August 7, 2007

Movie critics v. movie box-office

I've long felt that the individual film critic's job isn't really to give you a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on whether a movie is good or not. You'd be better off looking up on Rotten Tomatoes an aggregation of critics' ratings to even out the random perturbations.

Now, there are a tiny number of unjustly-overlooked movies that I've helped call to public attention -- "Idiocracy," of course, but also Stephen Fry's Evelyn Waugh adaptation "Bright Young Things" and bring back to the conversation John Huston's "Man Who Would Be King" during the Afghan War, but, in general, I'm too old to care whether I'm succeeding in imposing my personal tastes upon the world. (Which is good, because I'm not!)

Instead, I see my job in my movie reviews as adding value. Some critics do this by being amusingly snarky, but I'm more earnest. I go read the book, Google the history, think about the issues the movie brings up. For example, my review of the Oscar-winning "Capote" came to the same conclusion as everybody else's: Philip Seymour Hoffman is great! I don't have the skills to explain much about why Hoffman was great within 735 words (but not too many other critics do, either). I do think I made some contribution by reading Capote's In Cold Blood and pointing out that the film screenwriter's unthinking bias against capital punishment made the film unfair to Truman Capote and his small but influential place in literary history.

Anyway, I don't think it's very hard to give a reasonably accurate thumbs up or thumbs down on individual movies, and most critics aren't bad at that aspect of the job. As I wrote to The Audacious Epigone:

There is a fair amount of agreement between critics and the public on movies within various classes: e.g., that "Saving Private Ryan" was better than "Flags of Our Fathers," or that "Gladiator" was better than "Alexander." Movies tend to "work" or not work, rather like a good band within a musical genre is pretty clearly better than a bad band.

Fortunately, he took me up on this and crunched the numbers on the correlation between critics' ratings and box office dollars. In "Movie Critics and Movie Mavens," he reports:

Steve's comment is borne out for the most part--critics do well ... by genre, except for horror (which they despise) and romance (which, not surprisingly, they just don't seem to get). Criticism and cynicism are often mistakenly thought to be synonyms, and this provides some justification for that confusion, as these genres are the two most susceptible to it. In action and science fiction, they do very well (.55 and .59 r-values, respectively). The disdain for horror extends across the board, as it received the lowest average score of all of the genres considered. For drama and children's movies, they perform about as well as movies at large.

Drama films are most likely to be heavily politically or culturally ideological, which is probably why critics don't do so well in this serious genre. It's similarly a tough one for the general public, as the characters and the actions they take are often judged in many gradations, open to more interpretation than say, concluding that Scar is a bad dude.

Fat Knowledge, in wondering how the general public fared compared to the critics, pointed me to Yahoo, which constructs an average user score based on thousands of online ratings. The folks obliterate the critics. Rotten Tomatoes' critic scores, the most reliable relative to box office receipts of the different services looked at, correlate with revenue at .295 to the Yahoo users' .405.

While the critics do a little better by genre than by all movies in general, Yahoo users beat the critics in every genre, excepting action and science fiction, by slim margins. Romance is the most glaring. Critic scores and box office performance correlate at a meaningless .06 to users' .77. That blossoming could never happen in real life! But two cowboys... Horror was similarly divergent. Apparently stuffy critics cannot degrade themselves enough to review horror movies with any seriousness--they all belong in the garbage bin!

The genre-to-revenue relationships (r-values) for professional critics, Yahoo users:

Genre, Pros, Yahoos
Action: .55, .48
Comedy: .41, .58
Drama: .28, .38
Horror: .09, .61
Kids: .27, .79
Romance: .06, .77
Sci-Fi: .59, .55
Thriller: .31, .42

Simply put, if you want to know how a movie will do, ask the moviegoing public that will go to see it. Not only do the movie-maven plebeians do better than the putative experts at predicting actual box office performance, they're a lot more stable across the board, always providing at least a moderate amount of insight. Of course, uppity critics would hate to be amalgamated as a group, so unique are their individual opinions! Find a critic that you feel to be insightful, and his criticism becomes valuable.

The data, via Swivel, is available here.

One addition that could be made to his analysis would be to make it a multiple regression analysis and add in budget as independent variable. Critics tend to grade on the curve, demanding much more from a $100 million movie than a $1 million dollar movie. (Perhaps we assume that the marketing budget is proportional to the production budget, so we can help a small budget movie more than a big budget one.) For example, the tiny Irish musical for heterosexuals "Once" got huge ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, with 97% positive reviews. On an absolute scale, it's really not that good, but it's the "Citizen Kane" of $150,000 movies. And the public seems to agree: it's made $6.5 million domestically, which is a huge return on investment.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

I've long felt that the individual film critic's job isn't really to give you a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on whether a movie is good or not.

gee i thought the film critic's job was to police the culture, steve.

yunno, steer us away from or otherwise suppress "dangerous" material and applaud the relentless nordic-phenotype-is-evil narrative.

you say later in the post that you see the film critic's job as adding value. but is that how the other critics see their jobs?

when a certain group of networked critics got together behind BORAT to create a "buzz" about one of the great ethnic cheap shot films of all time - did they see themselves as adding value?

i guess cultural marxism has much "added value" for some people in the MSM.

