Why Do We Choose The Movies We See?

Chatting with /Film Managing Editor Angie Han, I recently came to the conclusion that she chooses the movies she wants to see based on a much different criteria than me. What follows is a chat transcript between us, exploring why we choose the movies we do. We would love to hear your thoughts and what goes into your movie decisions.

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great GatsbyPeter Sciretta: I've noticed that you often cite actors or actresses for the reason you want to see, or not see, a film. This is interesting to me because my reasons for wanting to see a film have very rarely been because of the stars, so why do think you gravitate to films with certain actors?Angie Han: That's surprising to me, because I don't think it's uncommon for people to make movie choices based on the actors — that's why studios and filmmakers will pay big money for star power, after all. But for me, it's a few things. One is that a lot of actors, especially higher-profile ones, have "brands." You kind of know if Leonardo DiCaprio's in something there's a good chance it's an Oscar bait-y prestige film, for example. Or their names might denote a certain level of quality — it's not like everything Jake Gyllenhaal chooses is incredible, but at the very least he tends to make interesting choices (both in terms of what movies he selects, and what he does within the movies).

It's not foolproof, but then again neither is any other way of trying to choose a good movie to watch.

Peter: There are definitely some actors that seem to elevate almost every film they star in, and some that seem to drag down any project they are in. And you mention branding, I think thats probably the most obvious reason people probably choose which movie to see. "Lets see the new Captain America movie." "Lets see the new Pixar film." Does an actor's brand mean more to you than those kind of brands?Angie: Not necessarily. I mean, we're talking about actors now because you asked, but I do want to clarify that that is far from the only (or even, often, the most important) factor in me deciding whether or not you want to see a movie.Peter: Oh, I'm not suggesting it is. It just seems to be an important one.Angie: It depends. But it's interesting you bring up Marvel. I'm not watching all those movies because Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. are my favorite actors of all time; I'm watching them because (among other things) I really like the characters in that franchise. But even then, casting has a lot to do with it. Chris Evans does a lot to elevate what could have been a boring role, and Robert Downey Jr. basically just is Iron Man.liar liar Jim Carrey Peter: I don't tend to usually seek out a movie based on its stars, but I've noticed I do with comedies.Angie: Why is that?Peter: I don't know really. I guess it started with John Candy as a kid, and then Jim Carrey as a teenager, and probably someone like Seth Rogen now. I'll see their movies and it doesn't matter too much what the movies are, the movies are a stage for them to perform their comedy. But for me, I feel like I choose movies more based on the concept/idea or the filmmaker/screenwriter involved. Like this all started when I saw you were writing up the Viral trailer. I commented that it doesn't look great but I'm really intrigued by the concept. Concept can sometimes win me over despite sometimes obvious quality issues, its probably not a good thing.Angie: I think about concepts and ideas and behind-the-scenes talent, too! And I don't think there's really any right way or wrong way to choose a movie to watch; people want different things for different reasons. But maybe in the same way that you can forgive a lot of a movie if you like the concept, I do find that I'll give a film more leeway if I like the characters enough. Especially with certain types of films like romantic comedy: If I like the two leads and think they have good chemistry, I'll be more tolerant of cheesy dialogue or obvious contrivances. And maybe that's another reason I consider the actors more than you do when picking a movie. As you pointed out, some actors elevate the material and some drag it down, and there are certain stars I just know I tend to enjoy watching — I like their energy or their screen presence or their talent.DopePeter: While I don't tend to choose movies based on the actors, it is interesting when you're at a film festival like Sundance and you're seeing film after film without any actors you recognize. Its funny how outputting this can be as we're so used to seeing familiar faces. Its kind of like going out to eat with a bunch of strangers. You can come away having a great conversation but getting into it might be harder.Angie: That's a clever way of putting it. Same goes for directors, a lot of them are up-and-comers or total newcomers. So in those cases, I rely more than usual on the premise of the movie — whether the concept and plot sounds interesting. It doesn't necessarily have to be anything radically original or extremely specific. But like you, for example, seem to gravitate toward coming-of-age movies even if you don't know that much about the talent involved.Peter: And maybe it even helps to have unknowns in a film that has a coming of age story.Angie: How so?Peter: Well they usually have young stars, if not kids than teenagers. And if you as an audience have a preconception about them it might be harder to accept the written emotional journey. I guess its kind of the superhero theory, why they never want to cast a big star as Superman. You mention that I love coming of age movies, and I think thats telling. I also don't like period films and westerns for the most part, although there are exceptions.aronofsky black swan

Angie: Do you have a set list of priorities when you're deciding what movie to watch?

Peter: Ha. Probably not, but I'll always see a movie if its directed by one of the filmmakers I love: Spielberg, Aronofsky, Tarantino. Aronofsky does a film about ballet, a world i would otherwise not care about, but I'm in. There are even filmmakers and screenwriters I love that often disappoint me like Cameron Crowe or Damon Lindelof, yet I'm somehow always excited to see what they do next. I've always found it interesting that people will seek out books from an author but most people, probably even the geekiest of film geeks reading this site, don't seek out movies written by certain screenwriters. Why do you think that is?
Angie: Auteur theory, maybe? It seems to be generally assumed, correctly or incorrectly, that a film will reflect the vision of the director more strongly than it does anyone else's (like the actors or the screenwriters). There are a few screenwriters that fans know by name and will seek out on purpose (Charlie Kaufman and Shane Black come to mind), but they're rare.
roger ebert documentary

Peter: And both of those are now also directors. Probably not a coincidence.

I've always found the perceived difference between normal moviegoers and film critics to be interesting. My theory is that moviegoers only see the movies they want. And they pay good money to see those films, theres a real investment there. Where as, a lot of film critics see almost every movie released. Okay, maybe not everything, but they see a lot of films they otherwise probably wouldn't be interested in. And they see the movies for free, or not completely for free as they are investing their time. That's my theory of why audiences are generally more forgiving and critics are less tolerant of certain movies. But that's a whole other topic, I think.

Let's wrap this up. Something that keeps coming up is the aspect of familiar. Be it an actor, a brand, a director whose style we love, a genre that I love living in. Is it that we gravitate to films that have something familiar?

Angie: I think so, and I think for pretty obvious reasons. Literally hundreds of movies open each year, and no one can watch them all (not even film critics). So you look for reasons to pick one over another, like an actor or a director or a franchise you know you like. This can backfire, like this summer where we have about eighty million sequels and most of them are terrible.Peter: Okay, I think this is a perfect ending to our chat!

So let's pose the question to you, the /Film reader. I'm curious to hear why you choose the movies you see. Is it based on an actor? Is it based on a filmmaker? Based on a story/concept? A genre? A brand or something familiar? What is more important to you when deciding which movies you want to see?