Online, Film Spoilers Nearly Impossible To Avoid

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Moviegoers and critics have been revealing plot twists for years, but the proliferation of blogs and social networking have made it even harder to keep an ending under wraps. The New York Times' John Anderson says spoiler creep can ruin the movie going experience for many viewers, and is making film marketing more difficult.

NEAL CONAN, host:

Movie marketers want to tease the audience without giving away the big plot shocker. And those who want to see the film without knowing in advance that -spoiler alert - Bruce Willis has been dead all along.

Well, between the Internet, the movie trailer, the critics and your chatterbox friends, it's harder and harder. If you know the way a movie ends, do you still go and see it? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

John Anderson joins us from our bureau in New York. He's a contributing critic for the arts and leisure section of The New York Times, where he wrote a piece about spoiler alerts on April 10th.

Nice to have you with us.

Mr. JOHN ANDERSON (Film Critic): Oh, thanks for having me.

CONAN: And you point out it's been a very long time since anybody saw "Psycho" the way Alfred Hitchcock intended.

Mr. ANDERSON: Well, I'm not sure anyone of my generation or several others have seen it the way Hitchcock intended it, at all. You know, Janet Leigh is supposed - the fact that she disappears 20 minutes into the film was supposed to be the big shocker, and who doesn't know that Janet Leigh disappears 20 minutes into the film?

CONAN: Everybody knows you're not supposed to take a shower in a motel.

Mr. ANDERSON: That's right. That's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: So that begs the question, though, if you're marketing a new movie that has a big plot twist, how do you avoid telling - giving away the big secret, in your own movie trailer for one thing?

Mr. ANDERSON: Well, anyone who goes to the movies with any frequency knows that trailers are constructed basically to be synopsis of the films, and I can't imagine them constructing something that didn't give away, you know, the core element in "Psycho" or "The Sixth Sense" or "The Crying Game." Well, maybe "The Crying Game" could have gotten away with it. But it's been a long time, and it's really up to the individual, at this point, just not read anything if you don't want to know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ANDERSON: ...about spoilers.

CONAN: Just lock yourself in a closed room.

Mr. ANDERSON: In fact, I was shocked to learn that Bruce Willis was dead at the end of that movie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, I'm sorry to give that away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: If you go see "Planet of the Apes," don't think New York.

Mr. ANDERSON: No, no.

CONAN: No, no.

Mr. ANDERSON: It's Salt Lake City.

CONAN: Exactly. It's another planet. Anyway, the problem being that - well, you make the case there's a new movie out called "The Double Hour." It's an Italian noir picture, and they try to get away with not explaining the plot twist because nobody can explain the plot twist.

Mr. ANDERSON: Well, I think that's the solution. It's that you make the film so convoluted and - with so many left and right turns that you would exhaust someone by the time you got done explaining it to them.

CONAN: Yeah. There's a big twist at the end. Let me explain it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ANDERSON: Right. Yeah.

CONAN: And the trailer I think advertised it as nothing is what it seems.

Mr. ANDERSON: Yes. And, you know, the problem with that, though, is once you put audiences on their guard, they're looking to solve the mystery before it unspools. And I'm often hesitant, even in a story or a review, to say that there's a plot twist because then you've kind of given the game away.

CONAN: You set it up already.

Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah.

CONAN: But then, how do you review the movie?

Mr. ANDERSON: Well, that's very difficult.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ANDERSON: You kind of have to hint at things. I mean, you know, different people have different ethos regarding this. I know - one critic I know said if I don't like the movie, I give everything away so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, I guess, the "Scream" series, he's given a lot away.

Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah. Yeah. It's a - you know, there had been - it's been about 10 years since we've had really one of these films. "The Others" was a film that - by Alejandro Amenabar with Nicole Kidman, and it was a really good film, I thought, that didn't get the exposure it required in order to be that kind of social phenomenon that "The Sixth Sense" was, because that was a Disney film, and that, of course, got advertised adequately, and everybody talked about it.

CONAN: It was the first film ever set in Nazi-occupied Europe where the Nazis weren't the bad guys.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Weren't the big bad guys, anyway.

Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah. So it's - you know, it's been a long time, and it's, you know, arguably "Shutter Island" was that kind of film but...

CONAN: It didn't do so well.

Mr. ANDERSON: I don't think it generated that kind of conversation. And "Inception," if you could figure out what it was about, that may have had some twists in it, too, but I really can't remember.

CONAN: It did, but a little bit like "The Double Hour." It was so convoluted. You really couldn't give it away.

Mr. ANDERSON: Really. You'd think just, you know, the movie would be shorter than the explanation.

CONAN: Let's see if we got some callers in on the conversation. John Anderson is our guest, a contributing critic for the Arts and Leisure section of The New York Times. And, well, the question is, if you know the outcome of that big plot twist at the end of the movie, do you go anyway? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

And let's get Warren on the line, Warren with us from Tampa.

WARREN (Caller): Hey. How it's going?

CONAN: Not too bad.

WARREN: Yeah. Even if I know how it ends, I still like to go see the movie because I got to see if it lives up to the hype. Personally, if a lot of my friends went and saw a film and they're building it up, then I usually walk away disappointed. But if people say they didn't like it, I usually end up liking it a little bit more than I would otherwise. So...

CONAN: Your expectation - if they raise your expectations, you're disappointed, but...

WARREN: Right.

Mr. ANDERSON: You're the marketers' nightmare...

WARREN: Yeah.

CONAN: So you don't respond to buzz. Has there - can you give us an example of a movie you went to even though you knew how it came out?

WARREN: Well, not off the top of my head. But my other situation, if - like when the "Napoleon Dynamite" movie, when that came out, everybody was - MTV was really portraying it like it would be, you know, really hilarious. I really didn't buy into that. But I was actually surprised, I went and saw how funny it was and I was cutting up in it.

Mr. ANDERSON: Well, this is a bit of a digression, but "Napoleon Dynamite," when it played at Sundance a few years ago, I was aware of the fact that if they overhyped it, it was going to drop dead.

WARREN: Right.

Mr. ANDERSON: And they were very careful to roll it out as if it was going to be each individual moviegoer's cult movie.

WARREN: And...

Mr. ANDERSON: And it was masterfully handled publicity.

CONAN: How do you do that though?

Mr. ANDERSON: It's not in my pay grade. You know what I mean?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Okay. Warren, thanks very much for the call.

WARREN: Thank you.

CONAN: Email from Adam in Birmingham: I find that if the ending is ruined, I am far less likely to go see the movie at the theaters. However, if the film has received very good reviews, I will still go, especially if independent.

Well, I think "The Double Hour" is probably worth your time. Anyway, let's see if we can go next to - this is Joe, Joe with us from Warner Robins in Georgia.

JOE (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JOE: So the question, do I see a movie knowing the end? The answer is yes.

CONAN: How come?

JOE: Part of the reason is I have three small children, so going to a theater is a rare occasion.

CONAN: Well, I can tell you that "Sleeping Beauty" does wake up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOE: Yes, exactly.

Mr. ANDERSON: Well, when you have a small...

JOEL: My main point is, is that I don't think it's such a big deal because people still buy DVDs, and I have DVDs and I have books. And I know exactly how they end, but they're still on my shelves.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Okay.

Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah. And when you have small children, you'll see things over and over and over again.

CONAN: Yeah. They do know how it ends all the time, but seem to be eternally surprised.

JOE: Yes. And I still love "The Princess Bride."

CONAN: Thanks very much.

JOE: Thank you very much.

Mr. ANDERSON: Well, you know, knowing the ending never stopped anyone from watching "Psycho" again. I'll watch "Psycho" every week.

CONAN: Most movies are not made by Alfred Hitchcock.

Mr. ANDERSON: Not - well, it's true. It's too bad too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Jody's on the line, Jody with us from Oakland.

JODY (Caller): Oh, hi. Hi. I didn't know that Janet Leigh disappeared 20 minutes into the film, so you guys ruined it for me.

CONAN: We're so sorry.

