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Results from the Page 17 test

April 7, 2009

As you may recall, I recently decided to do a test on a claim made by a screenwriter.  The man was writer-director Nathan Marshall, and these were his exact words:

Next time you watch a DVD, pause it 17 minutes into the film. Trust me—any film. What’s happening at that point in the story? Most likely, the essential character conflict has just been laid out.

This sounded like a really cool thing.  Go to the 16:00 marker in any movie, press PLAY, and watch the conflict established itself?  Cooool.  So, in the interest of great lulz, I selected twenty different DVDs, put them in the player, forwarded to “Page 17”, and recorded my results.

And here they go:

1. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Right off the bat, I noticed that something was amiss.  There was no setup happening at all during Page 17.  The only thing that happened was that the previous scene, an action sequence, built to a climax and the main characters escaped.  Part of the character conflict – Indiana and the Russians – had been established much earlier, around the 5:00 mark.  The rest – Indiana, Marion, and Mutt – would not be established until much later.

Verdict: There was a plot point – the climax of the escape-from-the-warehouse scene – but it established nothing for the story to come.  Fail.

2. Left Behind II: Tribulation Force

Much better performance on the second go.  When we enter the scene at 16:00, we come into a discussion between two of the main characters.  It seems that Buck has just decided to meet with the Big Bad of the story.  Bruce tries to talk him out of it, but Buck is adamant.

Verdict: Not only does the scene climax, but a portion of the story is established.  Buck’s decision to meet with Carpathia will lead to a job offer, which will get him into several pivotal locations later in the story.  Pass.

3. The Day After Tomorrow

Page 17 puts us in space, where a group of astronauts in the orbiting space station look down on Earth.  They see, for the first time, the immense storms that have been building.  Cut to an airplane, which is beginning to experience turbulence.  The main character mentions his fear of flying.

Verdict: No character setup, but this is nonetheless a pivotal point of the film: the main antagonist (the storm) is introduced in full.  Pass.

(Incidentally, when the rating page for the movie came up, it read PG-13, for sequences of peril.  I misread it as “sequences of fail”.  Realistically, movies that fail as hard as The Day After Tomorrow should be given a warning.)

4. Dinotopia

This was to be my first length test.  Being a Hallmark miniseries, it runs somewhere around four hours long, and therefore wouldn’t have to conform to the rule.

Yet it did so, and effectively: Page 17 brings us to the main characters, two brothers, introducing themselves to an important female character.  The exchange that occurs hints at the rivalry between the two brothers, setting the stage for the heavy competition that will occur over the female character.

Verdict: While I wouldn’t say that the movie is about David and Karl’s competition over Marion, it is nonetheless a plot thread that will be revisited many times.  Pass.

5. National Treasure

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

When they said that, they were clearly talking about this movie.  When I hit PLAY at 16:00, it launched straight into Ben Gates’ big epiphany: that the map, which they would be following throughout the rest of the movie, was hidden on the back of the Declaration of Independence.  You could not pick a more pivotal scene if you tried.

Verdict: While it didn’t establish any character conflict, it was THE turning point in the film.  Pass.

6. The Spy Who Loved Me

I will admit straight off that I haven’t seen this movie, so I was a little fuzzy as to what was actually going on, but the scene looked pretty good.  It opened up to the Big Bad talking to a couple of his associates, and revealing that one of his employees had betrayed him.  He then fed her to the sharks.

Verdict: For a series notorious for its vapid and superficial plots, the movie nonetheless delivered a scene which helped to establish one of its major characters.  Pass.

7. Peter Pan (Live-Action Version)

Wendy offers to sew Peter’s shadow back to his foot.  She spends the remainder of the minute completing this task.

Verdict: The infamous foot-sewing scene is a huge turning point in Wendy and Peter’s relationship, earning Peter’s respect for Wendy and inspiring his offer to take her to Neverland.  Pass with flying colors.

8. The Cat From Outer Space

Wouldn’t you know it – even old movies seem to follow this.  Page 17 of The Cat From Outer Space has the cat entering the main character’s laboratory, getting noticed by said character, and getting a name.

Verdict: Well, it didn’t introduce any conflict, but it brought the two characters together, which was pretty darned important.  Pass.

9. Logan’s Run

The main characters meet in the male character’s house.  He learns her name and that she is unhappy about her friend’s death on Carousel.  It seems largely unimportant now, but once he starts his mission he uses this information to find her and get help.  Pass.

