I now belong to those who couldn’t finish watching Martin Scorcese’s magnum opus, The Irishman.
A recent report said that in spite of 26.4 million people watching the movie, only 18% of them finished watching the entire movie in one sitting.
One might argue that this happened because the movie was lengthy and had a run time of 3 hours 3 minutes.
But, this was not the case. A lot of the movies we celebrate as fans were 3 hours are more. This includes Godfather II, Titanic, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Lawrence of Arabia, Schindler’s List, Avengers: Endgame, etc.
But, what changed?
The rise of streaming services had shortened our attention span when it comes to movies. We either spend endless hours browsing the movie catalog or switch to a different movie five or ten minutes into watching something.
Watching a movie requires a certain discipline and that has slowly slipped away from us.
This reminds me of the time when we were disciplined movie watchers. The golden period that had DVD rentals, low-speed broadband, and an active movie piracy ecosystem.
Low-speed broadband and DVDRip
Every weekend from 2008 – 2010
The Indian broadband scene was just starting. There were no high-speed internet providers like Jiofiber, ACT or Airtel fiber. The broadband plans in India did not exceed 2 Mbps. The broadband plan I had had a usage cap of 2.5 GB/month (yes! You heard that right) post which the speed will be throttled down to 256kbps (Yep!).
But, there was an exciting catch!
Every day there was a six-hour window from 2 AM to 8 AM when one can download anything without affecting the usage cap. So, on most days I used to wake up at 5 AM to download movies and TV shows. Downloading a 700 MB movie would roughly take 2 hours and while I was waiting, I often read a book. This way, I spent my weekends with books and movies.
On a good day, I would download two movies before 8 AM and I will spend the rest of my day watching those movies.
For some reason, I wouldn’t preview or watch the second movie before finishing the first one. I always finished watching all the movies I download. I rarely skipped a movie or stopped midway.
Watching a good movie needs the same undivided attention similar to reading a book. You’ll have to be invested in the movie, be part of the world you see in order to feel the story. And, as serious movie watchers, we had that.
I remember a time where I and my friend used to go to a movie together but book separate seats so that we don’t talk to each other during the movie. We discuss the first half during the intermission and go back to our seats to watch the rest of the movie. I know it is a bit too much. But, there were a lot of us who took movies seriously.
But, things are changing.
The way we consume video content has evolved. We spend more time watching videos, but we spend less time watching movies. Surprised? Binge-watching a series has taken over movies.
Binge-watching over movies
Today, more people binge watch TV shows on streaming services than watching movies. When you look at it, these TV shows (all the episodes put together) usually have a longer run time than a movie.
For example, Season 3 of Stranger Things has a total runtime of 6.6 hours, twice than that of The Irishman. But, more people finished watching Stranger Things at a stretch when compared to The Irishman.
But, why does this happen?
Binge-worthy series are often written with cliffhanger moments at the end of each episode. This becomes the driving factor for people to watch the next episode. But, this is different for a movie that follows a conventional three-act story structure. It looks something like this
But, for a binge-worthy TV show, I see the three-act story structure would look like something shown in the image below
It has two layers.
One layer is a broad three-act structure that holds the entire plot of a season or the entire series. One can also observe an episode wise sub-layer that follows a similar three-act structure in each episode that often spills over to the next episode.
Each episode ends with a cliffhanger moment where the stakes are higher. The resolution for that problem is often partially or completely presented to the viewer halfway through the next episode, but presented with another cliffhanger moment in the end. This way, the makers of these shows are able to keep us glued to the series throughout the entire season.
And, this has worked well for giants like Netflix and Amazon Prime. Both the services are known for their original TV shows than original movies. And, a major chunk of the user base returns to these sites to catch the next big series and not the next big movie.
With the goal of making people spend more time on their platform, streaming services made us perceive movies to be boring when compared to TV series. This is similar to how people who used to read more books in the past are now reading more articles and fewer books. The content consumption is more or less the same. But, people have lost the discipline to sit through and read a book.
Similarly, as viewers, we’ve lost the discipline to watch a movie on a smaller screen.
Maybe more people might have watched The Irishman if it was a web series with much longer run time and with cliffhangers throughout. Or, more people might have watched the entire movie if it was released worldwide in movie theatres.
This is a valuable lesson for creators who think of selling their movie to a streaming service than taking it for a theatrical release.
When launched in a streaming service, people might be excited about your movie, tweet about it, post insta stories, etc. But, end of the day, only a fraction of people would’ve sat through the entire movie, however good it is.