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Film Critics and 'The 20-Minute Rule'

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by Matt Singer
April 29, 2013 12:44 PM
11 Comments
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"At Any Price."
"At Any Price."

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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More: Marshall Fine, From the Wire

11 Comments

  • Filming AV Seminarer | May 10, 2013 1:42 AMReply

    More and more people are realizing the benefits of getting filmed and published their seminars online. I tend to apply it most forcefully when I’m watching films at festivals or when I’m sorting through online screeners at home.

  • 24FPS | May 1, 2013 1:17 PMReply

    What on earth is happening here? This "20-minute rule" would have decimated Midnight Cowboy, Field of Dreams, Alphaville, Solaris and possibly 2001: A Space Odyssey. How about a "45-minute rule" if you must have one at all?

  • Scott Beggs | May 1, 2013 12:07 PMReply

    As a fan, this feels like far, far too much thought has gone into leaving a bad movie.

    As a critic, I hate the idea that colleagues are possibly walking out on movies and still reviewing them. Offering up your qualitative thoughts when you can't answer, "Did you like that thing that happened in Act 2?" is irritating. I know it happens, too, and it's always disappointing. Probably on par with watching a colleague sleep through an entire screening and see their review posted up the following day...

  • Dean Treadway | April 30, 2013 11:48 AMReply

    As a former film festival programmer, I charged myself yearly with watching over 1500 film entries. My rule there, in order to get through them all, was not really based on time, but on quality. My number one flag for dismissing a film was the quality of its acting; nothing--absolutely nothing--can save a film from that negative. The second flag was the editing; I could tell within thirty seconds if the film was going to be any good by how long the filmmakers held on a shot. If the shots seemed padded out (as many first time filmmakers tend to do), then I was already almost out the door, because I could feel my brain turning to molasses. As a film reviewer (who's rarely been paid), if I walk out of a movie, I simply do not review it. But I have absolutely no compunction about walking out on or turning off a movie if it is seeming like junk to me. I don't like watching bad stuff, and I will not do it, and no amount of money you could ever pay me could ever make me do it, much less WRITE about said junk. And this is why I'm glad I'm not getting paid.

  • Bill Thompson | April 30, 2013 11:24 AMReply

    I've never walked out of a movie, and I don't ever intend to walk out of a movie. I'll be frank, I find the 20 minute rule, or any such rule that arbitrarily stunts art based on a time limit, asinine. A film is meant to be taken as a whole, and walking out of a film does a disservice to all the artists who put in a lot of work to make the film you are watching happen. If we want the theater audience to respect the films they are seeing (ie; cell phone usage, talking, etc.) then the professional film watchers should show the utmost respect by actually watching the entirety of the movie.

    I think the professional aspect is what bothers me most. I don't agree with someone walking out of a movie when all they are doing is watching a movie for pleasure. But, when you are a paid critic, or even someone who wants their voice to be held at a critical level, then there's no reason to walk out of something you have made your job/career/artistic calling in life.

  • Scott Mendelson | April 29, 2013 2:10 PMReply

    With one unfortunate exception, I have never walked out of a movie and I have rarely stopped watching a film if I start it. It just seems like even more of a waste of time to only half-watch a movie even if it's terrible. By not seeing it through, you have nothing of worth to discuss or share about the movie because you didn't see the whole thing. The one exception was two years ago, when I cajoled my daughter to see an afternoon 2D matinee of Gnomeo and Juliet. She was on day-two of a 'sick day' (her school has a 48 hour rule, she was fine by the middle of day one) and I thought seeing a cartoon would be an easy time killer. A harsher critic than even I, she was so disinterested and bored than she demanded to leave about 50 minutes in. Somewhat embarrassed, I obliged. The only time I almost walked out of a movie was the same period, during Dylan Dog: Dead of Night. I was oh so bored but wanted to see it through on principle, so I did the unthinkable... I moved to the very back of the theater (so as to not disrupt the few people also in attendance) and pulled out my phone and started putzing around on it while I half-paid attention to the film. I couldn't walk out, but I couldn't make it without the token distraction of free cell and Twitter. My secret shame...

  • Katy Kern | April 29, 2013 1:46 PMReply

    I can't say I've never walked out of film because last Friday I did. However, I walked out of it because one of the patrons was hacking up a lung for nearly the entire movie and I couldn't concentrate. The film was MUD. I will go back and see it as I was interested.

    As far as reviewing films, not finish watching the films and reviews, my rule is if I don't really like it, I don't usually end up writing a review. But I do sit through them all (except like Matt - I turned off a Netflix viewing from time to time.). Also, I have written reviews about films I didn't like but it is not my general rule to do so. But walking out of film after 20 minutes seems a bit snobbish to me.

    I screened KILLING THEM SOFTLY and thought is was a sort of blah film until the last two minutes and then it all made sense. And I ended up enjoying it. It wasn't a fantastic film, but I understood it better, and enjoyed it more, because of the ending.

    Would an art critic look at a piece of art for one minute and say, "I don't like it!" and walk away? Or should that critic look at the piece, really look at on the whole, focus on the small details, step back to see the whole picture and then come to a conclusion? They can still not like it but not giving the artist (filmmakers) a chance, especially if it is their job, is a cop-out, in my opinion.

  • Miles Maker | April 29, 2013 1:41 PMReply

    I don't check my watch first, but if I find my mind's wandering anyway or I'm discontent or aggravated enough to have thoughts of abandoning the film, I'll see how far along I am and consider giving it a bit more time before writing a 'bad' movie off. This may bring me to 20 minutes or beyond 30 minutes in some cases, but by that time I'm convinced whether or not my vested interest has already been wasted and I'm quite certain I'll spare myself even more regret.

    When you've scene enough movies from enough storytellers on enough screens, you're qualified to know when enough is enough. This applies to audiences in general--not just critics.

  • Tony Dayoub | April 29, 2013 1:30 PMReply

    I'm glad I never applied such a rule to Friedkin's TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. because that movie is all about the final act. It's one of my all-time favorites now.

  • Brandon | April 29, 2013 1:28 PMReply

    "Number of times I checked my watch: 5"

  • David | April 29, 2013 1:18 PMReply

    Considering for most short films, the "rule" amounts to about 30 seconds to a minute, I'd say 20 minutes is generous -- it's largely the first act of a script. If there's no setup, momentum or conflicts laid out, most folks are gone (unless you're a rabid Malick fan).

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