The 50/50 Rule: How To Watch Movies


I’ve tried to write this essay a million times.  In fact, I was trying to write this essay since before Cody and I even started this site.  I’m still not exactly sure why it’s been so hard, but I think it has something to do with the inherent difficulty in explaining paradoxes—in this case, the paradox of knowing a movie is gonna bad before you’ve even seen it, but also knowing that it could, technically, be good, but also knowing that it will be bad.

Every movie is a product on a shelf.  And the job of the people selling the movie is to try to convince you that it’ll be good.  But they almost always do a terrible job.  It’s not their fault, really.  I mean, how can one capture the depth and complexity of Big in three minutes?  The social security number joke just wouldn’t play in the context of a trailer.  So the powers that be are forced to not only tell you the premise, but also give you some universally funny moments that entice you to see it.  This is why the least funny scenes are in the trailer, and why stupid people laugh at these scenes like Pavlov’s dogs.

The other problem is that most movies are bad, thus making it much harder for the powers that be to make them appear good.  So, with all of this in mind, it’s only fair to assume every movie will be bad before seeing it.  But therein lies a problem: you really can’t know it’s bad until you see it.  It could be good.  It’s like reasonable doubt in a jury case: the movie is innocent until proven guilty, and all movies are created equal, from the new Godard art house shit to Alvin and the Chipmunks 2: The Squeakquel.

This little truth means that everything before you hit the play button should be null and void.  All of your preconceptions and biases must be thrown out the window.  You set your meter to zero, so to speak.  And the once you press play, the needle starts moving.

Imagine a meter calibrated to zero (your neutral starting point) and to the right, the numbers go all the way up to 50 (which would represent the best movie ever made) and to the left they go down to -50 (representing the worst).  The needle moves one point, positively or negatively, every second the movie is on, based on what’s happening on screen and whether it’s awesome or terrible, and by 50 seconds, you’re done.  You should know how bad or good the move is, and whether it’s worth keeping on watching, by the first 50 seconds.  (By the way, I came up with this 50/50 rule while bored while watching the movie 50/50, a movie with a -35 rating on my 50/50 scale.)

Because I’m a generous guy, I don’t generally turn movies off after 50 seconds, but instead, around the 3-8 minute mark (or if I’m torturing my girlfriend, the 30 min. mark). But that’s just because when they’re bad I like to test my stamina and make a joke or two.  The 50/50 rule, in its purest form, does work though, and works for two very distinct reasons.  One is that the best movies ever made are wholly good, with no bad points (that’s what makes them the best).  And since they are the best, they start with a THIS MOVIE IS GOING TO BE FUCKING AWESOME factor.  My two favorite examples are Back to the Future and Star Wars.  Back to the Future opens with the sound of a ticking clock over black.  A sparkly accent of music highlights the opening fade-in of the title “Steven Spielberg presents” and then the big, colorful, and fun looking Back to the Future title moves on screen and is washed over with light.  Then, the opening shot: a gloriously intimate and meticulous long take that gives you tons of information in a very unique and cool way.  And fuck man, it’s awesome.  I’m in.  Now the onus is on the filmmakers to not lose me.  (And of course, they don’t.)

Now think of Star Wars.  That prologue looks awesome, but then we’re in the blackness of space and the camera tilts down and settles into a beautiful composition.  The music ramps and we see a little spaceship enter frame.  But wait, a giant fucking crazy spaceship flies overhead as if to say ‘Fuck you, you thought that was the ship!  Ha!  I’m a movie with fucking balls, and you aren’t even ready for me.’

Compare this to the opening of a movie like The Master or Wendy and Lucy—boring shots of water or a car driving or something.  Yup.

The second reason (and this is the most important one) is that a movie’s DNA is contained in its first scene, and really, in its first shot, because movies succeed or fail based on their tone, and tone is established immediately.  Said tone is purported in the lighting, color, framing, performance, sound, music, etcetera, of the first shot.  If the movie drops you into a diner with a harsh cut and lots of room tone and in the middle of an ongoing conversation, you’re in the hands of an angular filmmaker who wants to get your attention, and he’s not afraid to have your attention, because he knows he can sustain it on flash alone (can you guess the movie in talking about!?).  When your movie opens with a girl putting on makeup, you know you’re in the hands of someone who insists that you follow them while they show you their collection of ‘pretty’ (but actually boring) shots.  And yes, I know what you’re thinking, what about From Dusk Till Dawn!?!?!?!?  Well, yes, the plot changes, but the tone never does.

Everybody has this absurd notion that you don’t experience a movie if you don’t finish it.  But that goes against all common sense.  If you bite into a piece of stale bread, you don’t finish it.  And if you see the corner of a Jackson Pollock painting, or hear the first verse of a Fun song, you know they suck too.  Why have movies been awarded this unique false respect that they should be finished in order to be understood?  If you can’t understand what the movie ‘is’ in the first few minutes, than you probably don’t understand how movies work.  There aren’t very many types of stories, maybe about ten in total (they’re all laid out beautifully in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat) and if you haven’t already seen dozens, if not hundreds, of each story type, then you probably haven’t seen that many movies.

