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in Filmmaking
on Aug 23, 2008

In a Guardian piece titled “Exit Strategies,” Ronald Bergan writes about a seldom-discussed part of moviegoing: walking out.

His lede:

Though life is too short, it seems to drag on interminably while one is watching a bad film. The moment during a film when I begin to question my very existence is the moment I decide to head for the exit. It is when I abandon any cool critical assessment. All I know is that my senses and intelligence are being abused by the ugly and stupid sights and sounds on the big screen.

Bergan doesn’t just write about the solitary act of exiting early — he also writes about the journalistic and business implications of such an act:

If it were in my nature, I would pity the poor critics who have been sent to review a film and are obliged to sit through it to the bitter end. Or are they? Are there ethics involved? Is it fair to review a film that one has seen only a part of? Perhaps a critic should be honest and reveal that they walked out half way, which is a defiant act of criticism in itself. Yet, you can bet that a colleague will tell you afterwards that “the second half was a vast improvement on the first”. I reckon that unless it was directed by someone other than the one who directed the first half, there is no way it could have improved much.

Nevertheless, there is a protocol involved in walking out. If one has to leave a film because of a very busy schedule, which happens most often during festivals, or if there are people in the audience involved with the film in some way whom one has even met and doesn’t want to insult, one walks backwards slowly up the aisle looking at the screen all the time, shaking one’s head regretfully and looking at one’s watch.

With Toronto coming up, Bergan’s article struck a chord. I’m more likely to sit through a movie I don’t like just to make it to the end but, as Bergan says, sometimes that sit is just not worth it. When one is watching a film in a professional capacity, though, one has to be extremely aware of the symbolism — if not the practical effect — of walking out. I sat on a film jury once and was surprised to see one of my jury members sauntering towards the exit about 20 minutes into one of the Competition films. “I just couldn’t take it anymore,” he told me later. “It clearly wasn’t going to get any better.” The thing is, it did get better. Even though the film was not very good, it was probably among the best we’d seen so far, I told him. (Fortunately, by festival’s end a number of worthier films had been screened so his missing most of that one didn’t turn out to be an issue.)

When one knows the filmmakers, it’s virtually impossible not to sit through the whole movie. If the film is bad and tons of other people leave, in fact, it’s mandated that you make a point of being visible and saying something at the end so the filmmakers know that you, in fact, stayed.

Even if a film isn’t something I’ll write about for Filmmaker and even if I don’t know the filmmakers, the act of leaving can be stressful for me. This might be due to my pre-film gig as a curator of live performance and theater. I’d go see a lot of new work, often in very small venues that were quite difficult to inconspicuously slip out of. I remember going once out of a sense of professional duty to a performance by an artist whose work I never liked. I didn’t like this new performance either — more so when I realized it was three hours long and that the exit was directly behind the stage. But I think the anxiety prompted in me by Bergan’s piece probably has more to do with having often been on the other side of the auditorium door. I remember standing with my partner Robin O’Hara at the door of one festival screening room catching it as it closed after each walk-out so it wouldn’t make a huge noise and telegraph our rapidly depleting audience. (The film we were producers of wasn’t designed to be an crowd-pleaser, so we weren’t entirely broken up. But the experience proved one thing: people don’t walk out after the first super boring part of a movie, they walk out after the second.) Another time, I was really happy to see the head of one of the studio specialty divisions — someone I had previously worked with — in the front row of the first screening of a Sundance Competition Film we had produced. I knew the film wasn’t right for that person’s company, but I thought it was great the exec had shown up. I was less thankful when that same exec then very visibly walked past a line of colleagues to exit the movie after about a half an hour. In the hothouse atmosphere of a festival, one visibly departing checkbook holder or tastemaker quickly multiplies. So, the next time you’re feeling fidgety at a festival, think carefully before slinking out that door. One day you’ll be on the other side, and the ego you hear breaking will be your own.

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