EVERY YEAR big film festivals like Venice and Cannes bring a collection of the world’s most acclaimed filmmakers, critics and actors together in a celebration of cinema. Every year, audiences launch into prolonged demonstrations of appreciation for the newly premiered films on display. And every year, people are confused by the same concept: why on earth do these people cheer for so long?
With the 80th Venice Film Festival in full swing, this confusion is more prominent than ever. If you’re not sure why a good film necessitates a quarter of an hour of applause, you’re not alone. Award winning director David Fincher, who has helmed classics like Fight Club, Se7en, and The Social Network, was in Venice for the premiere of his latest flick: The Killer, starring Michael Fassbender as a philosophising assassin. The Killer was clearly a hit with the audience, who launched into a standard round of applause, but as that applause continued, Fincher could be seen with growing confusion, clearly puzzled at the rapidly deteriorating situation. “What is this?” Fincher could be seen mouthing, with many other uninitiated onlookers likely pondering similar questions.
DAVID FINCHER looking confused why the Venice Film Festival crowd kept clapping for 5 minutes after “The Killer” ended.— Emir Han (@RealEmirHan) September 4, 2023
When confronted with a film that hits you right in the sweet spot between relatable, impactful and aspirational, you may feel compelled to express your appreciation by briefly putting your hands together, you may even find yourself eliciting a cursory cheer—Barbie recently had this effect on us. Anything more would not only be pushing the limits of what is socially acceptable, it would border on insanity, doubtlessly drawing you a few questioning looks from fellow movie-goers. So, why do audiences at major film festivals give standing ovations until their legs are hurting, hands are aching, and ears are ringing?
Why do standing ovations last so long at film festivals?
The motivations behind exceedingly lengthy ovations at film festivals can be broken down into a few simple factors: tradition and social hierarchy. The pageantry of film festivals might appear to be verging on insanity to outsiders, but protracted standing ovations are not only an iconic element of the festivals, but a means to pay respect and reinforce a hierarchy within the industry.
Certain members of the film industry command a certain level of respect. As such, celebrated filmmakers like David Fincher are guaranteed to receive drawn-out adulation to reinforce their place atop the Hollywood hierarchy, regardless of whether they’re aware of the practice or not. That’s why the films receiving the longest periods of applause are usually backed by heavily influential stakeholders.
The length of standing ovations is not pre-determined and is anything but organised. But that doesn’t mean the applause could potentially never end. The length of standing ovations is a study in human nature. Most members of the audience likely spend the duration of the ovation subtly glancing at the person next to them to decide when they should stop cheering. This process occurs throughout the crowd, who collectively decide how long is too long.
Why do standing ovations matter?
Yes, while spending close to half an hour applauding might sound laborious, the length of standing ovations has since become a genuine measure of a film’s quality. If the crowd at Cannes or Venice were brought to their feet for long enough, the hype surrounding a film is sure to build.
Sure, it’s ridiculous, but the length of standing ovations might be the most fun way to determine a films quality. If you’re sick of arbitrary rating systems assigning meaningless numbers to a film’s value, then deciding whether a film is worth watching based on how long people clapped for it could be right up your alley.
In all seriousness, the length of standing ovations really doesn’t matter. It’s not a good indicator of a films value, nor does it predict critical, box office, or awards season success. That being said, the films that receive the longest standing ovations are usually worth watching.
What is the longest standing ovation?
The crowds at major film festivals are known for being rather pretentious, which is why the film that received longest ever standing ovation at Cannes or Venice is such a surprise. If you cared to hazard a guess for what that film is, you probably wouldn’t have picked Pan’s Labyrinth. Guillermo Del Toro’s dark historical fantasy premiered in Cannes in 2006 and drew a whopping 22-minute standing ovation. The thought of clapping for nearly half an hour is enough to make many reach for some lotion—just think of the wear and tear on your hands!
Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 earned a 20-minute ovation in 2004 and went on to become the highest grossing documentary of all time. While on the less successful side of things, Mud, which stars Matthew McConaughey, brought the crowd to their feet for 18 minutes in 2012, but went on to achieve only middling success upon wider release. Guess those snooty critics can’t always be right.