Sunday, April 14, 2024

The Weird Phenomenon of Movie Reaction Videos

Over Lockdown, Jamie and I started watching a few different YouTube reaction channels, starting with music and eventually branching out into movies.  I'd say I watch 1-2 movie reactions per week.  

But I always walk away with the thought:  what am I watching here and why?

For those who don't watch them or are unfamiliar, the basic set-up is:
  • One or more people sit down to watch a movie they at least claim they've not seen, or it's been a very long time since they've seen it
  • With a split screen showing themselves and the movie as much as they can, given copyright law, they talk over the movie, reacting to it in real time
  • They cut the video down to about 30 minutes of highlights
  • The film itself is shown in short clips, often blurred.  It's hard to describe, but a lot is done to make sure they aren't going to get hit with a copyright violation.
  • It's basically personality vlogging as folks have their catch phrases, somewhat predictable emotional responses, etc...
  • There's usually a very brief preamble and a very short actual reaction to the film

The popularity of the concept mostly relies on the notion that you get to see someone react to a movie you've previously seen.  And to ensure the number of viewers is high, they more or less watch gigantic movie after gigantic movie - because what fun is it to watch someone watch some esoteric movie for the first time if you don't already know it?

The movies are often decades old, things Gen-X came up on which have persisted because of Gen-X's movie obsession and the 1980's - 1990's boom in cinema.

Sometimes the reactors haven't seen the movie because they're younger than the intended audience from the release date of the movie.   Sometimes it just wasn't on their cultural radar.  But for a lot of them, it just seems like movies were not a thing they did before they got a YouTube channel, which is horrifying to the film industry, but also not that uncommon.  Why these people decide to give up their day jobs and do this for a living, I cannot begin to guess.  But there's certainly people out there who are now making a living "reacting" to very popular music, movies and television shows on the YouTubes.

Because it's not usually a full movie (although some seem to do the whole movie on their Patreons?) I guess the studios see this as free promotion.  I've not heard of anyone going after these people.

There's also movies that make their way through the react-o-sphere that all of them seem to watch at once.  Say it's the start of baseball season, then maybe everyone watches Field of Dreams.  Or it's Christmas, so they all watch It's a Wonderful Life.  So, if you want to see some folks in Oklahoma watch that movie, go for it.  If you want to see Canadians watch a movie for the first time, okay then.

As the person viewing, as near as I can tell - after having watched no small share of these videos - the purposes of the videos for the viewer are 
  • watching the highlights of a movie you know
  • seeing someone watch a movie and awaiting them seeing the twists and turns and whatnot
What it can't be is watching someone watch a movie you've never seen.  That's kind of pointless.  But I do suppose these YouTubers do have fans who are catching up on what-to-watch or just like the personalities of the YouTubers, and movies don't really matter.

And I get it -   I unsuccessfully ran a movie discussion podcast for years.  And I can tell you that there's a very weird few paths you can follow to get hits (more than the very, very few hits I used to get week over week).  You can cover something like Ghostbusters that everyone has seen, and *maybe* the algorithm will point people to your podcast and you'll get some extra listens, while also getting "dislikes" on YouTube because some kid in Hyderabad, India is mad that this is *not* a copyrighted movie streaming for free and instead someone's dumb podcast.  Or you do something like The Raid that has a rabid fanbase, but it's not super popular in the US, but does have people interested.  But for these folks, every week if Ghostbusters so they can get those sweet, sweet clicks.  

But if you cover, say, a French crime movie, then you might as well talk to yourself in a broom closet.  Nobody cares.  People who've seen the movie probably don't want to listen to your jug-headed opinion.  It's likely, frankly, if they like and have seen those movies, that they're enough of a film snob that they really only are looking at trusted or "legitimate" sources interested in discussion and a certain flavor of review/ criticism.  

Thus, it seems the economy of reaction videos is based on the opposite of expertise or film criticism.  The people I've seen doing the reaction videos are folks who are unfamiliar with movies, often writ large.  Some of them seem to be slowly learning who directors are and why that's relevant.  Some seem to mention favorite actors.  But, if you do have a bit of the film-snob in you, the reaction video by grown adults can feel like a very strange way to engage with film.  It's about the *reaction*, not the film itself.  And, in some ways, maybe it's interesting to look at a single movie as existing within a vacuum if you don't know or care about who made it or why.  There's maybe some zen wisdom there.  After all, reviews and criticism are a reaction as well.  

But that means reaction videos jettison anything resembling criticism, and, in fact, encourage the reactors to like *everything*.  Or at least not drag it.   After all, they cover movies based on what their audience suggests they watch, and people are generally suggesting movies that they think the reviewers will react *well* to.  The viewership of the reactions is based on the pleasure of seeing the anticipated reaction.

It takes a certain mindset to suggest something because it's unbelievably bad, and a matching mindset to say "I will watch this because it is bad, and share it with my YouTube audience".  And that space is filled by the Elviras, MST3Ks and Joe Bob Briggses of the world.  And I don't think Millennials or The Youths really dig on that in the same way we did, Gen-X'ers.  I am positive there are people covering bad movies on YouTube, but maybe not as well-liked reaction videos.

