My perspective on movies changed dramatically once I began working in the world of editing. The editor of a movie watches and rewatches dailies, then a scene, then a sequence, then the entire film. Over and over. And over.
As this happens, there is a tendency for shots to get shorter and shorter. I’m not just talking about cutting scenes or lines that are redundant to the story. Frames at the start and end of shots seem superfluous the more you watch, and are constantly being shaved off.
As you become familiar with material, you need to see less and less of a shot (or the action conveyed in the shot) to track the story. Hence the editor trims. Or the director makes the editor trim. Or the studio executives make the editor trim. (Studio executives are also notorious for changing out jokes that work because they are sick of hearing them — not thinking of the audiences who are coming to it fresh.)
For this reason, and because once editing became digital, the labor cost of trimming a few frames off a shot became almost nothing, today’s average big studio movie is paced to be more re-watchable than watchable.
It has been tuned for consumption by a team of people who are accustomed to re-watching the film over and over, who are already familiar with those frames and moments that are removed. This is a side effect of how modern movies are edited, and perhaps not as much a creative choice as you might think. Audiences have become accustomed to this telegraphic aesthetic as normal film grammar, which only reinforces it further.
Of course, many top editors are aware of this problem. Walter Murch, editor of The Conversation and Talented Mr. Ripley, says of watching dailies:
I sit there with a laptop with the screen turned off, and as each shot goes through, I type whatever random thoughts occur to me about the material. […] You only see something for the first time once, and your reaction is very important.
Preview audiences can help restore focus to the experience of first-time viewers. But ideally, filmmakers would also like feedback on what makes a film better the second (or third or fourth…) time around.
On re-watch, the viewer has time to appreciate the finer points of the craft: set design, costumes, music etc. and how they all contribute to the effect cast by the film. Filmmakers often hide ‘easter eggs’ — little surprises and inside jokes, for those paying close attention. Animated films, particularly PIXAR’s, are notorious for this.
While there is nothing wrong with intentionally making disposable entertainment, I believe most filmmakers would rather make a film that has qualities of rewatchability. But, beyond tight editing, what are those qualities, and how can you achieve them?