King Rollo said...

The huge discrepancy in the romance category is mainly down to the fact that critics are overwhelmingly male and the target audience is correspondingly female.

Do you guys realise that there are entire Internet forums devoted to period films and TV series such as Pride & Prejudice, North & South and Jane Eyre? And these places are full of intelligent, well-bred ladies? Go forth!

James said...

Maybe the Yahoos correlate better with box-office receipts because they're jumping on the bandwagon, after the fact.

Ibrahim Nur said...

Mr. Sailer--you are, of course, being considerably biased in giving "Idiocracy" a positive rating because of the issues it brings up.

Speaking as someone who's seen half the movie and skimmed the rest, a more logical explanation for why Fox put it straight to DVD is because they realized the simple truth that it was an unfunny stinker. The entire film is a single joke--people are dumb in the future--stretched to 80 something minutes.

They watched it and, from their own reactions, estimated that the mass audiences wouldn't find it amusing or be intrigued enough to shell $10 bucks. They didn't kill it because of concerns over the subject matter. They were just being wise with their money.

tommy said...

Yes, I've noticed that at Rotten Tomatoes the difference between the mean of the film critics' ratings and the mean of the people's ratings is usually not off by more than 20% max (with the public almost always rating a movie higher than the critics).

Ron Guhname mentioned that he's usually in agreement with the IMDB ratings for a movie. I would say the same thing: I'm usually not off by more than a single star in one direction or the other.

A couple exceptions where I disagree with the critics or the public would be Apocalypse Now and Gladiator.

Marlon Brando gave a great performance, but I thought Apocalypse Now was overrated. I would give it seven stars (IMDB gives it 8.5) to Platoon's nine stars and Full Metal Jacket's eight stars.

In my rating scheme, seven is the minimum number of stars needed for me to recommend a film to someone who has never seen it, four to six stars indicates I'm indifferent to the movie, and one to three means I would encourage people to avoid it.

The Godfather Parts I and II, Casablanca, and Dr. Strangelove would be examples of ten star movies and Manos: The Hands of Fate and Plan 9 From Outer Space would be examples of one star movies.

I would give Gladiator six stars. (IMDB gives it 8.2) The plot was predictable, unbelievable, and unsatisfying. It would have been a much better movie if they could have integrated some clever plot twists to go with the great cinematography.

Ron Guhname said...

I'm getting too old to sit through a bad movie, but I also hate studying for longer than the length of the movie to learn if I'm going to like the film.

I've discovered that I can check two websites in 5 minutes, and what they tell me will be right 90% of the time.
( averages the ratings of 3-10 critics into a grade. has averaged voter ratings for every movie imaginable. If both ratings are high, I can't lose.

Also so I don't get deleted, reading Steve's reviews is also a must.

Thursday said...

Big shocker: average people are much better at predicting the movies average people will like.

However, I'd like to point out that there are three ways critical judgement can go wrong:

1. Not being intelligent or perceptive enough.

This is the big failing of the public.

Your average Joe or average Jane aren't exactly going to favour movies that require any amount of brainpower to figure out or that rely on any degree of subtlety to make their point. I once watched Fellini's Nights of Cabiria with a good friend of mine, a university educated man with good social skills and some appreciation for the arts, and he still didn't pick up on the fact that the main character was a prostitute. Multiply that by a factor of ten with your average Joe, and you can see why so many classics aren't popular with the masses, or if they are popular are popular for the wrong reasons. Your average Joe can't keep up. While its not that hard to tell the difference between a good action movie like Spiderman 2 and a mediocre one like Spiderman 3 (the genre isn't exactly a subtle one), it is very difficult to tell the difference between a good Eric Rohmer movie and a bad one: to the average person their all boring yakfests. But the average person is wrong.

2. Mistaking class markers for merit.

This is the big failing of movie critics (though they aren't always as intelligent or perceptive as they think they are, either).

Most critics don't much care about which Eric Rohmer movies are good or bad either. They are all basically good, because they are all opportunities for the critic to lord his high status over the plebians. Actual merit, or the fact that there are actually good arty yak movies and bad arty yak movies, is beside the point.

3. Emotionally overwhelming biases

This one seems to afflict the public and the professional critics about equally.

The best example I can think of is the average heterosexual male's reaction to Anthony Minghella's The English Patient. Because the film is sympathetic to a woman who cheats on her average Joe, nice guy husband with someone much more exciting, it doesn't matter how insightful or well done the film is; they just hate it.

Another example would be many people's reaction to Triumph of the Will.

