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Commentary: Don’t Rely on Critic Scores To Decide What To Watch

31 March 2021

Commentary: Don’t Rely on Critic Scores To Decide What To Watch

In recent years, it seems the decision to catch a film has become semi-dependent on if it passes the “Rotten Tomatoes test” — a movie is only worth the time if it has a high rating. Those numbers may even be the first topic that pops up when a film is brought up in conversations. A 2017 study found that 36% of American filmgoers checked Rotten Tomatoes before seeing a film. 

It’s an understandable phenomenon. There are thousands of hours of content out there all competing for attention. Leaving the decision-making to easily-searchable scores feels like the most sensible solution. Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer reflects the critical consensus from the world’s leading publications, distilling and averaging out their opinions into an elegant score.

However, this reliance on arbitrary numbers can feel puzzling at times, especially with widespread cynicism on all things media. This can even boil over into unhealthy obsessions. It’s slightly more pertinent in the world of video games and music, with reviewers even receiving death threats despite glowing reviews with imperfect scores. In the film world, there were concerns about how 2017’s Wonder Woman performed on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. Both of these sites are owned by media giants: Metacritic is owned by Red Ventures while Rotten Tomatoes is owned by Comcast’s Fandango.

No matter how twisted, these are all indications of the importance attributed to critic scores. As such, it feels important and necessary to understand the flaws in this system. Understanding the machinations behind contemporary reviews may allow for more informed choices, and opportunities to break free and discover more than what is fed and approved. 


How Review Aggregators Work

Review aggregators, such as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, reflect a film’s consensus through separate scores by published critics and user reviews. 

For Rotten Tomatoes, critical consensuses are averaged between opinions by “Approved Tomatometer Critics”, or critics who have met the site’s criteria. Even if each publication does not have its own scoring system, Rotten Tomatoes determines a film’s ‘freshness’ based on each review’s tone. Likewise, audience scores are averaged out based on the percentage of ratings. It’s a process that seems democratic enough. A film with a high score can only achieve its distinction if there is a consensus. 

The issues aren’t with the formulas review aggregators use to tally their scores. As review aggregators mainly base their scores on American critics, that is where the focus will be.

Metacritic uses a different formula, with its Metascore based on a smaller, more exclusive group of critics / Image credit: Metacritic

What Critic Scores Cannot Capture

The importance of scores prizes the purpose of reviews solely as recommendations, rather than as pieces of analysis and dissection. Numbers fully realise film reviews’ sole purpose today as marketing, boiling down decision-making to a simple “yes” or “no”.

The relationship between critics and studios, however, is not as nefarious as the purpose would imply. There have been no reported instances of monetary bribery; the entanglements are slightly more nuanced. More often than not, critics need the studios more than the other way around. It would seem that the latter has the power to withhold early and exclusive access to films and talents.

It is exceptionally important to note that there have also been no reports of film studios abusing this relationship. What does happen is with how preview screenings or early-access interviews are presented by the studios, be it through set visits, exclusive merchandise, or through all-expense-paid accommodations for press junkets. There is a fantastic article by Screen Rant on the topic.

It is impossible to prove whether these efforts by studios affect a critic’s perception of a film. But broad swings in scores on review aggregators between early reviews and wide screenings are always bound to raise a few eyebrows.

Perhaps one recent example is with the reception towards Wonder Woman 1984. The film came in with a 88% rating on the Tomatometer based on early reviews close to its release date. Wonder Woman 1984 now stands at 59%. 

The level of influence review aggregators have in influencing box office sales is still hotly debated. Studios have blamed Rotten Tomatoes for killing certain films, while Variety published a study in 2017 that found the review aggregator to have no impact on box office sales. Yet a recent study found that the truth may lie somewhere in between. What seems more certain is that depending on arbitrary numbers for decision-making is mostly unreliable especially when there is much more at play than just a film’s quality. 

