Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Why No One Besides Tyler Cowen Leaves Movies Early

"Think of all the bad films you've sat through just to get the answer to the nagging question."

So says screenwriter Robert McKee, as quoted in "Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die."

One of the professors in my program, Tyler Cowen, is famous for leaving movies early:

"People should be more willing to walk out of movies," he tells anyone who will listen. "Most movies -- they grab you or they don't, and if they don't, just leave. Just go. You have already lost money. Why lose the time?"

If a movie doesn't hook Cowen, he reads a book outside while his wife remains in her seat. Most recent movie they both left: "Greenberg," starring Ben Stiller.
Underlying this behavior, at least how I see it, is the economic maxim of diminishing returns. Basically, for pretty much everything in life, each extra unit is worth less than the one that came before it.

For instance, the first piece of pizza you eat in a sitting is great, while the seventh piece is much less enjoyable. For Tyler, he figures he could stay and watch all 20 scenes of a given movie, but he decides to leave after seeing the first 12 and figures he won't miss much.

But movies usually offer a spike of interest and enjoyment at the end, because the conclusion is so important. Seeing the movie's ending is often worth suffering through the boring middle parts. Even if the ending is predictable, most of us like to see the good guy win or the lovers finally unite.

For example, I definitely sat through some less-than-stellar "24" episodes this season, just to see if Jack Bauer made it out alive and if the sinister Charles Logan got what was coming to him.

Also, I have the unfortunate hobby of following the Los Angeles Dodgers from the East Coast, where most games start at 10 p.m. local time. Contrast how I act if I watch the last six innings of a game versus if I watch the first six innings.

If I begin watching in the fourth inning, I usually just take the current score as given and don't care how we got there. After watching the ninth inning, I feel a sense of completeness, even though I missed a third of the game.

If I begin watching in the first inning and fall asleep sometime during the sixth, I can't help but wonder how the game ended. The morning after, I inevitably have to look up the final score online. I've missed just as much of the game as in the previous example, but the experience is much different.

Maybe the "he reads a book outside while his wife remains in her seat" part is crucial to Cowen's strategy. After all, it's not so bad to miss the end of a movie if you have someone to fill you in.


Eli said...

I think he's appealing to sunk costs more than diminishing returns. "You have already lost your money." As soon as you realize that you won't enjoy the movie, you should cut your losses. This is counterintuitive to a lot of people who think they should try to get their sunk investment back.

Greg Finley said...

Good point. Maybe Tyler and I differ in how selective we are in picking movies in the first place. For instance, the WaPo article cites him walking out of "Greenberg," a movie I would probably never see to begin with.

Josh Hattersley said...

If you don't stick around until the end, think of all the joke fodder you'll be deprived of (assuming the movie is pretty bad)! That's got to have enough value to make it worth your while ^_^