10. The Magical Legend of the Leprechauns

Second length test, another Hallmark miniseries approximately four hours in length.  On page 17, one of the main characters is hanging out with his friends when a strange character appears.  They talk, and the characters (and audience) learn that the Grand Banshee has forbidden fighting between the faeries and leprechauns.  At the end of the minute, the characters have their first run-in with the MC’s arch-enemy.

Verdict: Not only did we introduce a huge plot point, but they even fit in an important antagonist.  Pass.

11. Westworld

Page 17: The main antagonist, who before now had been standing quietly at the bar, begins insulting the main character, looking to pick a fight.

Verdict: The antagonist has been introduced, and now we learn enough about his character to figure out what he’ll be doing for the remainder of the film.  Pass.

2. A Bug’s Life

When we cut to 16:00, we find that the ant council is in session, discussing what to do about the grasshopper problem.  The main character interrupts and proposes his idea, to which the council agrees.

Verdict: In only one minute, the remaining plot (aside from twists, of course) has been outlined and set into motion.  Pass.

13. The Munsters’ Revenge

Page 17 finds one of the main characters on a raging rampage throughout a police station, aggravated by a bug that crawled up his sleeve somewhat earlier.  He storms about, breaking furniture, for almost the entire minute before being pinned by police.  Shortly after the minute, he and the other main character are arrested.

Verdict: The remainder of the movie centers around the characters breaking out of jail and trying to clear their names.  Pass.

14. Ice Age

The sabretooths are in the midst of attacking the human village.  A human woman flees with her baby; one of the sabretooths chases after her.  He runs her to the edge of a cliff.  Seeing no other option, she jumps off; the baby will later be washed up and found by the main characters.  The sabretooth returns and reports that the baby has escaped; he will be assigned to retrieve it.

Verdict:  And that’s the plot of your movie right there.  Pass.

15. Batman & Robin

This is the movie that I just pulled off the top of the dresser and popped in.  The random selection did not go unrewarded: page 17 is utterly dull, following the female antagonist as she stalks about her laboratory talking into a recorder, then breaks into the laboratory of her rival scientist who is demonstrating his latest whackjob experiment.

Verdict: We already knew that these scientists were at odds, and Page 17 doesn’t do anything to expound on the matter.  Besides, only one of them will make it out alive.  Fail.

16. Arsenic and Old Lace

A really old one this time, just to see how far back the “rule” runs.  On Page 17 (assuming that page number was concurrent with time back then), the main character sends his new wife into her house to pack, then rushes to his own home to share the good news with his aunts.

Verdict: It could have been the body in the window seat.  It could have been the guy telling his wife he was going to be a bit longer than expected.  Instead, it was a small, lighthearted and ultimately trivial domestic matter.  Fail.

17. The Court Jester

And, putting the nail in the coffin for old movies, we have The Court Jester.  Page 17 puts us in the middle of a confrontation between the main character and a few minor antagonists.  The confrontation is resolved and the characters go on their way.

Verdict: The two set-up pieces – the guards meeting the MC for the first time, and the MC chatting with his love interest – happen before and after this point, respectively.  Nothing interesting occurs at 16:00.  Fail.

18. The Phantom of the Opera

And back to new movies.  At minute 16, we see the opera managers receiving their first message from the main antagonist, then learning the name of the protagonist.

Verdict: Two characters are made relevant in one minute.  Pass.

19: Lady and the Tramp

For the lulz, I dredged out an old animated classic.  And it performed pretty much as expected: at 16:00, we find the male protagonist seeking out lunch.  He finds it, takes it away to eat, and is interrupted by a dog-catcher’s van.

Verdict: It isn’t until 17:00 that the audience learns what the situation is, and it’s a minute too late.  Fail.

20: CSI, Episode “To Halve and to Hold”

I didn’t really think this one would work, but he did say every film, so I decided to be thorough about it.  Even knowing full well that the setup for these episodes happens before the credits, I went to Page 17 to check it out.  We have two of the main characters talking about some cells they’ve just discovered, then going to question the guest characters for the episode.  The guest characters bicker a bit when questioned.

Verdict: In a show where every other scene is some kind of brilliant revelation, this minute somehow failed to deliver any new information.  Fail.

In conclusion, it would appear that Marshall’s statement, while valid, was a bit hasty.  Older movies don’t experience this effect at all, and even newer productions have exceptions.  Page 17, while a popular turning point, is far from a magic number.

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