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What makes a great movie?

What is it that makes a great movie? And what do they all have in common?
Some answers:
A great ending.
Real and realistic dialogue. Memorable lines. Wonderful acting.
An original story that has never been done before.
HALLOWEEN was original when it came out and has been copied or inspired by most horror movies ever since (such as the very successful Friday the 13th series).
Beautiful, or breathtaking scenery, or special affects.
Fast action, great editing and haunting or gripping music.
Yes, but all of the above is just icing that makes a great movie.
The main thing that makes a movie great is caring about what happens to the characters.
Possibly it's the great acting, the story telling and other reasons, that makes us more than just observe; but it's more about whether these all come together. Jamie Lee Curtis said of Halloween that she knew the film was special when she was watching it and someone stood up in the cinema and shouted at her character to warn her of the danger outside. And everyone in the cinema wanted to do the same.
Great films you don't just watch them, you experience them. They stay with you.
© John Martin, Movie Craft Ltd, 2003

The final film and the final say

The Director's cut is extremely important; most directors spend more than nine months conceiving, nourishing, and believing in a film, and want the final say on how a film looks and "feels". Not having this, to me would be something like Michael Angelo giving a complete stranger a hammer and chisel to finish off the statue of David. But it is not just about whether someone else might "destroy" the film, it is about whether it is the final "vision" of the director's. Making a film is a creative process, usually taking input, ideas, and skills from lots of sources, and the director usually believes only he or she knows best how to put this enormous jigsaw together.
What happens to a film is probably very important to most directors, particularly as these days a film may be shown in lots of different contexts and in a variety of ways. I think it is quite likely that as on some plane journeys where you can see in-flight movies, you may soon also be able to see a film while your waiting in a queue, on a train, in a bus, etc. Such use of a film although it reaches a larger audience may also cheapen the film. For example hearing your favourite tune in the supermarket, in elevators, on the phone, etc, tends to make it less "special". More important than this is what is done to the film to fit into a market or particular showing. Cinema films are often edited to fit into a particular TV time slot, and or scenes cut or reduced to take out bad language, violence, etc. Doing so will make the film a different experience and will not being seeing the film as the director's cut. Sidney Pollack (as detailed in IMDB) brought a lawsuit against a Danish TV company for the use of its pan and scan showing of his film Three days of the Condor, and the court ruled quite rightly that it was a "mutilation" of his work, ruining the original intentions of his film.
But I think a director has to be flexible to gain a wider audience. For example, I write a film aimed at the cinema with TV adverts in mind (without the cliff hanger ending before the advert break favoured by some American TV series, where if it is shown without the expected adverts the pace or showing of the film looks "wrong"). As well as obviously writing scripts with scenes and sequences, I write a film in "chapters", after which an advert could appear without harming the story. Is this being commercial? Yes. But when adverts are not overused (such in the last five minutes of a TV programme) they can add or lengthen the tension, give the audience more time to think about the situation, and have time out, without losing the thread or climax of the story. And if there is going to be adverts, I would rather they came at end of my "chapters" than someone else's.
Personally I would rather see a film fit the entire TV screen, rather than generally seeing a widescreen film in letter-box format, with a large black border. The argument is that it if it is not, then you will not see the film as you would have seen it in the cinema, and you may miss something. But if you took this to the extreme, then to keep the picture ratio in showing a super wide film, you would end up with a white line in the middle of the TV screen. Widescreen TV will help a bit, but I think a film not shown in the cinema is never the same as seeing it in the cinema in a darkened room where you specifically pay to go and see it; it isn't going to feel the same as seeing it while you're eating your dinner infront of a TV screen.
A final thought on the final film is on the use of subtitles. If the director or editor has gone to the trouble of working out how long each shot should last to get the pace and feel of the film, then I believe subtitles undermine this. Unless you can read remarkably fast, then in reading the subtitles you are losing something in seeing the film. But again I think the director has to be flexible, as without subtitles the film may reach fewer audiences. And probably the most important thing for most directors, other than making a great film, is for their work to be seen.
© John Martin, Movie Craft Ltd, 2003

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What makes a great movie?
The final film and the final say
See also our Detailed essays on films

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