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Every Thursday we do a weekly newsletter that includes links to that week’s content, festival deadlines, and an original letter from me which I usually don’t repost on the blog. (And if you don’t get this newsletter, why not? You can subscribe here. It’s free.) But I’ll reprint this week’s because it’s a response to James Ponsoldt’s blog post about walking out of movies.

“When is it okay to walk out of a movie?” James Ponsoldt asked on the Filmmaker blog yesterday. The post was inspired by his sitting through at Sundance a film he loathed; it was his attempt to redeem the experience by turning what might have been a withering dismissal into something more open-ended about the nature of moviegoing. It got a lot of comments quickly. A couple people thought it wasn’t fair that he wouldn’t name the film. One person called us a “PR site” for not doing so. Another person thought the post was “an attack,” although I responded that it couldn’t be an attack if we didn’t name the target. Some people thought James was rejecting a kind of difficult cinema and rose to the defense of the nameless auteur who challenged his audience so. (Knowing James, I can assure you this is not the case — he’s the first in line for the most punishing of cinematic pleasures.)

Stepping back, though, I think what confounded people about the piece was the broader question it raises about the contract between moviegoer and filmmaker at a film festival. In the commercial cinema, that contract is ratified by a ticket price. In essence, you’ve done your duty to the filmmaker the moment you step into the theater. Walking out of a movie is like selling a losing stock — it’s hard to do without feeling that you’ve made a mistake, and that’s a powerful incentive to keep watching. At a festival, things are different. You’re among a film’s first audiences, and you feel the responsibility of your opinion. But if you’ve got a press or industry pass, you haven’t bought a ticket. You can get into anything, and your time is your investment. You don’t want to squander it. Walking out of a movie, in fact, might only mean walking into another that you’d like better, that would reward your time more. In Toronto, for example, it’s easy to theater hop, which means that your decision to see a movie is made more casually. “I’ll check out the first 30 minutes of this film and if I don’t like it skip out and see that film next door.” It’s a zero-sum game. One film’s loss becomes another’s gain. (I will never write about a film I haven’t seen in its entirety… but I know people who do.) I’ve certainly discovered great films I never would have if I hadn’t known that it would be easy to walk out. At Sundance, though, it’s different. The movies are scheduled in such a way and the theaters are spread out enough that walking out of a movie really means you are seeing one less movie that day. Since most festival journalists consider their watch-count as a badge of pride, that’s another powerful incentive to stay. (Conversely, I’ve fallen in love with films only because I resisted the urge to walk out. For example, I went from disliking Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland in the first 15 minutes to being puzzled to being intrigued to liking it to, several days later, loving it.)

In an industry context, walking out can have both personal and professional consequences. A war of words arose at Sundance this year when The Hollywood Reporter reported on walkouts at the industry screening of Dito Monteil’s Son of No One. The suggestion that a buyer of a hotly anticipated film might have left early could have knocked six, seven figures off the acquisitions price. There is, in fact, a kind of kabuki that occurs in industry screenings, a sense of shared decorum that magnifies the significance of a walk out. (I remember being both personally hurt and, business-wise, anxious when a prominent woman in the industry I once worked for walked out of one of my Sundance premieres years ago.)

But what about the more fanciful, even artistic, reasons for walking out? Reasons removed from any relationship to the filmmaking business? I’ve been trying to remember who (some Surrealist? a Situationist?) said they would walk into a movie half way through and immediately walk out as soon as the plot became comprehensible. Or, what about the simple sensory pleasure associated with exiting the movie theater, irrespective of whatever film you might have seen. Wrote Roland Barthes in his essay, “Leaving the Movie Theater,” “There is something to confess: your speaker likes to leave a movie theater. Back out on the more or less empty, more or less brightly lit sidewalk (it is invariably at night, and during the week, that he goes), and heading uncertainly for some café or other, he walks in silence (he doesn’t like discussing the film he’s just seen), a little dazed, wrapped up in himself, feeling the cold — he’s sleepy, that’s what he’s thinking, his body has become sopitive, soft, limp, and he feels a little disjointed, even (for a moral organization, relief comes only from this quarter) irresponsible. In other words, obviously, he’s coming out of hypnosis.”

When do you walk out of movies. And why? You can post over at James’ original thread.

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