Now adultery and Nazism are undoubtedly nasty things, but that does not mean that Riefensthal and Minghella do not powerfully dramatize their appeal.

There are all sorts of these religious, political, class, and sexual biases out there waiting to waylay the critic.

(Another example would be the reaction of the non-religious to Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ.)

Zach said...

The hidden assumption seems to me to be that the final arbiter of a movie's quality is the box office. I think we can see in the history of film many movies becoming cult classics or being reevaluated by later generations. If we therefore concede that the public can "get it wrong" then I think the critic's job is to "get it right", that is to cut through the hype and short-term interest and look at films with a longer view than opening weekend totals.
I think horror is a perfect example. Will Saw III be on anyones list for the best movies of the 21st century come the year 2100? I doubt it. It think the most exciting part of being a critic would be to watch something and realize that you are watching the Citizen Kane of your generation, even if it doesn't break any records.
Of course, I also think another very valuable function of a critic is to speculate as to why certain movies resonate with contemporary audiences and what it means, to use movies as an entry-point into sociological criticism.
But to me it is not very impressive that the best way to predict whether lots of people will go to a movie (box office take) is to ask a lot of people if they like a movie (yahoo feedback).

Steve Sailer said...

Right, the interesting aspect of the study is the different correlations by genre between critics and box office. I think the high correlations between critical opinion and box office for sci-fi and action reflects that those genres have to be pretty big budget movies, so the critical bias in favor of small budget movies (or, to phrase it differently, the public bias against small budget movies) doesn't come into play much in those genres, whereas you can make a drama or a comedy cheap.

Ali said...

You can't trust critics, anyone who watches the amount of movies they do would rapidly develop tastes far removed from the general public.

Anonymous said...

I have noticed, particularly with self help books on Amazon, that markerters now see that the power of public opinion is more important than the usually bias publisher's weekly review at the top. so they often flood amazon with positive reviews (you can usually see this by the fact that the 'reviewer' only has one review)..

I suspect that once big media realizes that critics aren't so powerful anymore the same thing will happen on IMBD, yahoo movies, ect.

David said...

"they're jumping on the bandwagon, after the fact"

Let me draw a picture of this for people who aren't especially versed in how Hollywood operates.

A picture is made. During the making, the marketing touts it as something great and special. You are told that you want to see it.

Three months before the picture is even released, the NYT et al. feature the first full-page adverts, which contain the following copy (and typography): "THIS IS THE MOST POPULAR MOVIE IN AMERICA."

After the release, the pretense of popularity is kept up (it has been planned and written up to a year in advance). This continues throughout the run - i.e., for 15 weeks or 1, the picture is "THE MOST POPULAR MOVIE IN AMERICA." If the movie is an especial flop, genre will be brought in: "AMERICA'S FUNNIEST COMEDY."

Three or four years later, you will vaguely recall the title of the movie and will think: "I missed that one and ought to see it someday...after all, it WAS the most popular movie in, it must have been good..." This leads you to buy the DVD, on discount, at Wal-Mart.

Your friends, of course, don't remember the movie. They're busy discussing with happy anticipation the upcoming release of what is billed as "the most popular movie in America."

Artanis said...

(Another example would be the reaction of the non-religious to Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ.)

I thought that was as interesting as the film itself. I thought it was a good but not great avant-garde film, a huge commercial risk, and in fact one of the most arty films that has had mainstream distribution in twenty years. (One must admire that.)

I also thought the violence was more excessive than in any film of the last 20 years, more disturbing than Buttgereit in some ways. (It was far in excess of what could be inferred from the biblical text in fact.)

Personally, I'm a Zindlerian-Oliverian skeptic-I believe Jesus-the-Anointed of Nazareth was a wholly fictional character, not even derived from an existing actual or mythical figure. I think Christianity has survived in part because it's a _good_ story-good in the sense that it's fascinating and compelling story, well told (at least through the blue pen of King James' men) and as RPO says, one our people find particularly winsome to their makeup.

But the film overwhelmingly got tens or zeroes depending on one's attitude to Christianity. A few thoughtful people on either side came up with something different, and it's those observations which are worth looking at.

I don't think it will be really possible to objectively evaluate Passion in our time, which was my review, but I did provisionally give it an 8 1/2. (Which is alsoexactly what I gave the eponymous Fellini film!)

David Hart said...

I think if one really wanted to look at how good a movie would be it might be interesting to multiply to create a sort of composite rating. I don't have the resources to do so but I would:

((Number critics who gave thumbs up) * (Avg critic rating) + (Avg number of moviegoers who gave a thumbs up) * (Avg moviegoer rating))/2

What I'm trying to get at is that some movies do well at Rotten Tomatoes only because they are good but inoffensive movies. Some movies to well in IMDB for instance but had wide variations in opinions. By multiplying the breadth of feelings (ala Rotten Tomatoes for instance) by the critics rating you get a better feeling of how important the movie is.