as I was, with the rom-com “How to Be Single,” which smartly upended the tropes of its own genre. I also enjoyed a promo screening filled with teenage girls for the tenderly felt young adult romance “Everything, Everything.” I even thrilled to the big, dumb, gasoline-powered Vin Diesel vehicle “xXx: Return of Xander Cage,” a movie that’s so ridiculous that it’s a blast to watch.
The expectation problem cuts both ways: Overblown expectations and films that don’t live up to the hyperbolic word-of-mouth can be even more of a disappointment for audiences. A few years ago I read glowing reviews of “Boyhood” out of Sundance and from top national critics, so a friend and I headed to the theater at soon as it was released. After an hour and a half, he whispered, “Let’s leave and get dinner.” Nevertheless, as a responsible cinephile, I persisted, and by the end of the three-hour endeavor, I wished I had real rotten tomatoes to toss at the screen.
With sky-high expectations, there’s further to fall if you don’t like a film everyone else does, and I don’t think I’m alone in the feeling that my disappointment is coupled with a desire to puncture the hype bubble. These days, films going through the awards season journey have to make it through cycles of anticipation, hype, backlash, backlash to the backlash (witness the rocky road that “La La Land” had to traverse to make it to Oscar night), and just hope that positive buzz outweighs the negative by the time ballots are filled out.
That hype-backlash cycle doesn’t always end with the best picture statuette either. The intimate indie “Moonlight” ultimately earned the prize on Oscar night, but it’s a far different film from many of the grandiose epics that have taken the title. And many of the first reviews of “Moonlight,” quoted in the first trailer for the film, were so toweringly over-the-top, they often seemed out of step with the small, yet stirring film.
Critics and fans are always going to have to manage expectations for a film. But ultimately, when studios drive a wedge between the two groups, claiming certain blockbusters are for “fans, not critics,” it’s drawing a divide that shouldn’t exist. Ultimately, critics are fans. We want to like movies and we want them to be good. Just think of us as your helpful neighborhood expectation managers. We’re not always going to get it right for everyone, but we’re doing our best to manage our expectations and help you manage yours.
Katie Walsh is a Los Angeles-based writer and film critic, reviewing films for the Los Angeles Times and Tribune News Service.
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