By virtue of watching movies, you have also built up your own personal taste, and you can tell in the first few minutes if a movie adheres to it.  Field of Dreams adheres to mine.  The Bourne Supremacy doesn’t, so I turn it off.  There’s nothing of value to be gained from that really cool scene I missed at the end when blah blah blah happens, because there’s a bunch of equally great scenes in a bunch of movies I actually like.  What’s the point of watching a crappy movie out of the small hope that something kind of neat happens at minute 42 or whatever?

One more point: a lot of decent stories are ruined by crappy style, or vice versa.  There’s nothing too interesting or profound about the story of The Godfather; its classy, polished style is what makes it a ‘classic’.  The Bourne movies could have been good, but their style makes them bad.  Suspension of disbelief lets us be okay with the absurdity of some time-traveling teens in a phone booth or a fake-looking computer-generated earth, but that suspension is created by the style.  And if the style is bad, why waste your time?

Ultimately, I don’t care what you do with your time.  By all means, finish all the movies you’d like.  But don’t get on my case for having the common sense to turn them off.  Because, let’s remember folks, this isn’t the cancer cure we’re talking about.  We’re talking about looking at art.  Why waste time looking at art that you don’t like?  Maybe you’re just a masochist completist who likes to sit through stuff that sucks for literally no reason.  Or, you’re my dad, who arbitrarily ‘has to know how it ends’.  (But even he couldn’t finish The Dark Knight Rises.)

27 thoughts on “The 50/50 Rule: How To Watch Movies”

  1. Your reviews are way too wordy. Also, you’re a critic of movies when your movie looks like chaotic garbage.

        1. thanks for the heads up. my comment was directed at the person complaining that your reviews were too long, so I noted that this wasn’t even a review and their complaint was irrelevant.

    1. How many words, in a text-based review, is too many words exactly? Have you considered that you don’t ‘get’ how written reviews work?

      Also, while we’re at it, how fair is it to review an unfinished film based on a short teaser-trailer released on the web? Have you considered that you don’t ‘get’ film criticism, movie trailers, or I don’t know, movies?

    2. I’m not going to lie, that stung a little. But, Hectic Knife is not for everyone. As for the wordy thing, this is nothin man, my Brian de Palma thing is a billion words.

    1. The way Greg is describing tone here, he’s talking about what I would term ‘vibe’. The Tarantino/Rodriguez vibe is established pretty clearly in that first scene, and doesn’t disappear as the film goes on. Tarantino and Rodriguez have a very specific, cult-y taste, and they catch tons of movies in a huge net and draw from them, whether they be spaghetti westerns or 80’s horror or action or whatever. They see all those movies as roughly the same kinda thing, because their favorite aspects of all these movies are similar. (And until Grindhouse, they didn’t really have a name for it.)

      That cult-y, Grindhouse tone is established in the first scene for sure, and though the genres may shift over the course of the film, it’s all coming from the same well, so the ‘tone’ stays the same.

      1. I think the vibe changes quite a bit aswell over the course of the movie, but to me that’s kind of why the movie’s fun, because it comes completely out of left field. See also: The World’s End, which has a very clear ‘oh shit what?!!’ moment where it all shifts. Both movies remain written the same way across their respective shifts, but I swear the pacing and cutting of each film does distinctively change. That’s part of their charm for me, at least.

        1. I must say, I feel that the 2 of them, other than being fans of cult films, share very little in common. The comic scenes with Bruce Willia cutting off balls in Planet Terror is completely different than some of the lame wordy stabs at humor that Death Proof focuses on. I feel that From Dysk Till Dawn is like a dry run for Grindhouse, except this time it’s the Tarantino picture that opens the program and once Tom Savini comes in with a gun on his dick, it switched to the Rodriquez picture.

          That being said, I do think they work well together, but I could never see Tarantino making Spy Kids or the Faculty and Rodriquez would never make Reservoir Dogs or Jackie Beown.

          1. I agree, Rodriquez would never make a movie called Jackie Beown! Kidding! But, Ned I totally agree, although I still don’t think there is that much of a tonal shift in Dusk Till Dawn.

  2. So glad you got around to writing this super-insightful essay, Greg. All of it is summed up beautifully, I feel, when you mention ‘looking at art’.

  3. I’m stunned by the vapidity of this argument. You completely disallow for the fact that certain movies build to something. Does THE MASTER open with a shot of water? Sure, but that image becomes greatly symbolic as the film goes on. Of course, you’d never know that if you shut it off, so your argument that the movie is bad holds no weight. How would you feel if a reader only read six words of your piece and declared that it sucked because the opening wasn’t a “grabber” (which, in truth, it wasn’t)? Sorry, man, but this is a weak, weak, weak claim you’re making here.

