Have film critics ever had an impact on the box office?

Batman v supermanYou gotta love Variety. The journalistic bellwether of all things entertainment has studied the massive box office opening for Batman v Superman and considered the Blart-like reviews it has received (currently a 29% on Rotten Tomatoes). Their conclusion? Critics don’t really matter when it comes to a movie’s financial success.

Methinks they are late to the party.

Let’s establish two premises up front:

  1. Good critical notices can still help a movie do business – especially if it is a small movie without a large marketing network.
  2. The overall trend which suggests critics have less influence over a movie’s box office is a genuine thing.

And now, let’s establish two corollaries:

  1. A critic’s role is not to predict or even help or hinder box office success.
  2. Critics have always had limited impact on dollars and cents.

Let’s look back, shall we? The year was 1966. (That’s fifty years ago for those who don’t have a calculator handy.) The box office champ? John Huston’s lavish The Bible: In the Beginning… We didn’t have an easy aggregator like Rotten Tomatoes to give us a snapshot of critical opinion, but Bosley Crowther, grand old man of the New York Times, captured the general POV. “The misfortune of The Bible is that it does not live up to hopes.” Richard Corliss, then a young buck at Time Magazine, was more pointed, calling Huston’s epic “three hours of empty illustrations from scripture.”

An anomaly? Perhaps. But George Roy Hill’s Hawaii, which battled The Bible for the top spot, fared about the same. Tony Mastroianni, in the Cleveland Press, opened his review with “Hawaii has survived earthquakes, hurricanes, and pestilence. It will survive this movie.”

Throw in the blandly-received Disney-produced Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N and that’s three top ten grossers that would probably have a rotten score on the tomatometer.

The BibleLet’s jump ahead. 1991. 25 years ago. What was at the top of the charts?

Well, we have Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in the number 2 spot. And, we also have some early Rotten Tomato scores to go by. The Kevin Costner/Kevin Reynolds hype-fest scored a 50. (That’s rotten, by the way.) The LA Times’ Kenneth Turan noted that regarding Kevin Reynolds, “anything worth doing is worth overdoing.” Gene Siskel was even more succinct – “badly written, acted and directed.” How about Hook, the 4th biggest earner of the year? It scored a 30, turning its nose up at Rolling Stones’ Peter Travers’ assessment “No matter how much cash Hook earns, it will take more than pixie dust to fly this overstuffed package into our dreams.”

Actually, 1991 is not the best year to illustrate this point, because the rest of the top ten were all well received by critics. But I will not cherry pick. I think it is still instructive to note that two of the top four box office movies were essentially crushed by critics with little impact.

What about ten years ago? 2006. This is a better example. Half of the top ten were rotten by Rotten Tomato criteria. These include the top three moneymakers of the year Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, The Da Vinci Code, and Ice Age, the Meltdown, as well as Night at the Museum and X-Men: The Last Stand. One of them, with a RT score of 25, actually was more poorly received than BvS. I won’t name it here, but I will give you a couple of hints. Time’s Out’s Trevor Johnston called it “decidedly missable.” It was based on a popular novel.  And its title refers to a famous painter, who, oddly enough, is also the basis for a character in franchise that has also been financially successful and critically despised. (All right – that was confusing. I know. It’s The Da Vinci Code, and Leonardo, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.)

My point is that Variety’s article would have been better written ten or even twenty years ago. There have been two primary factors at play during that time. The blockbuster era, birthed in the mid ‘70s, grew to maturity. And the internet both democratised and devalued film criticism.

HookSometime around 1990,Vanity Fair published a piece that catalogued the problems with the film industry. The main culprit was the primacy of “packaging.” Pull together a high concept and two stars and you didn’t need anything else to sell a movie. The traditional Aristotelean virtues of plot and character took a back seat to concept and spectacle. Marketing budgets soared. Cross promotion, franchise, and tentpole became watchwords.  This is really all BvS is. It’s an idea for a franchise. And it’s a thumpingly bad movie to boot.

But that doesn’t matter because the trend toward blockbuster movies grew symbiotically with the explosion of personal mass communication. The internet allows for a nonstop tidal wave of message. The sheer number of voices makes it very hard to rise above the din to be heard, but if you have the right ingredients (an iconic image like DC Comic characters; megabuck financing like Warners; a good hook – and BvS does indeed have a good hook) it is possible to pound an audience into submission. The Kardashian-Jenner empire has proven this. Donald Trump is proving it right now. If you can say it long enough and loud enough and with enough superficial panache, it becomes true.

