Think you know whether Disney’s latest ‘Star Wars’ movie is going to be a flop? Not everyone remains as resolute in their opinions, and that’s perfectly OK.
When was the last time you changed your mind about a movie before you even had a chance to see it? With Hollywood blockbusters riding an unparalleled wave of marketing and production rumors into theaters, the opportunity is there for audiences to take a winding journey with a film before it’s even hit theaters. In some cases, this means souring on a film you were greatly anticipating because the early reviews or trailers don’t seem to do it justice. And in other cases, a movie you were otherwise unexcited to see can might manage to pull all the right levers and revitalize a bit of your enthusiasm. And you’re not just being fickle; there’s actual science behind why you might feel differently about a big title entirely sight-unseen.
Take Solo. While I would probably never be confused with an ardent fan of the Disney Star Wars universe – feel free to seek out some of those pieces if you’d like, I’ve been gifted with an SEO-friendly last name – there were extenuating circumstances that seemed to suggest Solo would be an especially uneven film. In the weeks leading up to the dismissal of writer-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the Hollywood trades were awash in rumors about chaotic sets and struggling actors, giving shape to a disastrous narrative that continues to shape the conversation around the film even weeks before its release. This added an extra level of skepticism for those already worried about Disney’s ability to pull off a Han Solo prequel.
For fans and non-fans alike, it would take a lot of effort to undo some of the negative publicity surrounding the film. So how and when does someone change their mind? As noted in the Washington Post, one recent internet study found a variety of lead indicators that suggested a person was softening their stance on an issue. For one, the number of people who disagree with an entrenched position can play a big part in changing someone’s mind. For another, the speed of the responses – in the case of this study, the first wave of responses to a particular post or assertion – can also play a big role in shaping the subsequent conversation. Researchers also found that longer posts and more uncertain language – phrases like “it could be the case” – were also common within persuasive arguments. That being said, the study does end with one important kicker: even in a forum dedicated to the study of persuasion, most people do not end up changing their minds.
When applied to film publicity, these data points do an excellent job of explaining how perspectives are shaped and molded by the conversations that surround new releases. When a film receives an overwhelmingly positive response upon its early release, that response tends to set the tone for the rest of the conversation; this is how movies like Three Billboards or are able to remain Oscar contenders even after a wave of post-release criticism pushes back on the initial narrative. Similarly, the lack of uncertain language about a film can prevent a counter-argument from ever taking hold. When film critics complain that their industry has become dominated by superlatives – that each new release is either the best or worst film of its era – they are also lamenting the lack of any sort of nuanced dialogue about a movie. How can we be expected to persuade when so many writers seem to treat their subjective opinion as a hill worth dying on?
Despite all this, I do find my stance on Solo softening a little after the first wave of positive reviews. Sure, part of this is specific praise for the filmic elements I had already hoped to enjoy – the cinematography of Bradford Young, the standout performances of Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover – but much of my shifting mindset can also be attributed to the methodology laid out in the Washington Post article. When the first wave of critic reactions hit Twitter, they were specific, nuanced, and uniform, providing the right combination of elements to nudge my opinion just a little to the left. Oh, there was plenty of breathless praise to be found if you searched the hashtag, but the critics whose opinions I care the most about simultaneously praised the film while admitting that it was not without its flaws. Had any one piece of his been different – if the positive reviews had come later, for example, or if everyone had praised Solo without reservation – I might have remained resolute in my skepticism. Taken together, though, the responses caused me to reconsider my assumptions.
So there it is, a year’s worth of blind items washed away in an evening because the right group of writers had just the right amount of nice things to say about the film. None of this means that Solo actually holds up to their assertions – film will always be subjective – but I doubt I’m the only person who read through the initial reactions and found their stance softening, just a little. Don’t take my word for it, though. Try this exercise the next time you find yourself gaining or losing excitement for an upcoming release; start digging into what elements changed your mind and see how well it lines up with academic research. Just because a movie is rife with skepticism doesn’t mean that critics are logically inconsistent if they find themselves enjoying it. It just means that our evaluation of a movie often includes a little bit more social science than we’d care to admit.