Do Movie Reviews Matter?
Various outlets are reporting that Batman v Superman is experiencing a deep decline in weekend-over-weekend business. Before its release, the film was widely panned by critics from all over--currently holding a 29% on Rotten Tomatoes (TastFilm gave the movie a 4.0/10). When it still managed to register the 7th biggest opening weekend of all time and a March record, many declared that reviews do not matter. Are they right? How well-reviewed are the biggest blockbusters? Does criticism actually matter?
In recent years, there has been a rapid proliferation of sources of movie criticism and discussion. Blogs like this exist because it seems everyone has something to say about the quality of the movies we are seeing and their place in the world. As reviewers, it is our job to comment on what we find notable about a film or perhaps aspects we found to be lacking. However, I would like to acknowledge upfront that criticism itself is rarely worth as much as even the most rudimentary art it might be commenting on. As Anton Ego said in Ratatouille, "the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so."
That said, we keep doing it. Every major publication does criticism and commentary and a seemingly unlimited amount of smaller outlets are doing so as well. If it is the case that audiences do not care, what is the point of criticism?
First, the notion that audiences do not care is probably wrong. Aggregation sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic are bigger than ever and we consistently see films that are better reviewed doing better at the box office. It is the difference between Inside Out, which made $356M and The Good Dinosaur, which made only $123M. Same studio, same genre, but one was extremely well-received by critics and the other got a more lukewarm reception. Below is a chart of all of the movies that made more than $200M in 2015 and thus far in 2016:
As you can see, the overwhelming majority of the biggest moneymakers in the last two years have been embraced by critics. Sure, part of that success is the type of marketing muscle that gave Batman v Superman its opening weekend, but films like Deadpool and Inside Out also benefit from word of mouth that leads to multiple strong weekends and big totals. When studios heavily market a movie, it is just as easy for it to become The Good Dinosaur or Fantastic Four.
Batman v Superman's second weekend represents a 69.1% drop from its opening. For a movie of this size, this type of stunning decline has only ever been matched by young adult adaptation franchises--namely, Harry Potter and Twilight. Other than that, no movie so big has fallen so fast and so far. That said, there is always the possibility that there is another factor at play.
In reality, maybe it is not critics that drive audience to or away from a film. It could always just be quality itself. Perhaps good movies attract large audience and critical acclaim. It's not hard for audiences to see that Zootopia was better than The Good Dinosaur and vote with their pocketbooks weekend after weekend. If anything, that is just as likely as critics being the driving force behind box office success or failure.
But even if critics have little impact on box office results, they do provide a record or sorts. Film students will forever study the way movies were received in their time and that will always be one way we judge quality many years after the fact. A film like The Birth of a Nation is deplored today for its racism and revisionist history. But in its time, it was recognized as a breakthrough for film narrative. We know this because the critics of the day chronicled it. In a way, their words will live forever and it is because film criticism can do so much for us. The best critics can often put a film's strengths in sharp relief and give us the chance think more critically about film in general.
So, do critics matter? Absolutely yes, but mostly in ways that live on long after box office records are set and reset.
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