Against this, critics may be faring poorly. But it really isn’t all that different from the way it was 10, 25, 50, or even 100 years ago. There will always be a Batman v Superman, just as there will always be a Manchester United, a Justin Bieber, or a Joel Osteen. Beloved by millions. Hated by that many or more.

There will always be windmills at which critics can tilt. And just because you can’t knock the windmill over, it doesn’t mean there’s not a value in trying.

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

9 thoughts on “Have film critics ever had an impact on the box office?

  1. Great article. I would add that many journalists also compare apples to oranges. There are so many factors in play for BVS’s great opening (many of which you point out above), including a lot of goodwill left over from Nolan’s amazing Batman trilogy. Is Hello, My Name is Doris/45 Years ever going to outgross BVS despite critics loving them and hating BVS? No, it’s not, because their production/marketing budget is 100x less than BVS’s.

    I strongly disagree with your somewhat doom-and-gloom take, Pete. People have been persuaded by marketing since the dawn of man and will continue to be. The fact is that, although single reviewers may have lost importance (sorry Jon), the RT score really does matter to people.

    • Thanks. It was interesting to see a 70% drop in BVS’s 2nd weekend. Whether that’s due to critics or poor word of mouth is impossible to know, but it does restore a little sanity to the world.

  2. Good article, Jon. This is an interesting issue, and one that is bothersome–especially when it comes to awful films such as Batman vs. Superman. (And BTW: I agree with you on many of the films on this list–yuck!) But critics mustn’t lose heart. There are big-budget, star-laden films that do succumb to critical panning … and others that are lifted up by critical praise. It’s just that some flicks, such as BvS, seem immune. Oh, well.

    • Thanks, Simon. I think it’s really hard to know what kind of impact reviews have on major studio releases today. I imagine in some cases, there can be an impact. But I’m not so sure that impact positively corresponds to the review consensus. I wonder if all the negative press BVS is getting isn’t actually spurring people to go see what all the fuss is about. I do think critics have a strong voice in promoting quality small films, but we really just review the big stuff as a matter of routine these days.

  3. Nice perspective piece, Jonathan. To add a bit of odd man out, if useless perspective: I have to admit that I have not seen BvS and never had a plan to when it was announcement a couple of years back. I still don’t plan to watch it. Oh, and I’m the vice chair of the Florida Film Critics Circle. Instead, I’m encouraging people to go see a film that opened against BvS in two cities in all of Florida, ‘Songs My Brothers Taught Me.’ lol. Bring on the windmills. What the hell, here’s a link to that review: http://indieethos.com/2016/03/25/songs-my-brothers-taught-me/

    • Thanks Hans. I like that you offer info on how to see Songs My Brother Taught Me as part of the review. I wish more critics did that for smaller movies.

  4. I smiled reading this, Jon. All the films in italics were actually quite poor, in my opinion, and deserved their critical panning. But critics have never really mattered when it comes to blockbusters, or the actual choice of films available to watch when a family or group of friends want to go to the cinema. Modern cinema chains dictate choice, by just refusing to show indie films, or world cinema or art house productions. Cinema-goers in the real sense get what is on offer, standing at the cash-desks deciding which dud they prefer to take their snacks into. After all, many of them are going to talk through the film anyway, or text their friends, check Facebook, or take selfies with the screen behind them.

    Those of us bothering to be on sites lie this, to watch film reviewers on TV or online may well be affected by reviews from people they respect. I know that I have. I don’t go to the cinema as a social event, and never have. I go to see the film, something that has become less important over the last twenty years, to many others in the audience. I go less often, because the lighting is too high now, the audience noisy and inattentive, and the smell of food is often overwhelming. I do not imagine that even 5% of modern multiplex audiences bother with critics or reviews. They go, they watch (some of it…) and they either like it, or not.

    Despite this, reviewers still present shows, and are treated as if they carry some weight, and have an importance that is not apparent in the real world. It’s a hangover from a past where such things were taken to matter, and I would be surprised if it continued in the same fashion. Celebrity snippets seem to be the modern choice. Viewers more concerned about the comings and goings of the cast in real-life, rather than whether or not they can act in a film that may or may not be any good.

    Sorry for the long comment. As you can see, this is something I have a lot of interest in!
    Best wishes, Pete.

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