With so much entertainment to choose from, we still can’t resist revisiting old favourites. Clare Thorp asks why we need to watch the same films over and over.
In this era of peak content, we don’t have to look far to find something new to watch. Not only are more new films being released than ever before, but streaming means we can choose from thousands of movies without even leaving our sofa. You could watch something different every night and still barely make a dent in the sheer volume of entertainment on offer. So why do so many of us choose to watch films we’ve already seen – once, twice or a dozen times before? When Back To The Future appears in the TV schedule, why do we sit through it for the 43rd time, already knowing every line of the script?
More like this:
– What the Joker says about his times
– Why do gay men love Judy Garland?
– The year’s most devastating film
Netflix uploaded 8500 minutes’ worth of their own original movies last year, but it was a recent announcement that Dirty Dancing was coming to the streaming platform that caused hysteria on Twitter. When Avengers: Endgame was released this year, one fan made it in to the record books for watching it more than 103 times – but was soon beaten by someone who made 116 cinema trips to see it.
View image of (Credit: Alamy)
While 100-plus viewings within a few weeks is extreme, a quick canvass of friends revealed rewatching films we’ve already seen countless times is common. Some titles were mentioned repeatedly – the aforementioned Back To The Future and Dirty Dancing, along with other 1980s classics like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Top Gun, Jaws and The Princess Bride. Musicals – including Grease, Singin’ In The Rain, Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music – were also popular, as were Bond films, The Godfather, the original Star Wars trilogy and Lord of The Rings. And, aptly, Groundhog Day. Other choices were more individual – Arrival, What Lies Beneath, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Burbs, An American Werewolf in Paris. One brave soul likes to rewatch The Exorcist regularly.
In 2016, data website FiveThirtyEight surveyed 1169 people to come up with a list of the 25 most-rewatched films – with Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music taking the top spots. My own personal rewatchables include When Harry Met Sally, Lost In Translation, Almost Famous and most ’90s rom-coms (I not only know every line of Pretty Woman’s dialogue, but the words to every song on the soundtrack, too).
Pinpointing which films we watch again and again is easy. Exactly why we do it is less clear. Of course, there’s the obvious – we love them and think they deserve more of our attention. When BBC Culture asked its Film Club on Facebook for their picks, one response was Back to the Future, because “it’s a nigh-on perfect film with an inch-perfect script, great performances and some great direction. Not a wasted scene in sight.” Casablanca, 8 1/2, The Last Emperor and Withnail & I (“the best film ever made about friendship”) also got a nod – films that regularly appear in Greatest Ever film polls. One user said: “Some films are what I’d call ‘complete’ – they have a perfect story arc, the score is almost a member of the cast, and are so familiar you can stop and start at any point. They are deeply satisfying and you can lose yourself in them, the cinema equivalent of comfort food. So for me, that’s classics like A Night To Remember and Sink The Bismarck.” It makes sense we’d want to revisit them and pick up nuances we might have missed the first time around.
View image of (Credit: Alamy)
But while that might explain the second, third, or fourth viewing, what keeps us coming back to a movie when we already know every plot twist and detail, and there are so many other films vying for our time? After all, this isn’t like listening to a favourite song on repeat – we’re talking two hours, not three minutes.
One explanation is that watching something we’re already familiar with takes up less mental energy. We don’t have to concentrate to work out what’s going on because we already know. We can just sit back and, kind of, switch off. It’s “less taxing, more relaxing” as one friend put it. When faced with such overwhelming choice, too, sometimes it’s easier to retreat to a film we know won’t disappoint us – a feeling many who have spent hours scrolling through the endless options on Netflix or Amazon Prime will recognise. If we stumble across a film we love on terrestrial TV, even better – it feels like the choice is made for us.
Rewatching movies can also make us reflect on how we’ve grown – a subconscious measuring stick for how our much lives have changed
A psychological phenomenon known as the ‘mere-exposure’ effect – in which we develop a preference for things that are familiar – could also be at play. So the more we watch, the more we want to watch. As someone who has gone from thinking The Holiday is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen to watching it without fail every Christmas, I can relate. It’s common for films to become part of traditions like this – for many, the festive period only officially starts once they’ve seen Elf or Love Actually, and Halloween prompts us to revisit our favourite horrors.
View image of (Credit: Alamy)
A 2012 study on cultural ‘reconsumption’ by Cristel Antonia Russell and Sidney J Levy, professors in marketing at the University of Arizona, found that rewatching movies can also make us reflect on how we’ve grown – a subconscious measuring stick for how much our lives have changed. A 21st-Century version of this came in the form of a response on BBC Culture’s Film Club: “There are some films I like return to every few years and see them in different formats. For example, the Bond films I’ve seen in the cinema, watched on TV, owned on VHS, then DVD and now digitally downloaded.”
Back to the future
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons why we return to films is nostalgia – not only for a time in history but for a time in our lives. It’s a natural instinct, says Clay Routledge, a Professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University who studies nostalgia. “We want to consume new content and have new experiences, of course,” he says. “But it is part of human psychology to want to have some sense of continuity, to feel connected to where we come from. There are certain cultural and personal experiences that we like to return to as a way to anchor ourselves.”
It’s also no coincidence that the films we’ve seen the most are ones we first discovered when we were young. “There seems to be something about identity formation, and the adolescent and teenage years in which things really make an impression on you,” says Routledge. “That period when you emerge and you’re like: I’m not just some kid in the family anymore, but a unique individual figuring out myself and my interests.”
When we feel sad, or lonely, or anxious, or uncertain, we want something that reminds us of where we come from, or who we are – Clay Routledge
Research also shows that certain emotional states are more likely to drive us towards nostalgic experiences. “When we feel sad, or lonely, or anxious, or uncertain, we want something that reminds us of where we come from, or who we are,” says Routledge. “We’re more attracted to something that’s familiar and that we know we like.” It’s why so many of us have ‘comfort’ films we put on when we’re feeling uncertain, stressed or ill. There’s something about settling down to a film we know intimately that feels wonderfully soothing – even if it’s sometimes tinged with melancholy. Another Film Club user chose Waterloo Bridge (1940), commenting: “Maudlin yes, dated, perhaps but somehow reminds me of the pain that wells up whenever I recall an old love affair. In the same vein, and more famously, Brief Encounter.”
View image of (Credit: Alamy)
“It makes sense from an evolutionary point of view,” says Routledge. “If you feel anxious or stressed and your body is telling you there’s reason to worry, that’s not the time to start exploring and taking risks. Obviously… [that’s more about] feeling physically unsafe, but also when we feel emotionally uncertain we want something that feels safe – that’s predictable, that we know.”
In this way, indulging in a little nostalgia can be a good thing, he says. “It seems to be a natural way that humans gain some sense of stability and security.” So what of the rewatchables of the future? Will any of today’s releases become a Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Clueless or Star Wars? Will those hardcore Avengers fans still be sitting through Endgame in years to come, notching up their 300th viewing?
Netflix data released at the end of 2018 showed that 50% of people who watched the streaming platform’s original teen rom-coms Kissing Booth and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before rewatched them at least once – and both have sequels planned – but with so much else grappling for Gen Z’s attention, it feels unlikely they’ll cement themselves in the same way.
There have been recent releases I’ve already revisited several times – including last year’s A Star Is Born and 2017’s Call Me By Your Name. Whether I’ll still be firing them up in 10 years’ time – via whatever method we’re watching movies by then – I’m not sure. If Four Weddings and A Funeral comes on the telly, though, I know exactly what I’ll be doing.
Love film? Join BBC Culture Film Club on Facebook, a community for film fanatics all over the world.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.