Slate contributor Erik Lundegaard was online at Washingtonpost.com on July 3 to chat with readers about the correlation between positive or negative movie reviews and box office receipts. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
Erik Lundegaard: Hey everybody. Thanks for taking the time to read, e-mail, slam, defend and dissect my Slate article correlating movie box office with critical acclaim. Looking forward to the questions. Let's have some fun.
jbreeden: I love this sort of analysis—it's heartening and interesting. A question: Do you believe that quality causes good reviews and—independently—also causes better performance? (That would be my guess.) Or do you assert that quality causes good reviews, and good reviews cause better performance? (I doubt that.) Thanks.
Erik Lundegaard: Yeah, this was an unancticipated problem with the piece—sparked, in part, by the piece's headline, which I didn't write. But I never make the causation argument, just the correlation argument. So I'm with you.
I really have no idea about causation. All I'm saying is that, in general, in 2007, movies that critics liked did better at the box office than movies that critics didn't like on a per-screen basis. This seems to go against conventional wisdom. I've seen the argument again and again in recent years that critics are elitist but these numbers go some way toward disproving that notion.
Alexandria, Va.: Good topic today. The Washington Post had Stephen Hunter review Kit Kittredge: An American Girl. While all the other reviews I read, including the Wall Street Journal, said it was wonderful, Hunter trashed it up and down. But Hunter writes books about snipers, and routinely glorifies violence and head-smashing in movies. It's apparent by his review that "girl movies" are a waste of his time. Was it right for the paper to send that reviewer to that film?
Erik Lundegaard: Why not? I think the important thing is to know your critic's likes and dislikes—as you seem to know Hunter's—and then respond accordingly. You don't have to agree with the local critic for that critic to be useful. Hell, one of the most useful critics would be one you disagree with 100 percent of the time. Then you always know where you stand.
Selene212: The people who decide what will run where and on how many screens are paid to make calculated bets on the number of people who will turn out for each film and plan the screenings accordingly. The fact that the per-screen average is higher for niche movies may just mean that they are better at predicting where the niche audiences are—and how far they will travel for their kind of film.
Erik Lundegaard: Agreed. If the independent division is doing its job. But sometimes they're not. There was a great article in the LA Times a couple months back by Patrick Goldstein on Warner Bros. closing its independent division and the "public secret" that Warner Bros. was NEVER good with their arthouse movies. I slammed them a few years ago for the way they handled Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a fun film that played in so few theaters most moviegoers had to watch it on DVD. Last year they seemed to handle The Assassination of Jesse James poorly. In the same article Goldstein praises Fox Searchlight (Juno, etc.) for the way they handle their independent films.
Again, I'm not saying movie reviewers are the CAUSE of a good film's good box office. Not at all. Reviewers may be a factor—and may even be more of a factor in the age of Rotten Tomatoes, when moviegoers can see if 90 percent of critics liked a film, or 5 percent did—but many factors cause good box office: marketing, word-of-mouth, the right subject at the right time.
How much should we trust the people who decide what movies will run where and on how many screens? It's a fascinating question.
New York, N.Y.: Weren't critical reviews of Sex and the City generally negative but the box office return has been about what was expected?
Erik Lundegaard: Yes. I think its numbers on RT were in the 50s. Middling. Great box office. But my argument is a general argument and there will always be exceptions. Sex and the City was an exception.
Washington, D.C.: Articles that discuss the effect of the press on our lives always seem disingenuous to me. This one is no different. It's almost as if it were written by a critic trying to say, "please listen to us, because we actually know what we're talking about."