In 2019, Brie Larson drew flak for calling out the disproportionate demographic of film critics in America / Image credit: Disney

And that is not even discussing the can of worms that is with how most film critics are of a certain ethnicity and gender, and how these are argued to affect opinions and appreciation for certain films. In America, studies found that American film critics are mostly white and male. The implication is that critics can no longer represent broad opinions. If the argument is followed, critic scores from review aggregators can never be attuned with Asian tastebuds, further jeopardising the entire system for audiences here.

The Role of The Film Critic Today

The emphasis on scores is not a complete departure from the film critic’s traditional roles; one key goal of reviews have always been of recommendation. How this emphasis has truncated the hows and whys leading to the recommendation isn’t necessarily the fault of the audience. Besides, more often that not, audience scores have largely differed from critical opinion — notwithstanding trolling and “review bombing”. 

As a writer of film, it is tempting to bemoan the lack of readership or on how the craft has become underappreciated. Yet the truth is these complaints might as well be accompanied by the world’s smallest violin. There are still reviews by go-to established names that will draw attention — John Lui of The Straits Times is one local example. But we have long past the era of Robert Christgau and Lester Bangs where word is king. Much like how Roger Ebert made the leap to television, the onus is on film critics to adapt and present their works through more engaging means.

Since 2008, SINdie has been the home of astute film reviews and interviews featuring the movers and shakers of Southeast Asian cinema / Image credit: SINdie Facebook page

The Internet has flung the door open for countless publications to shine. The room at the established top is scarce, making differentiation or exceptional craftsmanship necessary to succeed. While film recommendation remains a key job scope for the film critic, this cannot be divorced from their means, angle, and intended audience. 

As an example: Sinema.SG has been in the review game for quite some time now (we have been around since 2006). None of our pieces has been attached with a score. Conversations about changing this have floated around the office from time to time. It seems silly not to make a change when seemingly everyone is relying on numbers to make decisions. 

However, the conclusion has always been a steadfast “no”. The site’s raison d’etre has always been to uplift Asian cinema, with particular attention to local films. Not every film that we have been privileged to watch and review have been stellar. Yet we will always believe that there is value and room for encouragement for all. Even if it is possible, attributing these to a number might muddle this intention.

Every publication has its own intention, each with the same goal of attaining readership. There are those who are focused on being chummy with those who resonate with social activism, and there are those angled against the movement. Negative reviews and takedowns of ‘bad’ films often see more readership than positive ones; bashing 2019’s Cats adaptation and, most recently, 2021’s Music became popular sports.

With all the business considerations, it has never been harder than now to see film reviews as thoughtful analysis. All the statistical formulas in the world cannot accommodate these elements into a simple number. 

What Does All This Mean For The Audience

There is absolutely nothing wrong with relying on film ratings to make decisions. However, for the sake of a more informed choice, there has to be a recognition of what is in play. Knowing that most film ratings are unreliable can be liberating. Romanticise the notion and it can feel like breaking free from being told what to watch. Through a more pragmatic lens, the simple truth is that everybody has their own tastes; what is beloved by critics is often incongruent with the masses.

Even if there are only so many hours in the day, there is still value in a bad experience after going into a film cold. Sometimes, this is far more exciting than catching a critically-acclaimed film. This allows for reflection and deliberation on what is it about the film that did and didn’t work. Without the influence of other opinions (especially when boiled down to a rating), it becomes necessary to think for ourselves and form our own perspectives. 

Admittedly, this is all painfully naive — it feels like the more likely scenario is that there wouldn’t be more energy put into dissecting a bad film. However, anyone with an interest in film and enjoys the company of a great movie should do themselves a favour by not allowing anyone else to sway their opinions. Almost all of us have the means to express ourselves. Share them with friends, share them online. 

Perhaps that will lead to an interest in the work of critics, stepping in to provide some means in making sense of what is it about the filmmaking craft that conjures strong emotions. With more and more joining in, perhaps all this could be the starting point of realising the ever-elusive culture of film literacy.

Besides, since when did anyone like being told what to watch or think?

There's nothing Matt loves more than "so bad, they're good" movies. Except browsing through crates of vinyl records. And Mexican food.