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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Critics Write About Our First Encounters with Star Wars

Posted on April 23, 2015 at 9:22 am

Copyright 20th Century Fox 1977
Copyright 20th Century Fox 1977

The latest Criticwire survey asks for our first encounters with “Star Wars.” I had a lot of fun writing about mine:

A long, long time ago in a galaxy far away, or at least that’s how it seems now, my then boyfriend and I finished the bar exam, following three years of law school and six weeks of intensive cramming and even more intensive panicking, and walked outside, blinking in the sunlight we barely recognized. Dazed, we barely made it to the theater for the prize we had promised ourselves all summer. We were going to see “Star Wars.” We loved it. The hologram message from the princess with the awful hair. The bar. The garbage compactor. The droids. Obi-Wan. The wookiee. To go from listing the elements of a negotiable instrument and the factors required for a temporary restraining order and the exemptions to the hearsay rule to Jedi and the Death Star was such an overwhelming experience that we decided to sit through it again. (I did say it was a long time ago.)

We were lucky enough to see them as they came out, to be shocked by the revelations, to suffer for more than a year while Han was frozen, wondering how he could escape. We still love them. The original trilogy, anyway. Unadulterated by later tweaks, please. Han shot first and we are okay with that. Can’t wait for the next one.

Fans should check out the terrific A Galaxy Not So Far Away: Writers and Artists on Twenty-five Years of Star Wars for more stories about the impact of the “Star Wars” saga.

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What Movies Would You Give to Aliens to Explain Life on Earth?

Posted on September 25, 2014 at 8:00 am

Many thanks to Criticwire for inviting me to participate in an intriguing survey: what films would you give to aliens to explain life on earth?  Here’s what I wrote:

I’d have to include a silent comedy, something that would be free of any language barriers and show them the importance of humor. I’ll go with “Modern Times,” with “The General” as a back-up. And I’d have to pick a Frank Capra film to show them that while humans may have a tendency to be bullies, we also are able to transcend it and sacrifice our own interests to help each other. That means “It’s a Wonderful Life,” because it so movingly conveys the impact that a single person can have and the best that a community can do when they come together. And I would add “Departures,” because there is no better depiction of the grace and dignity that can be achieved in grappling with the deepest conundrums of human existence.

Check out the responses from other critics — and let me know what you would pick!

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Criticwire Survey: Should You Look Down on YA Movies?

Posted on June 14, 2014 at 8:00 am

The folks at Criticwire have a weekly survey of questions for movie critics.  This week’s question is especially important.

Q: Many of the positive reviews for “The Fault in Our Stars” boil down to either “It’s good for what it is” or “It gets the job done.” But in an essay at Slate that deals in part with John Green’s source novel, Ruth Graham says that one of the reasons more adult readers have turned to Young Adult novels is because it offers the pleasures of literary fiction without its challenges: “Adults,” she writes, “should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.” So, as a critic, what’s your feeling about measuring a movie—whether it’s “The Fault in Our Stars” or “X-Men: Days of Future Past” — against what it sets out to do as opposed to what it could do? (Likewise, do you damn “Orange Is the New Black” for not being “Oz”?) Do you take it on its own terms, or do you set your own?

My answer:

One of the reasons more adult readers have turned to Young Adult novels is that they are so damn good. There is a reason that YA and graphic novel sales are flourishing while what is considered traditional “literary” fiction is collapsing on itself, smothered by its preciousness, pretension, and neurasthenic post-modernism. It is often said that if “The Catcher in the Rye” was published today, it would be categorized as a YA novel. And yet it is still read with thoughtful appreciation for its art and depth, even by those who believe they confine themselves to work with literary aspirations.

This is not to say that best-selling YA books are all literature, any more than best-selling books for adults meet that standard. But too often books are put in the YA category just because they are about teenagers. Well, so is “Romeo and Juliet.” Stories are about teenagers for the same reason that stories are about war and death and vampires and zombies and MacGuffins that have to be found or the world will explode in 24 hours. As Augustus says in “The Fault in Our Stars,” it’s a metaphor. The heightened emotions and discoveries of that time of life intensify the elements of a story to provide a dramatic framework.

Graham should be ashamed by trying to embarrass anyone who is moved by a work of fiction. One of the most liberating discoveries of my life was learning that no one’s childhood is long enough to read all of the great books written for children and teenagers. I reread my favorites with increased pleasure and deeper understanding. I read new authors with great appreciation, and keep in mind that one generation’s low culture is quite often understood to be literature by the next.

That said, all movies should be measured against their own aspirations and the expectations of the intended audience. Otherwise, all movie reviews would read: “Well, it’s not ‘Citizen Kane.'”

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What’s the Worst Sequel Ever Made?

Posted on January 30, 2013 at 8:00 am

I always enjoy the surveys from Criticwire, and this one was especially fun.  The question: What is the worst movie sequel ever made?

I expected to see “Batman and Robin,” “Grease 2,” “Stayin’ Alive,” “Speed 2,” and “The Whole Ten Yards,” all of which appear, but they left off my choice, the awful “Sting 2” with Jackie Gleason and Terri Garr.  What sequel would you pick?

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