'Star Wars' Proves How Much the Experience Still Matters to Most
by Alex Billington
December 21, 2015
In cinemas around the world this past weekend, millions of people came out to experience the new Star Wars movie on the big screen. It wasn't just an event, it was much more than that. It's an experience that moviegoers have been anxiously awaiting for years (technically 32 years since last saw Han & Leia & Luke), with many challenging themselves to not watch any footage before release. And I'm not just talking about waiting to see our old friends again, but savoring a chance to go in and experience a movie without any of the major plot points or big reveals being ruined before. It's this kind of communal cinematic experience, and the ensuing discussions/arguments/enthusiasm that arise afterward, that I relish. And it's something I feel has been missing from Hollywood recently. Of course it was Star Wars that brought that feeling back.
The number of people who actively avoided spoilers for The Force Awakens was unprecedented. Not just my entire family, but friends who usually tear apart trailers were sticking to strict rules. It was impressive. And I don't care if a few people think "spoilers don't ruin it for me!" Good for you, they ruin it for me, and a lot of other people, and that should be respected. The responses to the movie this weekend (and the box office results) are a testament to the power of a great experience, and directly tied to the way they did not reveal too much beforehand. Learning about where Han is, and what happens to him, is an experience that we all have together, in the theater, with other movie fans. Every time I went to a show with a completely full theater, I emerged energized, excited by the palpable enthusiasm from all the other satisfied attendees.
There was a great sense of relief at the end every time I saw The Force Awakens. Relief that, finally, we are seeing this and won't have to worry about spoilers anymore. But also relief that, I'll be damned, it's a very satisfying if not excellent movie. No one I follow who saw it has spoiled it for anyone else, everyone respects that first-time need-to-see-it-for-yourself experience. Despite plenty of chances, it was never spoiled for me either. In a culture where most people don't care about anyone's feelings, it is surprising to see so much mutual respect for everyone's individual experience. It just goes to show that even though the "spoilers don't ruin it for me" voices are loud, they are few and represent a minority, since empirically most people do have a better time when things aren't revealed in advance (the same can be said for putting away cell phones).
To see so many smiling faces leaving the theater, to hear so much interesting discussion about what scene was the best, and who each person is, whether or not they're good or bad, what we'll see next time, it's so exhilarating. Even the dissenting opinions and critical responses have something to add to the discussion. And it's this discourse and collective cultural conversation (not about how good/bad the film is but what it all means) that I've been missing recently. Sure, The Avengers and Avatar were event openings, and had a similar experiential feel, but really – it's Star Wars that was the spark needed to reignite a passionate movie culture. As long as we acknowledge that the experience was a key part of its success. Not just the nostalgia, not just the characters, but the way a story is told (and not knowing everything before) truly does matter.
Many of my colleagues prefer to focus on quantifiable data as the measure of a movie's success - box office earnings, attendance numbers, Rotten Tomatoes score, even the rating certain people give to a survey group (that I have never once encountered in my entire life) upon leaving the theater. But I prefer to focus on the experience above all. Not only did Star Wars bring in tons and tons of people – demographics of all kinds, young kids, and parents who saw the originals – but it was also an experience that many were happy to pay for. Not just a movie. Few moviegoers are aware what is going to happen going in, and they have a better experience because of that. And if you still need a way to measure the impact of this, then sure, referencing the opening day/weekend box office records will do. Biggest opening weekend ever? Sounds about right.
From here, the sky is the limit. Many moviegoers (myself included) have already seen the new Star Wars two or three times, with plans to catch it a few more times while it's playing in theaters. This will definitely help set a box office precedent but beyond that it's proof it's possible to make storytelling so valuable that, even if it's not the best movie of the year, people are willing to pay to re-watch up to four or five or six times. That's remarkable. It's a fast-paced, energetic story with most of the major reveals coming through dialogue – carefully constructed so that as we watch, we learn, as we learn more, we become more connected to this world, to these characters, which becomes fuel for nostalgia. Which keeps bringing us back to the theater.
Taking a moment to look back has been fascinating. It's important to recognize how everyone interacted and respected individual experience; it's key to acknowledge that staying-away-from-social-media in order not to be spoiled had a measurable impact (it was noticeably quiet for a few days). And that at the end of the day, this all made for a better opening weekend experience, and focusing on that helped them break office records (so, from a business standpoint, it paid off). It's just as easy to get frustrated at a lack of reveals in advance as it is to complain that spoilers don't matter; but neither actually encourage good discussions. This is why storytelling still matters as much as the story. I'm already ready to buy my tickets for Episode VIII.