Film Critics and ‘The 20-Minute Rule’

Film Critics and 'The 20-Minute Rule'
Film Critics and 'The 20-Minute Rule'

If you’re waiting for film critic Marshall Fine’s review of Ramin Bahrani’s “At Any Price,” you’re going to be waiting for a long time because it’s not coming. Fine saw the movie at the Toronto Film Festival last fall and walked out — when it violated what he calls “The 20-Minute Rule:”

“It basically says that a movie that hasn’t hooked me in the first 20 minutes probably isn’t going to. I tend to apply it most forcefully when I’m watching films at festivals or when I’m sorting through DVD (or online) screeners at home. If nothing’s happening after 20 minutes, sorry, I’m out.”

“At this particular point in our cinematic history,” Fine adds, “there isn’t sufficient time to watch all the movies that come my way,” so they’ve got 20 minutes to grab him before he pulls the ripcord. In the case of “At Any Price,” which current has a B- average from 33 critics in our Criticwire Network, Fine says he sampled (despite not drinking the Kool-Aid over Bahrani’s previous work, “Goodbye Solo”) and didn’t care for it. “After 20 minutes of the kind of obvious melodrama that Bahrani seemed to be dishing up,” he writes, “I’d had enough and walked out. You’ll undoubtedly read rapturous reviews of this film when it opens Friday; large grains of salt are encouraged.”

Back when I was in college, I had to take a class on cultural appreciation. I don’t remember the exact title of the course, but it was a small seminar of about fifteen people and each week we attended a different kind of performance and wrote about it. One week we went to the opera, the next the symphony, the next a musical, the last a film. The class was an absolute gimme. There was absolutely no way to fail — except one, by violating the professor’s one rule. “To review something, you first have to watch something,” he told us. “You can’t leave, you can’t quit. If you walk out, you can’t write about it.”

Granted, Fine does say in his post that you “can’t really review a movie you haven’t seen all the way through” — although the paragraph describing and dismissing “At Any Price” amounts to about 125 words, which is the length of a capsule review in many print publications these days (I suppose that’s where his use of the word “really” between “can’t” and “review” comes in). So you should probably take his mini-non-review with large grains of salt as well.

But let’s consider the larger issue: The 20-Minute Rule as it relates to film viewership, not just film criticism. Is 20 minutes enough time to consider a movie fully? When this topic came up, Roger Ebert often cited “Brotman’s Law,” named after Chicago movie exhibitor Oscar Brotman, which declared that “If nothing has happened by the end of the first reel, nothing is going to happen.” A reel of film is 1,000 feet, about ten minutes when projected, but most movies are projected two reels at a time, which means “the first reel” is about 20 minutes — hence, another variation on The 20-Minute Rule.

As a critic or as a paying customer, I have never in my life walked out of a movie in a theater. If I’m there for work,  it’s my job to endure the whole thing no matter how bad it gets. And if I paid my money, I want my money’s worth — even if my money’s worth is of time-wasting horror. That said, I’d be lying if I pretended that Netflix, Hulu and other streaming services haven’t made me much quicker to bail on a bad movie at home.

Back when you used to have to go to the video store to rent stuff, if you picked out a stinker, you were kind of stuck with it. If you turned it off, you’d wasted your money for nothing (and, as we’ve established, I’m getting my money’s worth come hell or high Uwe Boll movie). But on Netflix I don’t even abide by The 20-Minute Rule; I’ve turned things off after five minutes if there’s nothing to catch my attention. With literally thousands of titles at your fingertips at all time, why subject yourself to something terrible? 

Where I get a little uncomfortable is the idea of making the 20-Minute Rule a hard-and-fast rule — as if you’re sitting there watching a movie with a mental stopwatch, thinking to you yourself “Nope, not digging this, how much time? Eight minutes, okay, I’ll try a few more scenes. Eh, that line was kinda funny, how good was it? Good enough to keep going? How much time now? Eleven minutes. All right, almost there.” I can’t imagine too many things more distracting than putting an arbitrary time limit on every single movie you watch and then monitoring it carefully. Focusing on a movie’s runtime means you’re not focusing on the movie. At that point it becomes The 20-Minute Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. 

Note that Brotman’s Law only states that if nothing happens after the first reel, nothing is going to happen. It doesn’t stipulate whether the viewer should give up or leave, or set an alarm to let them know when those 20 minutes have elapsed. Some movies do take longer to get started and pay off than others; I imagine if we instituted a rigid 20-Minute Rule in every movie theater in the world, nobody would have seen all of “Meek’s Cutoff” or “Le Quattro Volte,” to name two recent examples. And those were both superb films, worth seeing at any price — of money or time.

Read more of “The 20-Minute Rule.”

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