With summer movie season starting up again, and with some of the discussions I’ve had with Mike through the years, the thought of expectations floated once again to the top of my mind.

This of course isn’t restricted to this one conversation, or even movies in specific. It’s an epidemic in a culture conditioned by advertising to expect nothing less than a biblical revelation in everything from entertainment experiences to burger taste to underwear fit.

It’s an old conversation. I’ve often harped about the fact that The Phantom Menace had a rough go of it because of the high level of expectation. The majority of people couldn’t be satisfied because they wanted too much from it. Of course, as with any movie, the marketing blitz was epic, but let’s face it: the point of marketing is to get us to buy. As a result, expectations get built and ironically can work against the very thing they’re trying to sell you.

Just go read The Space Merchants, watch Fight Club and have a stiff drink.

Of course, though there are those who will completely misinterpret what I’m saying here, let me try to be clear: enjoyment is a multi-factorial thing. Expectations can be overcome. I’m merely laying out that in terms of factors, expectations carry a great weight as pertains to your initial reception of anything (not a revolutionary concept), but that their importance is overlooked as regards movies.

Conversely, when expectations are lower – for instance, The Matrix or Iron Man – the movie becomes much more of a “must see” event and more of its sins and/or pretensions are forgiven. To a great extent, the new Star Trek movie enjoyed the benefits of lowered expectations. The majority of the Next Generation movies stank so bad (Insurrection in particular), and it had been so long since there was a Star Trek worth seeing and accessible to a general audience (though I still defend Nemesis, it was not appealing outside the fan base) that when there was a real, fun, adventurous Trek, we overlooked the lens flares and enjoyed the ride.

Again, this doesn’t mean I disliked 2009’s Star Trek – quite the opposite, I really enjoyed it. What I’m saying is that even if it hadn’t been all that good, it had the advantage of “not needing to be great.”

Baselines and Equations

But if the baseline expectations are not met, the reception of the film is much harsher. It makes inordinate sense, and again it doesn’t even apply just to films or products. Although as an interesting corollary, I’d say that films have helped to ruin the relationships experience in general. Again, by raising expectations of conditional results.

Thinking through the discussions of expectations and results, I decided to formulate an equation (you’re welcome).

S =(E/2 * P) / TASTE

In other words, your satisfaction is equal to half your expectations, multiplied by the actual product, and that result is then divided by your pre-determined tastes. So if I go into the next Star Trek movie expecting the next Wrath of Khan (E), and they deliver an adequate but not genre-transcending result (P), but I’m pre-disposed to liking Star Trek (T), then the end result is a somewhat dissatisfied fan who still liked the movie. But if any one of those factors alters then the outcome is different, sometimes radically so.

Say I’m just expecting the next Insurrection (though if I am, why would I pay money to see it?), well then “S” will turn out as a much more positive result.

Side Notes

I recognize that I still have to refine the equation somewhat, however. There are outside factors such as “I saw it on my first date with someone,” “I had just had a bad argument with my parents” or “world view” that need to be factored in, but I haven’t quite figured out how to weight those as part of the equation yet.

The irony of that is that the very world view we carry in to viewing movies is also skewed by watching movies and television.

A lifetime of watching filmed entertainment colors your world view. Watch enough chick flicks, ladies, and you’ll be shocked when your husband/boyfriend decides to let you know that, in fact, what you just said was one of the stupidest things he’s ever heard. Jacob and Edward would never say that, and with good reason: they don’t exist and never will.

Field Testing

The best field test for this is to watch about five movies that you’ve seen in the last several years, where your reactions were anywhere from lukewarm to enthusiastic. Strike movies from your typical milieu – for instance, if you know what LARP stands for, don’t watch the Lord of the Rings movies as part of this experiment.

My theory is that upon re-viewing a film, once expectations become a lesser part of the equation, the outcome is different. To go back to the example of The Matrix, I went back and watched it a few years ago. Granted, the result is skewed because I disliked the sequels very much, but the result was, I didn’t have as positive a reaction to it as I did initially.

Of course, I’m also a different person now than I was in 1999. That’s likely got something to do with it as well. If I hadn’t shifted my perspective on things in general (world view), or grown in some substantial way, perhaps my reaction to the film would have been constant.I suspect that will be the same for most everyone. I’d be surprised if anyone’s tastes are exactly the same as they were 10 years ago.

So the question remains, how to refine the base equation?

What Have I Become?

I will point out that I made a smart move years ago when I imitated Mike in this regard: I don’t want people to tell me what they thought of a movie if I haven’t seen it (unless it’s an absolute disaster and I need to save the time, money and effort). Even more than knowledge of the plot, this colors my own expectations a great deal; so I steer clear if I can help it. I make a mental note that I want to see something, then avoid news and reviews of it as much as possible.

However, I blame my desire to work out an equation for this on my lifetime friendship with Mike. So direct any and all biting comments toward him. He reads this blog, so feel free to deposit your snark in the comments area.

Seriously, I feel dirty. I have to go paint something now. Math? I’m using math every day now?

Ugh, thanks a lot, Mike.