The Art Of Managing Expectations At The Theater

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  • ‘The Dark Knight Rises’
  • The ‘Star Wars’ Prequels
  • ‘Back To The Future III’
  • ‘The Matrix Reloaded’
  • ‘Quantum of Solace’
  • ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’
  • ‘Dumb & Dumber 2’
  • ‘X-Men 3’
  • ‘Spiderman 3’
  • ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’
  • ‘The Hobbit Trilogy’

What do all of these titles have in common?

Well, apart from the obvious abundance of sequels and franchises, they are all movies that did NOT live up to the hype that preceded them. Now, perhaps there is a film in the above list that you don’t think is bad, or maybe you even liked it (I myself didn’t mind Avengers: Age of Ultron or The Dark Knight Rises). This is not a list of films we are definitively categorizing as “bad”, but they are recent films which heralded a lot of fanfare leading up to their release and then reaped even more negative backlash from fans who were disappointed with the finished product for one reason or another. With an endless parade of sequels, remakes, reboots and adaptations being made, this phenomenon is sure to continue

What this reveals is an astonishing trend. This is not an issue that can be remedied by the studios or production houses, it isn’t an adverse effect of 3D or of digital vs film.

The problem lies with us, the audience.

You see, we as viewers play a VERY active role in whether we perceive a movie as being “Good” or “Bad.” And I don’t mean perceive good or bad in the traditional way where we take our understanding of story and character and weigh it against other technical accomplishments to give the film merit. I’m not talking about the way that we “critique” a movie, I’m talking about something much more organic. The way we “perceive” a film before we ever see it has just as much influence over whether we enjoy it or believe it lived up to expectations as much as it’s unbiased and objective technical or artistic merit.

It’s easy to say that a film failed because “expectations were too high.” This does happen, but it is a generalization of an issue that can be mitigated or erased completely by the viewer. This may be hard to believe, but it is possible to go into a film that you expect to be one way, only for it to turn out to be different, and still enjoy it. You have as much control over whether you like a “Hyped” movie as the filmmakers do – you just have to manage your mindset going into the viewing.

To do that, you should understand the 3 basic factors that influence your perception and expectations of what the movie will be far before you ever see it.



External influence is basically any information you get from a 3rd party directly concerning the movie you will be watching. This includes Trailers, Clips released from the movie, Posters, Critics Reviews, Word of Mouth from friends, etc. There are a lot of variants within this influence because there are also opposing motives.

A. In the case of Trailers, Reviews, Clips and Posters…these are released and created by the studio in order to promote their piece. They (the studio) will synthesize their product down to its core elements (i.e. Action film or A-List vehicle, Road Trip film, etc.) and package it in a way that has the broadest appeal for the target audience. As such, there is a lot of room for disappointment when gauging what a movie will or will not be based purely on a trailer.

One recent and prime example of this failure is the movie Drive starring Ryan Gosling, directed by Nicholas Winding Refn. The trailer appeared to show a Fast & Furious style action film packed with car chases and stunts. What actually appeared on screen was a slow paced, Nordic character study. People were outraged to the point of suing.The studio didn’t think an audience would be interested in such a contemplative film, so they edited the few moments they needed to make it seem like high-octane action fare in order to sell tickets. Obviously you must rely on these materials from the studio to decide whether or not you might be interested in a film or not. However, you must keep in mind that a trailer is still a ploy designed to get your butt into a theatre seat, and it is up to you as a consumer to discern whether or not the product is for you.

B. Regarding Critics Reviews and Word of Mouth. These are 2nd hand accounts of the products from other consumers and professional experts. However, these are still subjective and fallible accounts of a film the you will experience personally. It helps to hear from someone whose tastes and opinions are similar to your own BUT, you never know if your friends are suffering from the same weight of “expectations” that you are.

Also, critics are generally much more learned than the average viewer and may have seen the same trick a thousands times while it remains new to you. As much as the reviewer is supposed to be objective, the removal of “self” (i.e. experience, subjectivity, agenda) will never fully occur. So a critic who mildly enjoys superhero films but isn’t invested in the comics, due to not having read them as a child, may not have the same exacting measure of the character’s arc as the viewer – which leads us to….


Retro influence includes personal familiarity with past entries in a series, familiarity with the story or source materials such as books or comics. Your perception and expectation of a film or series is heavily influenced by the material that came before it, and your relationship with that material. Many people were disappointed with various Harry Potter films because they had expectations of what material was or wasn’t important enough to include from the books.

