What I learned from watching the first 10 minutes of 500 movies

This is worthwhile reading, especially if you’ve ever entered a TV or film writing contest like the SPEC SCRIPTACULAR and wondered what the judges were thinking as they scrolled down your words. (And this article isn’t even about writing contests!)

Design by Nick Wanserski

by Mike D’Angelo

Film critics watch a lot of movies, but we can’t watch everything. With approximately seven weeks left in 2015, I’ve seen (as of the day I’m writing this) 204 features that have been commercially released this year. That’s kind of a staggering number, but it’s less than a quarter of the truly staggering 857 features that have played at least a week-long run in New York City since January 1. When I vote in various year-end polls, I’m always acutely aware of the likelihood that I’ve missed something I’d have loved, even though I make a point of seeking out every film that gets strong reviews. There’s just not enough time to sit through it all.
A few years ago, I started making an effort to give some of the also-rans a chance, by watching as many of them as is feasible (once they’re viewable at home) in what I call sampling mode. Basically, I give the movie 10 minutes to grab my attention. Most of them fail, and get turned off at that point. If I’m still interested, though, I’ll watch for another 10 minutes. There are two more potential bail-out points at 0:30 and 0:40; if I still want to keep going after 40 minutes, I commit to watching the entire film, even if it turns awful later.

Since 2012, I’ve sampled just over 500 films in this manner. That amounts to roughly 6,150 minutes, not including the 36 films I wound up watching all the way to the end. Here’s what I’ve learned from spending an accumulated four full days of my life, so far, receiving an intensive education in how movies begin.

• 10 minutes is more than enough to identify mediocrity.

People who read screenplays professionally often say that the vast majority of scripts are dead in the water by page 10. Completed films are no different. It’s not that most of them are terrible right off the bat, by any means—it’s just that most offer no compelling reason to stick around. In many cases, it’s clear that the movie is on autopilot within the first two or three minutes. Characters are indistinct, dialogue is functional, shots are banal. The plot, if there is one, usually hasn’t kicked in yet by the 10-minute mark, but that doesn’t matter. When a movie is firing on all cylinders, waiting to see where it’s headed is a pleasure. Its opening minutes should extend an invitation. Too often, all they do is serve up bland exposition.

Granted, there are exceptions. One of my favorite films of the past 15 years, the Georgian drama Late Marriage (2001), starts off so tediously that I nearly bailed on it at the festival where I initially saw it, and doesn’t really get going until about half an hour in. But those cases are rare enough to be worth ignoring. As a rule, if the film doesn’t grab your attention right away, it’s never gonna. Feel free to move on.

• Likewise, creativity tends to manifest itself immediately.

The first movie I saw from start to finish via this project was Lockout (or Space Jail,as my friends and I all call it, because we can never remember the actual title). Its first scene is a close-up of Guy Pearce being interrogated by an offscreen thug; he spits out sarcastic answers to every question and gets punched so hard each time that his head is knocked out of the frame, leaving an available space for one of the opening credits. That’s inventive enough that I already felt confident I’d found something special, and while Lockout isn’t remotely a masterpiece, it did prove to be more than entertaining enough to stick with to the end.

That’s entirely typical. Because most sampled films get turned off after 10 minutes, I tend to watch them right before I go to bed, the way that I used to read a few pages of a book back in the Dark Ages, when watching something in bed required a TV in the bedroom. Once in a while, though, I stop a film after just a couple of minutes—not because it’s putting me to sleep, but because I’m already enjoying it so much that I know I’ll likely continue, so I’m better off saving it for when I’m fully awake. Sometimes these go south a bit later on and get abandoned anyway, but most of the movies I’ve finished in sampling mode were immediately compelling. That’s true even when there’s no narrative to speak of, as with Tim Sutton’s rambling, lyricalMemphis. A few starkly beautiful images were enough to fuel me….

Read it all at AV Club