In the early days of cinema, the feature presentation contained two parts, with an intermission halfway, at the mid point. The audience would stretch their legs, visit the bathroom and buy more popcorn. In fact, we didn’t buy popcorn back then. An ice cream vendor walked the aisles, and sold what I remember to be the best ice cream I have ever tasted in the world – ever.
The ice cream vendor disappeared. Not because we didn’t like ice cream any longer. No, cinemas made more money selling popcorn instead, as the markup of popcorn is 900-1200%.
Then the intermission disappeared.
Couldn’t we wait for the second half? Well, the truth is: exhibitors earned more by adding an extra session. Suddenly, movies just seemed a whole lot longer… except those with a strong mid point.
If you study that halfway point in the greatest movies, you will learn that it is almost always the most dramatic moment, second only to the story’s finale.
You will also find that the mid points from different films have a lot in common.
The Mid Point Pit Stop
Often around the halfway point, the action moves to a location that looks very different from the rest of the story. It feels refreshing, a little like an intermission.
- At the mid point of The Untouchables, we leave Chicago temporarily, and instead of the urban cityscape, we are now watching a mountainous view near the Canadian border.
- At the mid point of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest(*), we leave the confined space of the mental asylum to go on a boat for a short fishing trip. This gives us a strong sense of freedom, an important theme in the film.
- At the mid point of The Queen, we leave London for a short stay at Balmoral in the Scottish highlands. Here, the Queen seems to enjoy her relief from the pressures that are haunting her in London.
- This one may sound a little far-fetched but I still like it… At the mid point of Die Hard, John McClane throws a body through the window, and for the first time since he entered the Nakatomi building, we are getting some fresh air through the hole in the window.
(*) During Milosz Forman’s commentary on One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, he explains that he considered cutting the fishing trip from the movie. He ended up keeping it, because the shorter version actually felt longer.
This is one of the functions of the mid point: it gives the audience a break, before venturing into what is often the darker half of the film.
This break is mostly an emotional high point. The hero achieves something important. It may even seem as if they have reached the story goal. If they haven’t, at least it seems within reach.
Then, however… the tide turns.
Reversal Of Fortune
Rapidly, the upbeat vibe changes, as the hero learns that things are not what they seemed. Instead of celebrating a victory, they realise that the target has moved. The road is still a lot longer and more dangerous than was initially hoped. The mood drops.
In many great movies, the Mid Point Reversal (MPR) consists of these two distinct beats: an upbeat moment of victory/achievement, followed by a downbeat moment of realisation/disappointment. This mood flip forms only the first aspect of the MPR: the Reversal of Fortune.
As a result of this Reversal of Fortune, the character shows a Reversal of Action/Approach. Because it is such a critical part of well-told stories, I will focus on this in a little more detail in a later article.
Meanwhile, see if you can identify this +/- reversal around the halfway point of your favourite movies.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.