One of the points beaten into my head at my first writing workshop was that an author needs to grab the reader's attention right from the start and give them a roadmap to guide them through the action that unfolds. Readers don't necessarily need the backstory, but they should have a clear idea of who the main characters are (or at least the viewpoint character), what the nature of the opening conflict is, and what is at stake.
I've just seen two very different movies, District 9 and Burn After Reading, that seem to disregard completely these guidelines.
In District 9, the audience sits through at least 20 minutes of mock documentary footage, including commentary from academic types sitting behind desks, before they get any sense of what the movie's plot is or even who the main characters will turn out to be. The whole movie is roughly 72 minutes long. If I were to read the equivalent number of pages to open a novel with as little an idea of what was going on, there's probably a 1 in 4 chance at best that I'd bother to keep reading to the end.
Now, I liked District 9 by the time the film had ended. The action starts moving, you start to identify with and sympathize with key characters, and it remains visually interesting throughout. But the entire opening is basically a huge infodump, the likes of which would get any manuscript hooted at in most workshops (based on having heard a LOT of workshop horror stories last week) and tossed into the slush pile at most publishers.
Burn After Reading shares a similar problem, except that instead of elaborating a complex social setting, it spends the opening minutes laboring over the plight of an unsympathetic character aimlessly facing a life crisis, who then fades into the background of the film. The entire bit could be dispensed with in two minutes of efficient cinematography and dialogue. And while the final scene of the movie is somewhat funny, overall it's just a meandering mess like so many of the Coen Brother's films, a bunch of slow-paced scenes interspersed with some intense action and filled with a lot of confused people. It's more like staged reality television than storytelling.
Though the two films shared very similar flaws with their beginnings, they left me with very different impressions by the end.
This got me to wondering: are the rules for opening sequences in films just that much different than the rules for openings in written fiction because with a movie you've got a captive audience? Who really walks out of a movie theater anymore after shelling out nearly $10 for a ticket? I've only walked out of one film in my adult life, the Thin Red Line.
As long as you end your film well, it seems that the opening can be rather aimless. People are investing less time in the experience than they are for even a short novel, after all, and may be more likely to forgive the time you wasted.
I've been reading McKee's famous book on scriptwriting, Story, and interestingly it doesn't seem to address this issue of different expectations anywhere. I find a lot of his advice useful, but on the other hand he seems much more impressed with the writing in the movies that he uses as examples than I am for the most part. I've never seen a movie whose story made the same impression on me as my favorite books. I've never seen a film adaptation of a good book that had anywhere near the power and beauty of the book. Even a lengthy, well-done graphic novel loses power and precision when translated to the film screen.
I don't question that writing a script is hard work, I just don't find the results to be as satisfying or rich in terms of narrative storytelling as other forms. A film script relies to an extraordinary degree upon our built-in fascination with images to gloss over the characters and plots in movies that simply don't hold up well under careful scrutiny and which would not pass muster in a serious novel without further explanation. I suppose part of the charm of films is that you have to bring your own interpretations to so many of them to make sense of the events.
On the other hand, I do enjoy the series format. Rather than see a television series I've enjoyed make the leap to the big screen (like Star Trek or Firefly), I much prefer to see a good film get expanded and developed over the course of many episodes and seasons until it becomes a richer, more satisfying storytelling experience. I'd be much happier if the bulk of the money wasted on big-budget movies got spent on developing high-budget television series with great casts and good production values--especially if they had sci-fi or fantasy themes.