Great Expectations

In this post, Nick and Ryan reflect on a very important part of consuming media – our expectations. What are they? Where do they come from? How important are they? 

NICK:  

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on my viewing and listening habits and the expectations I project onto any mediatized product.

I guess kicking off a website devoted to movies, music, and television makes one more self-aware of what they’re actually doing when they say, “see this,” or “this is a bad song.”  

In the end, it comes down to expectations. Whether you’re picking up Beyonce’s latest on iTunes or walking into a theater to see Fincher’s latest, consumers demand that their prospects are answered in spades. When they are, this is the mark of a “good” piece of work.

Where do these expectations come from? I can wax poetic on a number of times when my expectations weren’t meant, but I’d be hard pressed to explain where these expectations are born from. Certainly, they come from a number of sources, but what do you think?

Ryan:

ex·pec·ta·tion

ˌekspekˈtāSH(ə)n/

noun

noun: expectation; plural noun: expectations

  • a strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future. (source: Google)

I’m looking forward to this post. Should be a good one.

Okay, okay, joking aside. Our expectations are interesting to talk about because they are a priori, or “before the fact,” “before the thing,” or “before the experience.” In this case, before experiencing the movie or whatever text it is, we bring our preconceptions. Essentially, we prepare ourselves to go through a certain experience, to end up feeling a certain way. Not meeting expectations is not necessarily “good” or “bad.” The thing may transcend, fall flat, or end up leaving us with mixed feelings. It’s the latter two that leave us feeling disappointed and frustrated.

What are expectations based on? Previous experience, knowledge, and hype and marketing for starters. Oftentimes these areas are intermixed. Let’s take promotional TV spots and other ads as an example. Consider this TV spot for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012).

 

 

“Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln has been nominated for 12 Academy Awards.” There’s a lot packed in those ten words.

First, Spielberg’s reputation as a filmmaker. Wrapped up in this is his body of work, his commercial success, and critical acclaim. With a history of making “good” movies, we come to expect future works to be “good” as well. Second, there’s the esteem that comes from Oscar nominations (and Sundance awards, and Golden Globe awards, etc.). If something receives a nomination, it has got to be great, right?

Much of our expectations are build on something from our past, either very specifically, such as through knowing Spielberg’s works, or generally, such as liking a particular style or genre.

Nick, what’s your take on these ideas? Also, I’m curious to know some experiences that exceeded and some that failed to meet your expectations.

Using Spielberg, or rather Spielberg’s filmography is a great example, Ryan. Good call.

Throughout the years, those who watch his efforts similarly as I do (or I like them) have developed and bolstered a specific set of orientations and conventions movie by movie.  Spielberg’s films are obviously not a genre onto themselves; in fact, he works very comfortably within the parameters of specific genres: action & adventure (Raiders of The Lost Ark), sci-fi (Close Encounters of The Third Kind, Minority Report), and even war (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan).  

What’s made Spielberg Spielberg are the “stylistic and thematic tics” that reappear time and time again; what he brings to his work constitutes at least a considerable fraction of the stars that have to align for his movie to become beloved. Take a look at this online article from TIME Magazine (2012).

great expectations awestruck faces

When Spielberg announces his next project, it’s an announcement! When his work comes to fruition and we go to the theater, it’s an event (at least it was when I was growing up)! In short, Spielberg’s relationship to audiences’ expectations have been largely positive—certainly financially and more-or-less critically. Dollars, cents, and little statues equate to something important in Western culture. Spielberg has plenty of both. Am I wrong?  

That’s how expectations can be a good thing.

Expectations become a problem when they’re mistaken for predictability; predictability becomes a problem when it’s the yardstick in which a piece of media is measured by consumers. I feel like expectations/predictability is becoming a serious issue because these days everyone’s a critic, myself included.

Flash back to the summer of 2013.

I was ready for what I felt certain was going to be the movie of the summer movie-going season, Man of Steel. I knew who was involved (writer David Goyer and producer Christopher freakin’ Nolan) and I had seen the trailers.

Oh boy…

To say the least, I had expectations.

Expectations set by the people involved, expectations because of the character, and those incredible trailers. The latter had us believe Man of Steel would be a religious allegory and explore mankind’s relationship with this god-like figure from the sky.

Of course, my expectations were not met. In fact, MoS was a different movie entirely. If Warner Bros. embraced the parallels between Superman and Jesus Christ, it was largely for promotional purposes. What I got out of the movie wasn’t necessarily poor, but a very by-the-book action movie. Just one more entry in the ever-growing superhero genre.  

And my god was it predictable… don’t get me started.

Answer me this, Ryan: if I had gone into the theater with anything less than the expectations I had set for it, would I be able to overlook the film’s ordinary nature? Again, MoS is by no means horrible, but very flat.  In the end, I’m left wondering whether media and expectations are a toxic blend and how I can make my relationship with media consumption something more pure and less reliant on the “stuff” I bring to the proceedings.

What a headache.

For more on the Christian connections with Man of Steel, take a look at this website: http://manofsteelresources.com/. This site is an official tie-in for pastors, including free screenings and movie-themed sermon guides.

great expectations man of steel

(I’ve done research on MoS tie-ins and could do a post at some point if you like, Nick. We could also do a future post about toys and other types of tie-ins and promotions. Hey reader, isn’t it fun seeing the sausage get made in these rebuttals? Talk about behind the candelabra!)

Now I’ll answer Nick’s question about walking into the theater. If you didn’t have those expectations, would you have paid the $9 or $10 to sit your butt in that cinema seat? Probably no, but perhaps. The cinema is interesting because, unlike say rentals or Netflix, I don’t just go randomly or spontaneously. I know what’s playing, and I’ve seen the ads or trailers. I try not to read reviews, but I can’t escape the marketing. Now, say for rentals or Netflix, they seem freer in a sense. As a consumer, I feel more flexible. Sometimes I’ll just grab a movie I know very little about. When going to the movies, there seems to be that extra something. Does it all come down to marketing? The business side of this commercial artform we call movies?

Perhaps this “purer” consumption is where media seems to be heading — online, digital, on-demand, omnipresent, binge-able; whatever, wherever, whenever. (Of course, there will always be various limits, on what, where, and when – but the idea still stands)

And yes, Man of Steel was emotionally flat. It got close to real empathy in so many places, but never finished the job.

Interesting direction; run with those ideas and let’s see what shakes loose.

Certainly, I’m no authority on these matters, but I’m thinking about the following idea more and more: just because expectations aren’t surpassed, let alone met, shouldn’t necessarily mean you have license to hate a mediatized product. Unfortunately, that seems to be the trend these days. If a film doesn’t “succeed” by MY terms, it sucks. This scares me because there’s the potential that great and creative things will continue to slip through the cracks. Our tastes and expectations need to evolve for the next revolution in storytelling etc. to take place.

Do we place too much value on the first time experience? If we aren’t immediately wow’d, it is a disappointment. But evaluations change over time and with repeated viewings. For instance, the first time I saw The Big Lebowski, I hated it. When I saw it again, I “got” it.

First impressions matter, but goddamn it, they ought not be king.

Feature image: screenshot from David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946).

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