I beg to differ with Marshall Fine‘s “20-minute rule,” which he explained a week ago in a piece inspired by Ramin Bahrani‘s At Any Price. He basically said that if a film hasn’t engaged you within the first 20 minutes, it’s a dead movie that you might as well walk out of if you don’t have to review it. Wrong. It doesn’t take 20 minutes to figure this out — it takes ten. I can actually tell in five but I usually wait ten to be extra-thorough.
It’s the same thing with scripts. Ask anyone who’s ever read for an agency or a studio, and they’ll tell you they always know within ten pages if the script works or not. The agony of script-reading is that you have to read every awful page and then write about the whole magical even if it clearly stinks early on. The agony of being a reviewer-critic is the same. You know it’s not working (or certainly not working all that well) and you have to watch it to the end because its not fair or professional to review a film based on a fragment.
Unless you’re writing a Hollywood Elsewhere-type column in which you can do or say anything you want as long as you honestly cop to where you’re coming from and why. I’ve walked out of many, manu films at the 10- or 20-minute mark, but I’ve never said of something that I know isn’t very good and have therefore bailed on, “I’ve watched this entire film and this is what I think.” I say, “I tried but I couldn’t take it…I just couldn’t stand it.”
“If nothing’s happening after 20 minutes, sorry, I’m out,” Fine wrote. “At this particular point in our cinematic history, there simply isn’t sufficient time to watch all the movies that come my way – so I’ll take an afternoon, say, and sit down with a stack of the screeners that have piled up. They’ve got 20 minutes to grab me. If they do, I’ll either stick with them or come back to them later on and move to the next one.
“At a film festival, it’s the same thing: so many movies, so little time. So if it’s not doing it for me in 20 minutes, I’m on to the next one.”