    1. Greg makes the point in the essay that everyone has their own specific taste that evolves as they watch tons of movies over many years, and at a certain point you can tell really early on in watching a movie whether or not it’s something you’d like. He can tell from the opening scenes that The Master and Wendy and Lucy that they aren’t something he’d like. That’s not a slight against them as movies—he’s just giving examples of types of movies he has no interest in.

      Of course, if someone has a very wide taste when it comes to film, it might take longer. But there is a point for most people, when watching a film, where they know if it’s something they even like or not, and want to stick with. Maybe it’s 5 minutes, 15 minutes, halfway through, who knows.

    2. Whatever it’s symbolic of matters not if the symbol is boring. If I showed you a movie I made and the few minutes was paint drying but I kept saying ”no, just wait, it means something later!” I’d be showing you a piece of junk. When movies open like that I can hear the directors telling me to wait and that’s rude. It implies that they think whatever they’re doing is so important that we all have to just wait for them to reveal how amazing it is. Real, advanced filmmakers want their audiences to be engaged at all times and they utilize the tools of cinema to do so. Anyone can just throw some pretty pictures on screen and call it symbolism.

  4. How does he know he won’t like it if he doesn’t watch it? Just think of all the great movies he’s missed out on because he didn’t give them enough of a chance. Sometimes a movie surprises you, only revealing its power as it goes on. I guess it’s just the dismissive attitude that gets me. I’ve read one or two other pieces he wrote, and he genuinely seems to hate movies. A piece like this kind of proves that. It’s almost as though he’s looking for reasons not to watch them.

    1. He loves movies, he just dislikes most of them. He has a very narrow and specific taste, but he’s extremely reliable when it comes to the specific stuff he does like. For instance, he has a near-encyclopedic knowledge of American documentary film, and pretty much every documentary he’s ever recommended me has been not just good, but phenomenal. Stone Reader, Audience of One, Slasher, the list goes on. He’s less a philistine and more a connoisseur with his laser sight focused in one very specific spot. Think of him like a wine expert who hates all other alcoholic drinks.

    2. Hey guys, I’m right here. I don’t know if a few pieces on a website is very strong ”proof” that I hate movies. You also may have missed the myriad of essays where I champion movies that I love. What people also seem to forget is that you can think a movie sucks and still like the idea of it. I think it’s neat that The Master exists, I’m just ok admitting that it sucks and don’t need to pretend it’s good for any reason (and I saw the whole thing!)

      The reason I don’t need to see an entire movie to know if I don’t like it is because I’ve seen so many and understand how they work so intimately. My critical faculties have been buttressed with thousands upon thousands of hours of watching all kinds of movies from all genres and eras. When one does this the only logical conclusion to be had is that about 98% of them are terrible.

      That’s not just true of movies it’s true of any art form, 99% of all art sucks. It’s because so much of it is made. There are quite literally billions upon billions of pieces of art, from your neighbors garage band to the NHL game between the Sharks and Blues in 1997. The pool is over-saturated and the transcendent pieces are gems in the rough.

      If you bite into a cheeseburger and it tastes terrible do you have to finish it to know it tastes bad?

      1. See, you’ve just proven my point. If you *really* understood “how they work intimately,” you’d know that films don’t all have to be just one thing. In other words, the power of some movies comes specifically from giving you a lull as a lead-in to something else. That sort of contrast can have an enormous impact. It seems as though you only want one kind of movie, the kind that hits you immediately and never stops hitting you. That suggests a lack of understanding of one of the most important tools in cinema: moderation of tone.

        Let me add that I am not trying to troll you here. I’m genuinely interested (if admittedly a bit perplexed) by your approach. I say these things only in the name of respectful debate/discussion, and I appreciate your response.

        1. Same here, Eileen. I would agree with you although I think you’re thinking that I’m saying the opening scene of a movie should be really exciting or crazy or something. People’s attention can be grabbed very simply. I mean, the opening scene of Big is a kid playing a video game.

          I do only like one kind of movie, but that kind spans many many genres and types etc etc. The only thing similar about The Blair Witch Project, SLC Lunk, Tremors and Field of Dreams is that they are on my favorites list. They are all on that list because they are well told stories. And when I say well told I mean well told cinematically.

          There’s a good way to tell a story verbally, in text or on film, the examples above have all found the most advanced and interesting ways to utilize the art of movie making to tell stories.

          Field of Dreams has a very very soft opening, but it’s the right opening and it doesn’t insist I wait for something interesting to happen later. Your story should build on itself and get better as it goes, that’s good storytelling, BUT it can’t be boring while it’s doing that.

  5. Well, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on the finer points of this subject, but I appreciate your honesty and openness in discussing this with me, and I wish you the best.

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