Additionally, when a series has succeeded previously, that success raises expectations for future entries. Such was the case for films like Spider-Man 3 or The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Former success in those franchises gave viewers expectations of what they would receive on screen, both in content and quality. Individually speaking, comics can greatly skew expectations due to personal nostalgia and the fact that they often create entire worlds that a filmmaker must try and recreate perfectly for each subjective interpretation in the course of a 2-hour film. For fans, this familiarity can be the greatest influence on what you believe the movie will be. While understandable, it’s not fair to believe that your judgment on what tones, themes or passages should or shouldn’t make the cut is what’s best for the story that the filmmakers are trying to tell.


This is the most difficult influence to snuff out when managing your expectations of a film. This is mostly because you aren’t aware of its existence until you are actually experiencing the film in the theater or in your home. Somewhere, somehow, whether it be from decades of watching films, or something you saw on TV, or a funny conversation you had earlier that week, or that time you ate a bad hot dog – you expect a film to BE or REACT a certain way to the situations it has created. If it doesn’t follow your logic, it can leave you feeling disappointed, frustrated and dissatisfied. Something subliminally in the course of your life has reinforced what you thought a movie would be like.

A fictitious example for you: Your friend tells you a joke that has a very distinct rhythm and flow. Perhaps he delivers it with a very notable cadence. You find the joke extremely funny. A week later you see a film where the main character begins to tell a joke that FEELS just like the joke your friend shared a week earlier. That familiarity gives you confidence and excitement that you know (stylistically, at least) how it will end and what kind of humor is due. Suddenly, the script takes the joke in a different direction, and it ends with a much different feel than it began. You are displeased and annoyed and find the joke not nearly as funny as your friends. That’s not fair to the movie, and your objectivity of the joke and it’s purpose in the film is tarnished.

Here’s a personal example. I recently watched the film Steve Jobs written by Aaron Sorkin. I went into the film having only seen one trailer and knowing that it had largely positive reviews from critics. Beyond that I knew nothing specific about the film, so I made assumptions based on that knowledge. The movie was called Steve Jobs so I EXPECTED the film to be about Steve Jobs’ life and how he came to be Steve Jobs. This is not what happened. No spoilers here. The film takes place in 3 and only 3 locations, each at a product launch which Jobs is delivering at 3 different times in his adult life. This is a very unorthodox way to write a biopic. Immediately I felt myself becoming irritated with the fact that the film wasn’t following the plan that I had made for it. This is not fair to the filmmakers or the story. I caught myself having personal expectations for an autonomous piece of art and quickly checked them. Objectively speaking (as objectively as I can speak about art) this creative method of telling the story worked very well, and once I put away what I WANTED the movie to be, it turned out to be very good being what it wanted to be. (Our full review here.)

It is extraordinarily important to be aware of these factors in this day and age. When you are aware of what is informing your preconceived expectations it is easier to reject those impulses and experience the movie more purely. The filmmakers, with the task of making these films with the knowledge that they will inherit large amounts of fanfare, are at a major disadvantage to this viewer deficiency. There is no possible way they can make a movie to match the individual desires of each person. They have a clear idea (or at least should) of what they want to say and have spent hundreds (potentially thousands) of hours attempting to craft a product that will delight you, only to have it completely demolished by a lack of accountability on the viewer’s end. Understanding the mammoth task a director has in bringing one of these movies to the screen will also help to quell any overanxious anticipation a fan may have. Being realistic about the difficulty of the task that mere mortals, like you and I, have when taking on these ballyhoo’d entities will hopefully cause an impassioned viewer to not become personally offended when the film falters in different areas.

Now I’m not saying that all the movies listed at the top of this article would be redeemed and sanctified in the mind of their fanbases if they had only applied these tenets to their viewing experience, but there would have been a heightened ability to enjoy what was on screen and a muted disappointment if the film were not capably handled  You should feel empowered to know that you have just as much ability as the studios to decide whether or not you enjoy a film. With movies like Spectre and Star Wars: The Force Awakens corralling high expectations, now’s as good a time as any to recognize exactly how your perceptions of a film and your expectations of it are being influenced. The future will always hold these sort of movies, but hopefully, with this knowledge you will be able to temper disappointment and relish success more efficiently and with much more enjoyment.

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About Author

When he is not working on this site, Shea is a full-time video producer for a non-profit humanitarian aid organization. He travels to places like El Salvador, Ukraine, and Kenya to document relief efforts in those countries. He possess a bachelors degree in film studies and enjoys the crap out of reading. Some of his favorite current shows are Game of Thrones, Sherlock, Gilmore Girls (deal with it), Friday Night Lights, The Newsroom, Community, Top Gear, Luther, Downton Abbey, Mad Men, and A Bit Of Fry & Laurie just to name of few. He also likes Formula 1 Racing (random though it may be) and loves his brand new wife Ashley. She is a perfect candidate for the demanding position despite her lack of previous marriage experience.

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