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The 10 Minute Test: How Quickly Can You Tell a Movie’s No Good?

The 10 Minute Test: How Quickly Can You Tell a Movie's No Good?

Critic Mike D’Angelo is famous — or, for some, infamous — for his liberal walkout policy. According to the detailed viewing log he keeps at his site, The Man Who Viewed Too Much, he’s pulled the ripcord on 58 movies thus far in 2015, not counting the one he left early because someone had broken into his house. In an essay at the A.V. Club entitled “What I learned from watching the first 10 minutes of 500 movies,” D’Angelo says he’s spent the last four years in what he calls “sampling mode,” with just 36 of the films he took that initial chance on meriting a complete viewing. (The first such pleasant surprise? “Lockout,” affectionately known as “Space Jail.”)

“People who read screenplays professionally often say that the vast majority of scripts are dead in the water by page 10,” D’Angelo writes. “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.

Read more: “Why I Walked Out of ‘The Monuments Men'”

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.

Except at film festivals, where the siren song of a better film in an adjoining is always calling, I’m more of an “In for a penny, in for a pound” viewer than D’Angelo: Even if a movie’s bad, I want to find the scene or the moment that will perfectly encapsulate its badness. But if a good movie doesn’t always reveal itself to you in the first 10 minutes (or 20, which is my preferred minimum), bad ones almost always do: You may not be able to tell if a movie is great at that point, but you can tell if the people who made it have absolutely no idea what they’re doing. There are bad movies that start well, but no (or vanishingly view) great ones that start poorly.

No filmmaker wants to hear that a critic didn’t watch their film in full, and it’s important to note that these are movies D’Angelo is sampling for his own edification, and not for formal review. (The theatre critic Walter Kerr may have quipped “You don’t have to eat the whole apple to know it’s rotten,” but if you’re going to trash someone’s work, you at least owe them two hours of your time.) Back in 2014, Criticwire polled critics on their walkout policy, and most agreed that while it’s permissible, it’s, as the Guadian’s Jordan Hoffman put it, “the nuclear option.” But with so many movies to choose from — not to mention the ever-growing number of TV shows making demands on the engaged viewer’s time — you’re effectively attending a virtual film festival every time you sit down on your couch. Why throw good time after bad?

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