Mr. ANDERSON: Sorry.

CONAN: Yeah. You should go see the movie anyway, Jody.

JODY: I know. I was always afraid of the shower scene. I knew something scary happened, so I just didn't go because of that. But someday I plan to see it, but I don't know now.

CONAN: All right. Well...

Mr. ANDERSON: Well, have you ever seen "Titanic"? Because something terrible happens to the boat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JODY: No, I haven't. What happened?

CONAN: Shhh. Be quiet. Jody, thanks very much.

JODY: Thank you.

CONAN: This is from Lars in Ketchum, Idaho. It's the process of getting caught up in the story that requires one to watch the entire film. I don't - it doesn't affect my enjoyment of the film if the ending is spoiled. I need the visual cues to connect the dots. My wife will not even so much as watch the previews for fear of having seen the film through the trailers.

And you made an interesting point. Those trailers these days are designed to be synopses of the film. I see the trailer. Often I sit there and say no reason to see it, I just saw it.

Mr. ANDERSON: No, exactly. Exactly. You really have to be careful. There's a lot of, sort of a code of ethics among most film writers, I think, especially if you get into the horror genre. Those guys are really careful. But there are also people who pride themselves in being the first with the information and happy to divulge it.

And if you even go on Wikipedia online and look up a film like "The Sixth Sense," if you read the plot synopsis, you find everything out. So you just have to be on your guard.

CONAN: And here's an email from Lou in Minneapolis: I didn't go see the "Titanic" because I already knew the ending. The iceberg wins.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ANDERSON: He gives it away.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Nelson, Nelson with us from Little Rock.

NELSON (Caller): Yeah. Hi, Neal. I was - when the movie "Sixth Sense" came out...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

NELSON: ...everybody was talking it up. But, you know, I didn't know what the ending was when I see the movie. But in that particular scene when the boy comes home from school and the mother and the psychiatrist are sitting on the couch, that's when I figured out the guy was dead...

CONAN: Yeah.

NELSON: ...because they never spoke to each other. So I just kind of sit there and watched the rest of movie. And sure enough, it was, you know - the guy is dead and everybody in the movie theater gasped, and I started laughing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NELSON: And everybody looked at me, you know, like, are you crazy or what? But I will go see a movie even if I know the ending of it, you know - I didn't go see "Titanic." My wife made me rent it as soon as it came out on DVD. I knew what the ending was like everybody else, but I will see a movie if I know what the ending is.

Mr. ANDERSON: Well, would "The Sixth Sense" have been a different - sorry.

CONAN: Go ahead.

Mr. ANDERSON: I'm wondering if "The Sixth Sense" would have been a different experience if you hadn't known there was a twist coming and weren't - you know, your antenna weren't up...

NELSON: Maybe. I don't know. But I'm one of those people who likes to figure out what's going to happen. I sit there and I pay attention to the movie, trying to figure out what is going to happen next, Neal.

CONAN: Well...

NELSON: Maybe I'm ruining the ending for myself just about every time, but that's part of what the kick that I get out of watching movies is, figuring out how, you know, how they're going to twist and turn it and come up with what I think they're going to come up with.

CONAN: Well, if you keep laughing at the big twist, you're going to discover if there can be death by popcorn pelting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NELSON: Yeah. I may find that out one day.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Nelson.

NELSON: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with John Anderson, who's a contributor to the Arts and Leisure section of The New York Times about spoiler alerts. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

This email from William in Nashville: I'd like to suggest the greatest source of spoilers in my experience would be critics and some, unfortunately, on NPR.

Critics, it's hard not to give away something about the movie if you're trying to write about it.

Mr. ANDERSON: It's impossible not to give away something. So the advice is if you're going to go to a film and you're interested in the critiques, then you read them after you've gone to the film. I think they're much more interesting that way anyway, because then you can compare your perception with the critics and you know something about the critics that you didn't know before.

CONAN: I once heard a distinction between a reviewer who assumes the person reading it has not seen the movie and a critic who assumes they have.

Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah. I don't know - I guess it depends on the venue for which you're writing and what time and, you know, what level of involvement in film you expect the readers to have. If you're writing for Film Comment, I think you're probably - you're going to assume they've seen it. And if you're writing for the Friday edition of, you know, The New York Times, you're not.

CONAN: Hmm. All right. Here's an email from Trisha in Grand Rapids: I wouldn't go see "Gran Torino" when it came out because my pastor gave away the ending in his sermon. Everybody's a critic. It didn't include just Twitter and Facebook. Spoilers are even on the pulpit.

Mr. ANDERSON: Well, you know, my friend Bruce Goldstein, who's in the story I wrote for the Times - and he's seen everything. And he says in the piece that he never went to see "Planet of the Apes" because somebody in third grade or something gave away the ending.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's go next to...

Mr. ANDERSON: Scarred for life.

CONAN: Aurelia(ph) - Aureela(ph) - Aureela - is that right?

AURELIA (Caller): Aurelia.

CONAN: Aurelia. Go ahead, please, in Sacramento.

AURELIA: Hi. What I wanted to say is my irritation would come with a reviewer who spoiled the ending in movies such as "Usual Suspects," for example, or "Identity," where it really takes, you know, takes your mind in different directions and suppositions before you catch up and it's revealed.

For movies like "Titanic," retold stories, it's quite different because they're well-known. But with a tight mystery and suspense like that, I just - I would be very disappointed in whoever the reviewer was. And I don't go to Wikipedia or Twitter or Facebook because of that reason too.

CONAN: I hadn't thought of "The Usual Suspects," but yeah, that would be one where it would be - it would be a different experience if you knew the ending.

Mr. ANDERSON: Now, did you actually read someone who gave that ending away? Because that would be sacreligious.

AURELIA: I did not, but that was just an example. It came to my mind because that would just be, I don't know, just - oh, terrible to me if the ending had been revealed. I'm sure maybe somebody did back then. I never told anybody. I don't tell my friends. They ask, you know. Uh-uh.

CONAN: All right.

AURELIA: I'm not a spoiler.

CONAN: Okay. Thanks - thanks very much for the call.

AURELIA: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email, Lindy in Fayetteville: I know how "Harry Potter" ends but I'm going to be there on opening night anyway. I think that's a different phenomenon.

Mark in Minneapolis: If the filmmaker is masterful enough, any potential twist doesn't matter. I still hold up "Memento" as a premier example because it starts with the ending. Kudos to Christopher Nolan (unintelligible) make great movies that withstand any spoilers.

Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah. I mean if the whole - if the movie depends on a hook to, you know, make its name or sell any tickets at all, then it's probably not a very good movie. And we probably don't care about it in the end. There are probably plenty - well, there was a - there's a film called "Homicidal" that was made by William Castle after "Psycho" came out and it's a - clearly a rip-off of "Psycho." In the trailer it says don't give away the ending or I'll kill you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ANDERSON: So - yeah.

CONAN: Let's get Mary on the line, Mary with us from Mansfield in Massachusetts.

MARY (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to make a comment that the current climate that filmmakers are working in which they have a lot of spoiler alerts and that everything might be known about their films I think presents a unique challenge for them to really explore different ways of unfolding the plot and character development and really, you know, crafting a really solid, a good film.

CONAN: In your piece, John Anderson, you describe during the making of "Sixth Sense" that, you know, copies of the script were protected in Fort Knox.

Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah. They had to practically, you know, take a blood oath about revealing anything that was in that script. And it was a script - they knew, Disney knew right away that they, you know, they wanted it, they guarded it. And they were smart. They knew what the hook was going to be and how much mileage they could get out of it.

But it is interesting. The caller points out that sort of the time in which we live sort of dictates content in the films, because you have to contend as you're making a film with how much you're going to be able to protect and how it's going to be revealed to the audience. It's a really interesting conundrum.

CONAN: John Anderson's piece "Spoiler Alert: It Hits an Iceberg," ran in The New York Times April 10. There's a link to it on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us from our bureau in New York. Thanks very much.

Mr. ANDERSON: Oh, you're welcome.

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