It Isn’t a Movie Critic’s Job to Affect Box Office — But We Do

Posted on April 19, 2016 at 3:10 pm

Headlines crowed over the disparity between critics’ poor reviews of “Batman v. Superman” and the very healthy opening weekend box office. The leading trade publication, Variety, wondered “Do Critics Matter at the Box Office?” Fortune sneered, How ‘Batman v Superman’ Fought Off Critics and predicted that the bad reviews would not affect the box office.

It isn’t the critics’ intention or responsibility to have an impact on ticket sales. As Laura Miller wrote in Slate, the critic is there to engage in and guide a conversation with the film, the filmmakers, and the audience.

he dumbest aspect of the Variety piece is its insistence on treating the success of “Batman v Superman” as a “devastating” rout for the critics who hated it. “Instead of serving as box office kryptonite,” Lang writes, reviewers were forced to watch “helplessly” as the ticket sales racked up. Critics wanted to “kill” Batman v Superman, he believes. And the critics, those elitist would-be supervillains, were thwarted!

Not so fast. I’ve never met a critic who wanted to “kill” any work, or who truly expected their harsh review to significantly impact the success of a mass-market product like Batman v Superman. We know the limits of our power, which is modest indeed. Sometimes, of course, critics hate a chart-topper, but the negative reviews we write in response are meant as a cry in the wilderness, an attempt to speak for and draw together all the far-flung dissenters and grapple with a work whose overwhelming success we hope to understand. Because here’s the thing: Every critic knows that the person most eager to read your take is the person who’s already seen the film, watched the TV series, read the book. They come to you not for consumer advice, but for company and (to use Scott’s favorite metaphor) conversation. They want to compare notes. They hope you can explain why they found the work so profound or so stylish or so ridiculous. Sure, sometimes we critics try to drum up enthusiasm for an overlooked jewel, but it’s much harder to interest readers when they haven’t already invested time in the work.

As Miller notes, there is a built-in audience for some films that have nothing to do with reviews. A large percentage of the first weekend tickets were purchased before the reviews were published. A combination of bad reviews and bad word of mouth from that first weekend audience — who also chose not to return to see it again — led to a record-setting drop in ticket sales.

Over at CriticWire, Sam Adams reports that critics do affect the box office.

But according to an extensive data analysis by Metacritic, the collective judgement of critics, at least as relayed by the site’s proprietary Metascores, turns out to be a fairly reliable predictor of a movie’s success. Analyzing every major release of the last decade — which they define as any movie that opened in at least 2,000 theaters between January 1, 2006 and December 31, 2015 — they found that movies with better reviews tend to make more money. Movies with a Metascore between 91 and 100 made an average of $59.1 million over their opening weekend, while those with a Metascore of 19 or lower averaged an opening weekend gross of just $14 million. The differences grow even more pronounced over the long run: Those in the top decile dropped an average of 37.7 percent in their second weekend, while those in the lowest dropped by 52.5 percent.

While we’re disposing of some myths about critics, here’s another. A pair of angry fans wrote to Scott Renshaw, the critic who “spoiled” “Zootopia’s” 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes to insist that he change his review. They were six years old. Renshaw’s response was just right. It concluded:

What I’d really hope, however, is that you think about reviews differently, including (and maybe especially) those you disagree with. My job as a professional critic isn’t to tell people what to think, or to give them assurance that what they thought about a movie is “right.” All I can do is think honestly about how I reacted, and perhaps help people see something in a movie that they might not have seen otherwise. The fact that I didn’t love Zootopia doesn’t change how much you did love it, and that’s never my intention. But you should become comfortable with the idea that there are opinions about things out in the world that will be different from yours, and you can be confident in your own opinions without feeling that the other opinions out there are a problem that needs to be solved. Rotten Tomatoes’ score for Zootopia just doesn’t matter. If that movie changed you, or made you happy, or made you think, that matters.

Those who are interested in learning more about what critics do should read Better Living Through Criticism by New York Times critic A.O. Scott. Samuel Fragoso has a superb interview with Scott about the book on Fandor.

In terms of the discovery of films and bringing attention to films that might be overlooked or neglected otherwise, critics still have a role to play, and I don’t think that the critics at the Times are necessarily anomalous. We’re not alone. I feel like—and I don’t have data to back this up—there is an appetite for it. I feel like people still want to read something interesting or thought-provoking or useful about the stuff that they’re seeing. I’m not sure whether in the past there was quite as large as a constituency for film criticism as we sometimes think. It’s always been a minority that has sought out the opinions of critics. Even the great influential ones, like the Pauline Kaels, the Andrews Sarrises, and the Vincent Canbys, were reaching a narrower public than we think.

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Why Do Critics Hate Movies Audiences Love?

Posted on June 4, 2012 at 3:57 pm

David Carr and A.O. Scott had a lively discussion about the role of critics and whether they should lighten up a little bit when it comes to popular films.  It is well worth watching for anyone who is interested in movies, pop culture, or seeing smart people debate about something that matters to them.


Thanks to Adam for suggesting this!


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The End of Film?

Posted on November 21, 2011 at 3:54 pm

New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott has a very thoughtful essay about the transition from movies on film to digital images and the perennial question, “are the movies today as good as they used to be?”

Scott writes about the good:

he history of film is now more widely and readily accessible than ever before. We may lament the end of movie clubs and campus film societies that presented battered prints of great movies, but by any aesthetic (as opposed to sentimental) standard, the high-quality, carefully restored digital transfers of classics and curiosities now available on DVD and Blu-ray offer a much better way to encounter the canon.

And he puts the concerns into context with exceptional insight:

And yet movies, at the moment, feel especially fragile and perishable. That may be because film is so much younger than the other great art forms, which have had centuries to wane, wax, mutate and cross-pollinate. But there is also something about cinema’s essentially modern character that makes it vulnerable to fears of obsolescence. The camera has an uncanny ability to capture the world as it is, to seize events as they happen, and also to conjure visions of the future. But by the time the image reaches the eyes of the viewer, it belongs to the past, taking on the status of something retrieved. As for those bold projections of what is to come, they have a habit of looking quaint as soon as they arrive.

Nostalgia, in other words, is built into moviegoing, which is why moviegoing itself has been, almost from the beginning, the object of nostalgia. It hardly seems like an accident that so many movies embrace this bittersweet disposition. This week Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” which visits the earliest days of cinema, will open on the same day as “The Artist,” Michel Hazanavicius’s silent film about the silent era. Both films recapture some of the heady magic of the old days, and both make use of the latest technology in doing so.


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Understanding Media and Pop Culture

A.O. Scott on “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist”

Posted on October 4, 2008 at 12:18 pm

I love New York Times critic A.O. Scott’s review of this movie, my favorite romantic comedy of the year so far by far. Scott beautifully captures the charm of this lovely film.

As thin as an iPod Nano, as full of adolescent self-display as a Facebook page, “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist” strives to capture, in meticulous detail, what it’s like to be young right now….Norah’s wary, pouty manner and Nick’s odd mix of timidity and sarcasm are both strategies of self-protection.

I particularly admire this wonderfully evocative description of one of the key elements of the movie, as suggested by the title — the soundtrack, and how it complements and counterpoints the story and themes:

The tunes that play alongside their nocturnal adventure express longing, sadness, anxiety and joy with more intensity than they can muster themselves. Nick, played by the wet-noodle heartthrob Michael Cera (“Juno,” “Superbad”) and Norah (Kat Dennings, who has a hint of Kate Winslet’s soft, smart loveliness in her face) are, like so many kids these days, most comfortable with diffidence, understatement and a deadpan style of address that collapses the distinction between irony and sincerity.

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