All Thumbs Down


Forbes celebrates the decentralized aggregate mind of Web sites like Rotten Tomatoes over traditional top-down major film critics when it comes to deciding what movies to watch. The piece is hooked to the fact that this year 11 major studio films have been released without any critic pre-screening (vs. only two at this point last year)–and three of them premiered at number one at the box office: Underworld Evolution, When a Stranger Calls, and Tyler Perry's Madea's Family Reunion, all representatives of beloved genres not traditionally beloved by critics.

As someone whose movie watching is completely dominated by Netflix anyway these days, and can thus rely on both personal word of mouth and a lifetime of dimly-remembered desires to steer my film viewing, my interest in this is mostly academic (especially since the last movie I did see in a theater, Woody Allen's Match Point, was not appreciably better than most of his last 10 movies, despite widespread critical reaction based on that weird tropism that sweeps the Critical Mind writ large regarding formerly beloved media characters every once in a while–see the "comeback of Prince" over the past couple of years for another example of this, with albums no better and in most respects worst than all the ones everyone ignored in the 1990s). But in general, the New World that has dawned in the past decade in which cultural gatekeepers of whatever strength lose influence and power–even if only perceived influence and power–is always a more fun one to live in.

The "whatever strength" and "perceived influence" point is interesting in this regard–none of the press I've found regarding this recent increase in no-critic-screenings has addressed or drawn upon any long-term data about the relation between box office and critical praise or blame. As the biggest film gatekeeper of them all, Roger Ebert, has noted, studios would tell him that horror flicks in general were as invulnerable as Freddie Kreuger to the natterings of him and his ilk–which is as it should be.

Some smarty-pants marketing professors have found that

both positive and negative reviews are correlated with weekly box office revenue over an eight-week period, suggesting that critics play a dual role: They can influence and predict box office revenue. However, the authors find the impact of negative reviews (but not positive reviews) to diminish over time, a pattern that is more consistent with critics' role as influencers. The authors then compare the positive impact of good reviews with the negative impact of bad reviews to find that film reviews evidence a negativity bias; that is, negative reviews hurt performance more than positive reviews help performance, but only during the first week of a film's run.

Hollywood is famously the "no one knows anything" industry, but the aggregate mind of the audience, talking to itself through many and varied forums of special or general interest, does tend to know what it likes.