The hunt for likes and subscribes also means the movies covered are mostly pretty good but not the most interesting stuff out there.  Often it can feel a bit like deciding on pizza for dinner.  It's a movie/ meal, but it's not terribly balanced, and it can start to make what makes the movies/ pizza seem a little boring after a while.  Ie:  the movies are rarely challenging in any real way, shape or form, and ride that PG-13 line to make sure YouTube doesn't shut them down, AND the reactors can maximize their audience.  Even if I'm not sure any of that is really intentional.

It's worth noting that - like I say - because this isn't a proper review where an argument is being made, something is being dived into about the movie, etc...  there's just not much "there" there.  It's just people saying "ow, wow" and "I didn't expect that".  This isn't criticism, and it's not intended to be.  

But given the chance to more deeply discuss the movies at the end - the folks doing reactions choose not to stick around for post-game analysis.  There's usually a bit about "I wasn't expecting this or that", but not exactly a look into "what was this movie about explicitly and implicitly, what can we see in the movie, was it saying, and did it succeed?"  And, yeah, I know most people don't watch movies for that, but it would be nice if there was a high school-level discussion of the text, I guess.  We all had to talk about themes, motifs and imagery in Junior-year English.  I'm just... it'd be nice sometimes.  And, of course, a lot of your popcorn faire movies actively avoid that, so you may need to do some work.

But it's also telling this is not what the audience for the videos wants.  They want for strangers to agree with popular consensus on camera.  This isn't Red Letter Media where you get a circle of dudes with a variety of opinions, and the dynamic is how they play off each other as much as the movie.*  

Snob paragraph:  It can be a little exhausting as there's a correlation between the lack of movies seen and maybe some larger cultural literacy.  Look, we *all* have this problem.  But in general knowing who major actors are, basics of recent or the past century of history, etc...  seem like good things to have at your fingertips to get a movie.  Or, to get the bigger context in which a movie came into existence.  And while this absence of cultural currency does highlight the heavy lifting Hollywood often has to do to make a movie that will work for millions of eyeballs (and to put millions of butts in seats), it's weird to see the reaction video makers not recognize major entertainment figures when they're getting thousands and thousands of views on YouTube for watching movies.  Or, you know, knowing something about some basic history would be nice.  

In short:  someone who actually cared about movies prior to the year 2020 would be horrible at reaction videos because it would come off like a commentary track by someone uninvolved with the movie's production.  

Even if the movie is new to someone with a film-buff's knowledge, you're going to wind up sounding like a RiffTrax or you're going to be trying to make larger points that a movie in motion doesn't make time for.  And it's likely you will not be seeing a popular movie for the first time.  And you'll just get zero views as you react to Ken Russell movies or whatever.

This all probably feels like a dig, but I'm mostly just fascinated with the phenomenon.  After all, I am a participant as a viewer of some reaction videos, and you will find me saying "oh, damn, they did THAT movie?  Ha.  Let's see what they say..."  But in a world where the *distraction* economy (Insta, Tik-Tok, etc...) is starting to dwarf actual entertainment, it's pretty wild to see people just watching movies, just as it's weird that kids will sit and watch other kids play video games.  

What are we doing as an audience and why does it matter what some rando's in middle America think about a movie if we roll our eyes at actual film critics?  Is it because we know criticism and contemporary reviews are a blip and we know that what matters is the longevity of the stuff that works?  And we want to see someone else appreciate a thing for the first time?  (And showing kids anything can be an exercise in frustration if they aren't getting it?) 

I don't have all the answers.  But I also think this is fascinating stuff.  It's the ultimate democratization of the film reviewing experience in its way, but maybe also pandering to nostalgia in a very, very particular way.  And, of course, the weirdness of parasocial relationships with YouTubers as you return to their channels.  

As someone whose hobby is watching and writing up movies, I very much appreciate the journey these folks are on, while remaining fascinated that there's so little... curiosity about the film industry, the talent, etc...  I mean, they won't even open IMDB to answer a basic question during a movie, and I don't know if I've watched a single show or movie in the past decade without glancing at my phone at some point to figure out "why does that lady look familiar?"  

I don't know where this is going (reaction videos, not this post).  And in 5 years, maybe we'll all be saying "remember when people were just reacting to movies?"  Or, more likely, more popular reaction folks will have their own programming or channels on Max or Paramount+.  But I do find it weird that the phenomenon is so little discussed online or in articles.  Do critics not know this is happening?  Have they dismissed it?  But it is here, and I think worthy of its own discussion.

*I mostly avoided Red Letter Media while podcasting as I didn't want it to influence what we were doing, which was maybe stupid, but I didn't want to hear myself echo back anything they said.  Also, I think they got better at what they do in the interval when I wasn't watching.


RHPT said...

Vdeos of kids unboxing toys. Kids LOVE those videos. Never understood it. Ultimately, it just became another form of commercials as toy companies started paying kid influencers to unbox their product ("kid influencers". Kill me)

The League said...

I've looked up unboxing videos mostly to see what something actually looks like in real life, but I've never watched one start to finish. I never really got the appeal, but I was not 8 years old when they started.

That's the odd thing about these videos - they're not really influencers. They're being influenced by their audience.