Why we need movie critics.

Commentary about business and finance.
July 1 2008 7:07 PM

Why We Need Movie Reviewers

Despite popular belief, critically acclaimed movies actually sell better.

Erik Lundegaard chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript.

(Continued from Page 1)

While the gross numbers can be depressing (we spent half a billion dollars on the likes of Norbit, Good Luck Chuck, and Bratz?), the averages are not. Critically acclaimed films average about $2,000 more per screen than critically lambasted films.

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How true is this with the tent-pole films? Let's find out. Divide the movies by total screens and then sort within by Rotten Tomatoes rankings:

2007 films divided by total screen count.

The numbers are starkest with limited-release films (fewer than 2,000 screens). Art-house films that critics loved, such as Away From Her and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, averaged $3,113 per screen, while arthouse films critics were iffy about, such as Interview and Margot at the Wedding, didn't even do half as well, averaging only $1,322 per screen. Some people are paying attention.

Percentagewise, the critic effect is less pronounced for the supposedly critic-proof blockbusters, but it's still there. On average, the "fresh" blockbusters, such as Harry Potter and I Am Legend outperform the "rotten" blockbusters, such as Wild Hogs and Bee Movie, by more than $500 per screen. Almost any way you slice it, if a majority of critics like a movie, chances are it will do better at the box office than a similar film the majority of critics don't like. Far from being elitist, movie critics are actually a pretty good barometer of popular taste.

What does all of this mean? Not much and everything. I certainly accept the fact that America's overall cultural tastes have degraded. Serious films for adults, such as The Best Years of Our Lives, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Graduate, and The Godfather, were all No. 1 box office hits for their respective years. So was Saving Private Ryan as recently as 1998. Seems an eternity ago. Now even our most critically acclaimed films are cartoons: Persepolis, Ratatouille,and The Simpsons Movie.

If I were a publisher, though, I'd hire the best critic I could find and have him or her write two reviews: a short one, to be printed the day or week the movie opens and that gives away little of the plot but tells readers  whether it's good or bad (the service aspect); and a longer, more in-depth review that discusses the entire film, to be posted online (the critical aspect). Then I'd put a message board beneath the in-depth review and sit back. Most people don't want to hear about a movie before they've seen it but would love to discuss it afterward. Boy, would they ever.

But the main point of all of this is something obvious yet little-heard in our bottom-line culture: Quality matters. Yes, it even matters in the ledger books.

Erik Lundegaard has written for the New York Times, the Believer, and MSNBC.

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