Is It Too Easy to “Walk Out” of a Movie in the Digital Age?

By  · Published on November 14th, 2013

I spent 30 minutes last night watching Frances Ha before I turned off the movie. I wasn’t into it. I just didn’t care for the characters or story I was watching. I appreciate that it’s considered a great film. I even enjoyed little bits, namely Adam Driver seemingly transformed into Jean Paul Belmondo (with a touch of Stranger Than Paradise’s John Lurie and Richard Edson) simply by putting on a hat. The cinematography is terrific. Maybe it is a great film. Because I didn’t finish it, I can offer no criticism of the whole value of Noah Baumbach’s latest. I am only at liberty to state that I gave it a shot and didn’t like it enough to continue. That’s my prerogative, right? Given that a lot of the basic praises the movie is receiving in terms of people loving it, regardless of whether it’s a great film or not, I feel okay putting it out there that I just don’t.

Still, I wonder if it was too easy for me to walk away – or “walk out,” if we want to make it about the movie experience. It’s hard to believe that I would have enjoyed Frances Ha any more if I stuck with it the remaining 50 minutes, but at least I could be better qualified to discuss it as a work of art. After Tweeting that I turned it off because I didn’t like those 30 minutes I felt like I had judged the Mona Lisa after only getting a peek at just her folded arms. If I’d gone to the theater, it would be harder to walk out, if mainly for the financial investment of a ticket. And plus the moviegoing experience is about sitting through the film silently and then discussing afterward, all the more thoroughly if you (and especially if only you) don’t like it.

Even if I’d rented it from a video store, if say I’d spent an hour in a Blockbuster deciding on what to take home, paid the $4 and made a night of it, that too is hard to just quit. But this movie was streaming on Netflix, a service that makes the movies feel like they have no individual cost to us. Just turn off the movie or TV pilot that doesn’t grab you and move on to something else that does, whether it be another Netflix title or household chores.

I guess this isn’t new. Cable movie channels began allowing for this sort of trial experience decades ago. But there is a difference in having a library at your disposal as opposed to dealing with scheduled programming. Tune in on cable and don’t like the movie, sure you change the channel, but there was no guarantee something else of interest was starting around the time you made the switch, and that’s the same now even though there are more movie channels available. Also, there has always been something more passive about watching movies on cable, always reminding me more of the days when people would just enter the cinema at any point and watch a movie that’s already playing. Selecting a movie on Netflix has a slightly more active feel to it, one permitted by choice and convenience.

As it turned out, I moved from Frances Ha to a documentary screener for a film I was likely to review, Dear Mr. Watterson. If it’d been on Netflix and I wasn’t watching for work, I would have turned it off after ten minutes if not less. For almost 20 minutes the movie is focused solely on fans of Calvin and Hobbes confessing that they love it, that everybody loves it and that it’s the most beloved comic strip of all time. It got extremely redundant and hardly felt like an actual movie. Even when not seeing random nobody talking heads admit to liking something that apparently everyone likes, the director was filming himself talking about his own Calvin fandom and giving a tour of his bedroom where he used to hang up Sunday strips. This doc seemed to be going nowhere.

But then it does start to pick up and offer more on the life and work of cartoonist Bill Watterson and some history and insight into the art and industry of comic strips. I ended up liking a lot of Dear Mr. Watterson in the end, and I’m glad I had to stick with it in this case. Still, I’m sure it will end up streaming on Netflix eventually (it hits iTunes/VOD tomorrow) and wonder how many people might reject it early on. The doc is at fault regardless for not beginning more strongly. The idea of movies needing to grab us from the start is something that concerned me when Netflix’s streaming service first came about, because of this very reason. Would filmmakers change the way they told stories as a result? How many classics that took their time to get moving wouldn’t have been made if this became the norm?

Still, part of me feels too old for Frances Ha. That isn’t to say I’m too old to relate to the characters, though I did feel some of that while watching. I mean that I have shorter windows to just watch movies for enjoyment at this point in my life. After eating dinner and giving my kid a bath and putting him to bed, my wife and I have a brief time to sit down and watch a movie before it’s time to go to bed (or return to work, as is the case for me often since I can only really watch review screeners like Dear Mr. Watterson late at night). So, if it’s not our cup of tea, there are a ton of other movies out there that we might prefer. I’m also at an age where I worry that I will die before I see some of the older movies that are far more necessary than Frances Ha. I don’t think I’ve seen all the films that actually influenced Baumbach and Greta Gerwig here, for instance.

I’ve “walked out” of other popular 2013 releases I was checking out on Netflix Watch Instantly this year, and each time I Tweet about doing so I get disappointed replies telling me I’m wrong to bail. One was the Dave Grohl-directed music doc Sound City, mainly because the Foo Fighters frontman was annoying the heck out of me as a first-person-style filmmaker. Given its notoriety I should return to it some day, if only for the reference of knowing it fully. The other was another music doc, A Band Called Death, which I immediately picked back up because I had the time to do so. That one is a whole lot more interesting and entertaining in the second half than the first, so it was worth it. I’d almost try to recommend it to people by telling them to start halfway in, but it doesn’t work that way because it needs the context of the first part.

Will I resume Frances Ha another day? I can’t be sure. Knowing my luck, I’d probably finally decide to return to it only to find out it’s expired from Netflix Watch Instantly. And I doubt I’d rent the disc or pay for a digital download or stream via iTunes or Amazon on that gamble. I guess that’s one thing about Netflix’s streaming service. It’s really easy to “walk out” but it’s also really easy to give another shot by “walking in” at any point with no additional cost.

I’m curious if any other readers have felt it too easy to “walk out” of movies in the streaming age and whether it made you feel guilty and if you returned to any movies you’d initially shut off – and did they get better.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.