The 20-minute rule

April 23, 2013

Over the years, I’ve developed what I refer to as 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. As I’ve noted, 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.

I can hear the gasps, but be honest: In most cases, you can tell in the first 20 minutes whether a movie will or won’t be worth sitting through. In some cases, you can tell in the first 10 minutes.

Not that I bail on any movie that fails to spark my imagination in that first 20 minutes. I am, after all, doing a job here: reviewing films. And you can’t really review a movie you haven’t seen all the way through. Or you shouldn’t. So I do sit through a lot of crap because that’s what the job is – sitting through the major movies, good and bad, and rendering a thoughtful opinion afterward.

But there are filters. While I’m mostly required to review the big studio films, the joy in this job is in finding the small film that is worth championing, to bring it to the attention of a larger audience. There are so many, however, that you need to sift through them to find the ones worth giving that kind of attention.

A producer once told me that similar methods are used to analyze scripts to decide which films to make. Except he used the figure of 15 pages: That’s how long the screenwriter has to grab the bored development person with a pile of screenplays to wade through and analyze. If it’s not happening in the first 15 pages, it’s probably not happening.

This, of course, raises the issue of the slow-cooking movie, the one that has subtler things on its mind than accumulating a large body count and blowing up lots of cool stuff. Even then, however, I would argue that the spark is there in that first 20 minutes of screen time.


There’s nothing, for example, in the last two hours of “Tree of Life” that wasn’t foreshadowed by the first 20 minutes. OK, so you couldn’t predict that Terrence Malick was going to suddenly show us Earth from the Big Bang up to the present day in a wordless 15-minute montage – but it was certainly of a piece with (and just as coherent as) what followed.

All of which is by way of explanation why I’m not reviewing a couple of this week’s releases that come with big names attached. Indeed, I’m not reviewing much this week, because it’s a bit of a vacation.

Timing and other assignments have meant I am missing the screenings for the week’s two biggest releases: “The Big Wedding” and Michael Bay’s “Pain & Gain.” But, under other circumstances, I probably would review “At Any Cost,” which stars Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron, and “Arthur Newman,” which stars Colin Firth and Emily Blunt (both doing flat American accents). And I’m not.

I went to see filmmaker Rahmin Bahrani’s “At Any Price” at the Toronto Film Festival last fall – and walked out after 20 minutes. I was one of the few who didn’t drink the Kool-Aid for Bahrani’s “Goodbye Solo,” one of the more overrated films of the past five years. And I couldn’t swing with his take on middle-American farmers dealing with genetically modified seeds and the changing climate of agribusiness. After 20 minutes of the kind of obvious melodrama that Bahrani seemed to be dishing up – about fathers and sons, down-home values versus shifting business ethics – 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.

Then I tried to watch a screener of “Arthur Newman,” in which Firth plays a middle manager in Orlando, Fla., who loses his job, fakes his own suicide and takes on a purchased identity to start a new life as a teaching golf pro at a country club in Terre Haute, Ind. Talk about living the dream. But despite carefully setting up the premise, the film seemed to sputter along without truly lifting off, even with Firth’s sudden involvement with a troubled woman played by Blunt. Sorry – next.

You make choices. Not reviewing is a choice which, hopefully, has meaning of its own. In this case, it means these movies weren’t worth the time required to watch them all the way through, let alone to write a review.

Print This Post Print This Post