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.
It's almost a given these days that movie critics are elitist, while moviegoers are populist. When the highest-grossing films get panned by critics, what good are critics? As publishers across the country dump their reviewers, this is not exactly a rhetorical question.
Believe it or not, though, critically acclaimed films generally do better than critically panned films at the box office—if you measure their performance in the right way.
Here are the highest-grossing movies from 2007, along with each film's rating from Rotten Tomatoes, a Web site that quantifies critical opinion. (In the Rotten Tomatoes vernacular, films that garner positive reviews from at least 60 percent of critics are considered "fresh," while those below 60 percent are considered "rotten"):
You hardly need the Rotten Tomatoes rating. Four of the top five films are sequels; the fifth a sci-fi flick based upon a 20-year-old cartoon, which was itself based upon a toy. None is exactly Citizen Kane. Or even Jaws.
But here's something else they have in common: They were the only five films in 2007 to open in more than 4,000 theaters. Beyond the cause-and-effect question—do people see what studios make available and market, or do studios make available and market only what people want to see?—the popularity of a movie, via box office grosses, is to a great extent a self-fulfilling prophecy. So is there a better way to judge a film's popularity?
Yes: Use a per-theater average. Fred Claus, for example, made $18 million its opening weekend, which, out of 630 films released in 2007, is the 43rd best opening weekend. Not bad. Then you notice it opened in 3,603 theaters, giving it a per-theater average of $5,138. That ranks 246th. Not good. Fred Claus also got bad reviews: a 23 percent rating from Rotten Tomatoes. Call it a coincidence if you like.
A film's per-theater average for its entire history is rarely available to the public, but it is calculable. You simply add up the total number of theaters in which a film is shown and divide that number into its U.S. box office take.
I did this for the 237 films of 2007 with a theater high of 100. After removing the three films that didn't have a Rotten Tomatoes rating, I sorted by overall per-theater average. The top five movies are the same, merely in jumbled order, with Transformers now No. 1, pulling in $12,366 per theater.
But is this even an accurate measure of performance? Articles about the movie industry tend to use "theaters" and "screens" interchangeably, but some films, blockbusters certainly, play on numerous screens in just one theater. Yet we rarely count those screens. Spider-Man 3, for example, played in 27,819 theaters but on 49,392 screens.
So what happens when we sort by overall per-screen average? Some slight movement. Transformers is still No. 1 ($8,887 per screen), but Spider-Man 3 and Pirates 3 drop out of the top five, and I Am Legend and 300 take their places. Plus the art-house movies move up. Paris, je t'aime, ranked 179th by U.S. domestic box office, is, by per-screen average, 43rd, averaging $4,386 per screen. Sweeney Todd, 49th for the year with $52 million, moves into the top 20 in the new paradigm: $5,458 per screen. Both of these films got good reviews.
Things get more interesting when you divide the 234 films into their "fresh" and "rotten" ratings:
While there were fewer "fresh" films (i.e., movies that critics liked) and they showed on fewer screens and took in less overall box office, they tended to make almost $1,000 more per screen than "rotten" movies (i.e., movies critics didn't like). So, on a per-screen-basis, more people are following critics into theaters than not.
Then I broke the numbers down further:
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.
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:
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.
Photograph of Roger Ebert on Slate's home page by David Livingston/Getty Images.