Erik Lundegaard discusses the importance of movie critics.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
July 3 2008 5:33 PM

Let's Review

Erik Lundegaard discusses film criticism and the link between a movie's popularity and the press it receives.

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."

It may be true that people do actually follow critical reviews. However, what's more likely is that the internet is making hundreds of reviews available and websites are ranking movies more objectively by combining a large sample of reviews. Consumers are able to make a more informed decision as to where to spend their entertainment dollar. There are STILL instances where a great marketing campaign and targeted advertising can overpower the conglomerate of critics.

Also, if the Washington D.C. area listened to its newspaper, it would hardly ever go to see movies as their inefficient and biased method of selecting critics for films often results in negative reviews.

Erik Lundegaard: Again, correlation not causation.

If I'm pleading in the piece, it's for all of us not just critics. "Please, give us good movies to see. It will be in our interest (we'll see a good movie) AND yours (you'll make more money)."

_______________________

Rockville, Md.: Who's your favorite movie critic? Least favorite? Or do you just stick with the Rotten Tomatoes aggregate data to decide whether or not a movie is worth seeing?

Erik Lundegaard: My favorite movie critic—admitted bias here—is my father, who was the movie critic for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in the 1970s and '80s, and was, a nice little side-note, the inspiration for the name Jerry Lundegaard in the movie "Fargo." The Coens grew up in St. Louis Park, MN, used to read him, etc. They used a few other critics' names in that film, too.

These days, I like both David Denby and Anthony Lane in The New Yorker (Lane makes me laugh out loud). A few years back it was David Edelstein of Slate but I haven't read him as often now that he's at New York magazine. Manohla Dargis is sharp. Oh, and I love Dave Kehr's DVD reviews in the Tuesday NY Times. So much of our culture is geared toward the moment, to the point where much of the "news" is actually prediction rather than reporting, but Kehr spends time on a lot of classic and foreign films, many of which I haven't heard of. There's a noisiness to our culture but Kehr's column feels quiet to me. I don't feel as anxious when I'm there.

_______________________

Boston: Can you remember which of the particular movies' per-screen grosses most surprised you?

Erik Lundegaard: I was most surprised that the tentpole films remained at the top even after sorting by per-screen average. Shows, to a certain extent, that the distributors know what they're doing.

An Indian film, distributing by Eros, called Om Shanti Om, did surprisingly well in both per-theater and per-screen averages. A lot of Indian films did well last year. They showed up in 100-200 theaters, played for three weeks, left, but made good money. Not a bad model.

What surprised me the most, though, was how poorly some wide-release films did. The Seeker: The Dark is Rising opened in over 3,000 theaters but made only $8.7 million. Its per-screen average was $1,087.

You look at those kinds of numbers and realize that it's all still a guessing game. In fact, films like The Seeker are the reason studios cling to their tentpole films. They live for the sure thing, or the "as-sure-as-we-can-get" thing: your Shreks and Spider-Mans and Pirates. And it may be why they're too cautious in their distributing with other films. I don't know. I'm not a Hollywood insider.

_______________________

Alexandria, Va.: What's the deal with movie trailers? It seems like studios shoot themselves in the foot by giving away all of the best stuff before the film even hits the screen. Maybe we should have someone out there review the trailers!

Erik Lundegaard: I'm sure someone somewhere is doing this. I know Entertainment Weekly often grades trailers.

But I'm with you. I think it got pretty bad in the late '80s and early '90s. That's when I began to plug my ears during trailers of films I knew I wanted to see.

It's part of the safety-net game. People want the familiar so let them know exactly what a film is—almost from beginning to end—so they'll go. Might help, generally. Hurts moviegoers like you and me.

_______________________

Detroit, Mich.: With the price of a movie ticket these days, it's a wonder any film is successful anymore. Have you done any research into what the threshold may be for moviegoers before they just give up going to the theater altogether? $4 gas is bad enough. If movie tickets go beyond $10.50, I can say with certainty that I'm done with them. It's way too easy to rent a movie online and watch it at home on my flatscreen HD TV!

Erik Lundegaard: With the price of anything these days. And no, no research on when moviegoers leave the game, although I'm sure the studios are doing research on it. Yet, with DVDs, they still get them in the end, so maybe they don't care.

Who cares? I care. Moviegoing should be a communal experience. In the 1980s I ushered at a movie theater in Minneapolis called the Boulevard (now a Hollywood Video), and I still remember the great bursts of laughter during the last reel of Toostie, or, when watching the Australian film, The Man From Snowy River, the way the audience, as a group, all leaned back in their seats when they saw how steep the incline that the hero was riding his horse down. What fun. You don't get that at home.

_______________________

Columbus, Ohio: I read today that the cast of Friends is finally ready to make a big-screen reunion movie based on the success of the Sex and the City movie. But as far as I can tell, the SATC movie bombed. Would you call SATC a success? What even qualifies as a success anymore as far as films go?

Erik Lundegaard:Sex and the City didn't bomb. I didn't particularly like the film—five episodes strung together, with Miranda even more obnoxious than usual—but it's done great business. $140 million? Something like that? Fifth for the year so far.

A Friends movie does nothing for me.

In a way, the problem with SATC, for me, was the same problem I had with Spider-Man 3. The previous incarnation (the TV show for SATC, Spider-Man 2) gave us a happy ending. Carried had Big, Peter had Mary Jane, all was right with the world. So what next? For both, the solution was to break up the main characters only to put them back together again. Didn't work for me. In either case.

_______________________

Seattle: Do you think the studios are paying attention to this kind of numbers analysis? Perhaps it could help get better movies out there.

Erik Lundegaard: It's my assumption that the studios know all these numbers and more. It's my assumption that they're way smarter than I could ever be. But they're also timid, fearful for their jobs, and rely as much as possible on the sure thing.

In Bambi vs. Godzilla, David Mamet takes apart audience testing, which the studios rely as part of their safety net, and as part of the mechanism by which they make their movies more palatable and anodyne. But it often backfires. In television, anyway, Seinfeld had one of the lowest audience test scores in NBC's history. So did the British version of The Office with British viewers. So did the American version of The Office with American viewers. All innovative shows. All huge future successes. All future cash cows. And all nearly squashed but for the stubbornness of the show's creators and an indulgence of an executive or two.

One wonders how often you don't have that indulgence. You wonder how often the cash cow gets slaughtered as a calf.

_______________________

AJ900: Per-screen averages could be misleading because theater owners manage their theaters and screens on a weekly basis, taking from lower-performing movies and giving to top performers. Could you look at per-screen averages on opening weekend only? Assuming theater owners book based on expectations, before reviews come out, particularly low or high per-screen averages on opening weekend could reflect critics' impact. It might also be interesting to see screen dropoff from first to second weekend ranked against critic ratings. It's always interesting to see this type of analysis.

Erik Lundegaard: I don't have those numbers but it's certainly an interesting idea. Ditto drop-offs from opening to second weekend.

_______________________

Erik Lundegaard: Thanks everybody for all your questions and comments. Keep the discussion going. These are our stories we're talking about.