The importance of context when watching movies

Just how much do surroundings, nostalgia and other factors shape our moviegoing experience – and our opinions of movies? We take a look…

The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring

Let’s talk about a major factor in our enjoyment of stories: the context we experience them in.

So many factors go into influencing your response to stories. Your age, your knowledge, your friends and experiences; your location in time and space.

Having previously worked in a cinema, I’ve seen the same film inspire different reactions in different audiences. Hot Fuzz on opening night had a full house and huge bouts of laughter, whereas a few weeks later it played in a smaller screen to a handful of people smiling silently. Conversely, when I went to see Zoolander (in the now-closed Renfield Street Odeon in Glasgow), there were four people there – us and one guy sitting in the front row grinning intensely. This meant that Zoolander felt like it was ours, a cult-like shared experience.

Zoolander 2, on the other hand, had a half-full cinema but a muted atmosphere. If it had been four people it would have been a lot less awkward to watch, but instead, the room felt like a collective sigh.

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Just to keep things simple, here’s another example: I was working on the opening night of Spider-Man 3. The cinema was full. This was in St Andrews, a university town with a lot of American students. The crowd elected, in the face of everything that Spider-Man 3 had to offer, to find it ridiculous and comical. The point where Spider-Man lands in front of a billowing stars-and-stripes brought the house down. The Friday night student audience responded to the problems of the movie with laughter.

Spider-Man 3

The short version of this is ‘a bad drama is easier to laugh at than a bad comedy’, but it’s not quite as simple as that. A small, local cinema packed to capacity with a largely student audience on a Friday night (at the start of the revision period, no less) is different from a moderately well-attended multiplex showing on a Sunday.

The third in a trilogy, following on reasonably quickly from two popular and acclaimed films, was expected to be good, and this was before early reactions and reviews being widely shared online. A sequel to a 15-year-old movie that found its audience primarily on DVD, with middling reviews at best, has a different sense of anticipation – you hope that you might be pleasantly surprised but deep down you know you’re in for a long 90 minutes.

I saw a lot of negative audience reactions working at a cinema, but mostly just boredom. Films that simply aren’t entertaining don’t produce much in the way of response. A lot of average films don’t produce enough of a response to linger long in the memory.

There are exceptions, and this is generally when these films are attached to a story or character that people care about. For example: if you’re able to separate Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull from the context of being an Indiana Jones film then it’s an inoffensive but forgettable action-adventure movie. However, after a 19-year wait to return to one of the most beloved franchises in cinema history, it becomes so much worse than that. I will never forget the opening night of that film and the incredible contrast between the audience entering the screen and leaving it. Eyes that had shone with hope, wonder and anticipation now blazed with fury or a heavy sense of loss.

By way of comparison, does anyone remember the third film in Steven Sommers Mummy trilogy? The Tomb of the Dragon Emperor? It also came out in 2008 and it got some terrible reviews, but even with the goodwill from the previous films it failed to produce anywhere near the levels of vitriol as Crystal Skull. Sure, coming a few years after the Star Wars prequels didn’t help a project shaped by George Lucas, but this could have been seen as a warning sign of the ire that was to come.

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Recent years have seen numerous reboots and sequels to properties whose original audience have reached adulthood, and I don’t want to go into detail on the responses these films have received because, frankly, no one needs the ensuing anger that even tangentially referencing the issue generates.

The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor

Obviously the age at which you see a film makes a difference. Watching them at a formative age can make you so closely intertwined as to feel like an intrinsic part of you, or give you a very specific relationship. For example, The Muppet Christmas Carol… This is a film I first saw on VHS in the run-up to Christmas when I was 8, but it was also how I found out that someone called Jim Henson had died. I didn’t know who that was, but from that opening caption and the music that followed it (and the fact that another Henson was so prominent in the credits) I knew it was important. For me, The Muppet Christmas Carol feels like a funeral, with all the mourning and celebration that this entails.

Speaking of things owned by Disney (a handy segue into almost anything): based on my age, my main experience of the original Star Wars trilogy was when they were remastered and re-released in the ’90s, but while great, they didn’t feel like ‘mine’. Nor did the Harry Potter films, despite being a regular and dependable cinema trip. The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, on the other hand, is what I remember being the major movie event of my youth.

The reasons for this aren’t totally based on the quality of the films, though obviously this is a factor. The fact that it came out before Christmas, that I saw it with a group of friends who I’d recently started going to the cinema with, that I remember in great detail leaving the cinema in the pouring rain wearing a t-shirt and thin jacket, with the cinema and car lights giving Renfield Street a noirish tinge. That I’d listened to the cassettes of Brian Sibley’s BBC radio adaptation on long car journeys to see my grandparents, and recorded the Ralph Bakshi version off the telly when I was 8 and watched that repeatedly, that I’d read the book once and then promptly forgotten the huge swathes of it that the radio and movie versions excised. That I’d gone into this film without any expectations, unaware of trailers or production stories. That I’d pretty much decided it was the greatest thing ever as the camera swooped over the battlefield and from that point onwards the films could do no wrong. Even when they were bad – and some of the dialogue is heroically awful – they were great.

Now I know, from the Appendices and The Hobbit trilogy, that the very specific context of Lord Of The Rings was one of those happy accidents where a lot of things line up the right way. Some movies simply don’t have that combination of luck and skill.

From these examples, we can see a wide range of factors can come into play that make every cinema trip unique. It’s worth considering, then, that everyone has external factors that influence their reaction to movies. Maybe they’ve just fallen in love for the first time, or maybe they’ve just built a giant superweapon in a fit of hubris. If someone dislikes your favourite movie, it may not be quite as simple as differing taste.

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Take a step back and think about everything that went into making your favourite film your favourite film.