Should there be a statute of limitations on revealing film endings?

I enjoy watching and talking about films but have learned never to discuss them with one person because when you mention one, she will say something like “You mean the one where X happens at the end?”, completely spoiling the film. As readers may notice, when writing about films, I try to give notice as to whether there will be a spoiler or not, because part of the enjoyment of a film is not knowing how it will end.

But should there be an informal statute of limitations on revealing a film’s main story?

For example, for a long time, I had not seen The Usual Suspects, though I had been planning to because I had heard that it was good. A couple of years ago, I finally got the DVD and was planning to watch it over the weekend. Then I happened to attend a cognitive science seminar in which the speaker was referring to the different types of narrators using film and book examples, and in the process revealed the ending of that film as an example of one kind. Talking to her after the seminar, I happened to mention this to her as an amusing coincidence and she was highly apologetic for spoiling the film for me. But I laughed it off saying that it was my fault for not having seen a film that had come out way back in 1995.

But that raised the question in my mind: Should there be a statute of limitations for revealing the endings of films? After all, the surprise film endings of some old films have become well known; Citizen Kane (1941), Planet of the Apes (1968), and Soylent Green (1973) being three famous examples.

One shouldn’t gratuitously reveal film endings of course, but perhaps there should be some decent time interval (10 years?) after which one should not be condemned for assuming that they are common knowledge.


  1. captainahags says

    My .02- yes, there is a statute, although I don’t know what it is exactly- a year and a half perhaps? That’s plenty of time for it to become available on DVD/internet/whatever. However, if you’re discussing how you haven’t seen a movie with someone, and they proceed to tell you the ending, regardless of how long it’s been since the movie was put out, the punishment shall be horrid.

  2. busterggi says

    No statute of limitations simply because no matter when a film was made there is no guarantee that younger folks have had a chance to see it. Remember there are no old jokes, simply people who haven’t heard them yet.

  3. Reginald Selkirk says

    Now that we are living in the future and time travel is possible, the idea of ‘statute of limitations’ is broken.

  4. says

    My ideas on spoiling films:

    If the film is out on DVD, spoil away, however give your party opportunity to state whether or not they’ve seen the movie in question, especially if spoiling the film would otherwise ruin the enjoyment of the movie. (Someone spoiled Sixth Sense for me. It’s not nearly as interesting when you find out the twist.)

  5. oualawouzou says

    My own two cents: if a film is spoiled because you know the ending, it’s not a good film. Spoil away.

    But I know this viewpoint isn’t shared by most people, so I try to avoid spoiling movies that less than 15ish years old.

  6. invivoMark says

    Film quality is also a factor, though. You can never have a statute of limitations because there is no downside to spoiling a movie that people aren’t going to ever watch.

    I think that’s why Usual Suspects is still something that most people will agree shouldn’t be spoiled, while other more recent movies might be spoiled without upsetting people.

  7. Chiroptera says

    I saw Witness For the Prosecution (1957) about 40 years after it came out. I’m glad that I didn’t know how it was going to end.

    The whole point of Jacob’s Ladder (1990) is not knowing how it ends. Same, I think, with Memento.

    I enjoyed The Sting, but I think I would have enjoyed the ending much, much more if I had not known how it was going to end.

    Since I know how The Sixth Sense ends, I have no desire to actually see the film. Here, though, the ending is so iconic I don’t know how one could not talk about it without talking about the ending.

    Just my opinions. Your mileage may vary.

  8. Mano Singham says

    I haven’t see Jacob’s Ladder (or heard about it for that matter). Do you recommend it?

    I agree that spoiling the ending of The Sting or Memento should be considered a capital crime.

  9. Mano Singham says

    Thanks. I had read that study. I think that the experience of seeing/reading something knowing the ending can provide a different kind of satisfaction for some stories. It is true that not worrying about how it will end enables the reader/viewer to follow the story more closely and that classic stories have qualities that are more significant than the ending.

    But in more superficial forms of entertainment, the twist at the end seems like an important factor and taking that away could ruin it.

  10. Shatterface says

    You only get one chance to watch a film without knowing the end so that might as well be the first time.

    If you want to watch a film already knowing the ending watch it twice.

  11. Chiroptera says

    Do you recommend it?

    That’s hard to say. I thought it was a pretty intense movie — I was exhausted after it was over. I saw it on a double date, and after it was over the four of us walk several blocks before anyone could say anything.

    It’s pretty painful watching this guy’s mental break down and after a while you don’t know what is real and what isn’t. I found it pretty creepy and frightening and, to be honest, really uncomfortable. (But intentionally so. It is or tries to be pretty manipulative to your emotions.) If that doesn’t appeal to you, then I wouldn’t recommend it. If that sounds interesting, then I would recommend it. Me, I’m glad that I’ve seen it.

    On the other hand, I’ve seen things superficially similar to it since, and rewatching it didn’t have the same effect. I don’t know whether it’s because seeing it dulled some of the intensity, or whether it’s like the Exorcist — similar things have been done and redone so it’s just not scary these days like it was then.

  12. Chiroptera says

    I also suspect that it’s a different effect in watching a movie you already know the ending to vs rewatching a movie whose ending you didn’t know the first time.

  13. says

    If I had any say in the matter, the “statute of limitations” would be:

    (a) the movie has been on a “free” / regular TV channel (not cable), or

    (b) three years passed since theatrical release (i.e. movies that were never rentals or on TV).

    One can argue that spoilers should be preserved for those who might buy a theatre ticket, rent or stream a movie, who pay for cable TV or are waiting for it to come on free TV. But once a movie has been readily available and people had their chance to see it, time’s up.

    If they were at all interested, they should have made the effort to watch it. If they weren’t interested enough to try, can they really claim to be bothered by spoilers?

  14. mnb0 says

    Only partially agreed. Telling a twist robs the spectator from the surprise factor. Knowing the end of Planet of the Apes (1968) wouldn’t have changed my appreciation of the movie, but I wouldn’t want to have missed the “wtf” moment at the end either.

  15. mnb0 says

    “Do you recommend it?”
    I do. A very tense and in the end disturbing movie. I should see it again, because in this particular case I doubt if spoiling the end would change much.
    As for The Usual Suspects: if you have read Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd you will guess the trick pretty quickly. It took me about 45 minutes. In terms of complexity I think The Usual Suspects overrated.

  16. eigenperson says

    10 years seems appropriate for stories with twist endings (and if the movie is not well-known then it should always be assumed that someone does not know the ending, no matter how long it has been out).

    It’s less critical for stories that don’t have a twist (e.g. knowing that Hamlet is going to die doesn’t really change the experience of watching Hamlet that much).

  17. eigenperson says

    Well, spoiler alert — Laertes pushes him out of a helicopter hovering over an erupting volcano.

    On the other hand, we don’t actually see the body, so I suppose there’s always the possibility of a sequel.

  18. dmcclean says

    As it happens, The Usuals Suspects is the exact reason why such a statute of limitations should not exist.

  19. mikeym says

    “That’s why you should and could watch really good movies twice at least.”

    Good example: The Prestige. In a voiceover at the beginning of the film, the Michael Caine character pretty much dares you to guess the trick.

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