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If you want to get whiplash (or clinical depression), read the online reviews of a movie you made.  Most Hollywood veterans would tell you not to read the reviews at all, and it’s obvious why.

My latest film was either a 5-star “I was moved until I wept into a puddle of tears” or a 1-star “horrible piece of trash.” (I consider this an upgrade from my last movie where the 1-star reviews included offensive language.) There’s no way to process that many opinions, especially opinions of people you don’t and will never know.  Anyone and everyone has the internet these days, and therefore the ability to anonymously post a review – including people who have admittedly never seen the movie.

All this has me thinking… what makes a movie a “good movie” in the viewer’s mind?  What’s on the sending end and what’s on the receiving end of the equation?  How much of that equation do we as filmmakers have control over?

Not long after I first arrived in Los Angeles, I attended a screening of the original Planet of the Apes that included a Q&A session with Charlton Heston, a Hollywood legend. As he answered questions about his body of work, one of the most intriguing things he said was, “We never mean to make the bad ones. They just sometimes turn out that way.”

Nobody ever sets out to spend millions of dollars (or in my case, much less) to make a movie that nobody likes. There was, at some point, a team of people behind every film that considered it a wonderful idea that would entertain audiences and make money. Maybe even win an award.  So where was the breakdown?

Roger Ebert once said that to make a good movie all you need are “two or three great moments, and no bad ones.”  Two or three great moments are the inspiration and challenge of every filmmaker, but the “no bad ones” part may be the harder to accomplish.

Here are a few things that, in my opinion (because I have one as well as a place on the internet to share it), shape the viewer’s experience and therefore their evaluation of whether a movie is a “good movie.”  Please comment if you think of more!

Production Value

Production value is the Hollywood term for the look and feel of the movie.  Some people care about production value and some people don’t.  Some viewers get engrossed in the story (me) and some viewers shout “green screen!” at every VFX shot (my daughter).

A lot of the movies I’m working on have budgets that are tiny in the grand scheme of Hollywood films. That’s a deliberate choice and business model of the producers as they understand the demand in the marketplace. But a small budget also limits the scope of the story you can tell and the caliber of actors you can get to play the roles. And all of that gives the movie a “feel” that is sometimes obvious and sometimes just a strange feeling that the movie is closed down or not as “special” as a movie with more money and polish.

The truth is that you can tell a great story with very little money (and you can get production value out of things that don’t cost much) but there are always going to be people who hold it against you, no matter what.

Artistry

You could have all the money in the world, and still suffer from poor writing, acting, directing, even editing.  Film is a collaborative medium and the movie is only as strong as it’s weakest link.  If there is a weak script, then the best talent can rarely overcome it.  (Why weak scripts get greenlit could be the subject of another blog entry…) If there is weak acting or weak direction, then the editor has to cut around all that and even lose pieces of the story in the process (especially painful for writers). If the editor lacks good pacing, or the score is too epic or strange for the story, you get discord that that audience feels.

All of the elements of the film orchestra have to be playing in perfect harmony to make a truly great whole. And that’s HARD, people! Have you ever counted the number of people in the credits of a film?? I’m of the opinion that every time you see a truly great movie, you should thank the Lord that a miracle has occurred.

Audience expectation

It’s happened to you, I’m sure.  You watched a trailer for a movie you thought looked great and then the film was a disappointment.  They showed all the funny parts in the trailer, or they pushed it as one genre and it was really another, etc. My husband worked in on-air promo for a few years and there was a clear mandate to promote TV shows in whatever way that got people to tune in, not to necessarily tell the story as it was.  “It’s not a book report!”

And sure, that works for a first viewing, or the first theatrical weekend. But then you have horrible word-of-mouth from viewers who found the film a let-down compared to the movie they thought they bought a ticket to see. Even though the movie might have been good for what it was, it turns out to be “not so good” to the audience that was set up for disappointment.

Message

While these other elements play a big part, I think that the message of the movie is the number one reason people will say a movie is good or bad. Sure, they want to be entertained. Sure, there’s the whole “use Western Union” quote from old Hollywood.  But the simple truth is that there are plenty of quality, artistic movies that I wouldn’t put on my “good movie” list because I just don’t agree with their messages.  I’ll be happy to admit that they were well executed, effective and deserving of someone’s praise, but if they offend my worldview (most often because they are too bleak or fatalistic – I’m looking at you Black Swan…) then I’m just not going to go around telling people they were good films.

Because I’ve written a couple of Christian movies, I’ve seen this as the motivation behind some of the most vehement reviews as well as some of the most fawning. A viewer loves the message so much that they overlook any other shortcomings. Or a viewer hates Christianity and therefore hates the movie. The trailer for Christmas with a Capital C was even shown at an atheist conference once, to be taunted community-style. They just didn’t agree with the worldview and therefore it was considered a horrible movie. (Happy ending to that story, once the presenter watched the full film, she discovered it wasn’t exactly the message she was expecting. There’s that audience expectation thing again, in reverse!)

We like films that reassure us, inspire us and affirm us. We don’t like films that we disagree with, no matter how much quality is behind it. And that’s all on the receiving end of the equation.

Producer Ralph Winter once spoke at an Act One event I attended on the weekend that his movie, the remake of Planet of the Apes (2001), opened number one at the box office. Instead of getting up and talking about his success, he read us the blistering reviews of another movie he produced that same year, Left Behind.  It was interesting to me that he would do that – humble if not humiliating – but it was a show of strength in my opinion. And it made a point.  In artistic endeavor, you win some and you lose some.

It brought to mind the wisdom of a film professor in my first week of film school in L.A., and I’ve shared it with many Hollywood hopefuls since then… You’re never as good as they say you are when they want you, and you’re never as bad as they say you are when they don’t.

So how do we measure ourselves in the light of our successes and failures?  “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” I Samuel 16:7.

I’m thankful for good movies with great messages that speak to my heart, no matter who makes them. And especially I’m thankful that my worth isn’t rated by 1-5 stars on the internet!

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