I admit the title is brash, and it sounds like a loaded question, but if audiences will sit through 95 minutes of garbage just to get to the killer 20-minute finale, should you give a crap about the rest of your movie? Crystal Skull didn’t. Why should we?
We should get one thing out of the way: Act 1 is crucial. I learned this the hard way. Death Grip originally had a fight scene in the beginning, but we scrapped it for lack of time. After shooting we realized we needed it because, in the words of a sales agent, “An action movie without action in the first 10 minutes is suicide.” So I bit the bullet and did some pickups, and I admit, the film’s even cooler now.
In the world of early 1990s Jim Jarmusch independent cinema, an indie thriller with all buildup until the 23-minute mark would work. But that was then. Now we have digital, and everyone makes movies. So we have to fight for our audience. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s our audience, they want action entertainment, and 99% of them won’t give an action film the time of day if they’re aren’t engaged early on. But once they reach Act 2 at the 25-minute mark, they’ve crossed into commitment territory: suddenly they’re less likely to turn the film off or leave the theater, and they’re ready and willing to absorb the rest of the film like a comatose punching bag. Bad action films with strong beginnings will sell, and even though they’ll get bad reviews for torturing the audience through the second act, they weren’t bad enough to be returned. So, +1 sales. Cheap humor, bad plot twists, character inconsistencies, it all goes in there to fill the space until the 2/3 mark when the finale starts and attempts to make everyone forget about how lame and disjointed the last hour was.
So what are we to think of the fact that audiences keep buying into it? No wonder so many filmmakers hate “average people”: they keep buying this crap! So if it’s financially sound to make a strong Act 1, and then proceed to torture the audience through Act 2, should we as indie action filmmakers do that? If you’re doing the hard work of making comprehensible action scenes that people can follow, then you’ve already decided to respect the audience more than anyone did when working on Crystal Skull. This probably means you like your audience, which makes the answer obvious.