When a new movie comes out, some times the studios will screen it for critics. These critic showings are a way to help promote the film and earn more money. But the medium in which people consume reviewers is changing. These are not just written critics in newspapers like the Washington Post, LA Times or New York Times. There are #Youtube reviewers; there are websites such as #RottenTomatoes and #Metacriticwhich use a formula to aggregate reviews. And these websites have huge amounts to traffic. Like an insatiable Purple People Eater, people are consuming more and more media online and more people are listening and watching these online stars. This can be especially important since the majority of theater customers are between the ages of 25-29, as reported by the #MPAA. Yet there are some films, despite all the reviewers, that are considered “critic proof.” #ThePiratesoftheCaribbean franchise and the #Transformers films earned billions of dollars while being critically panned. Do online critics and reviewers impact film goers in a way to affect profits? How are they impacting box office? Are the tides shifting and is the summer of 2016 and 2017 showing us that there are no longer critic proof films?
What are Critic Proof Films?
Well, let’s examine critic proof films and what they are. Let me point to Transformers and Pirates as being examples of these types of films. These two franchises have earned billions of dollars despite sequels being panned by critics. In fact Transformers: Age of Extinction, has only an 18% rating on Rotten Tomatoes yet made $245 million domestically and $800 million internationally. Dark of the Moon was another billion dollar film despite a 35% Rotten Tomatoes rating. Pirates has made over $3 billion as a franchise. Yet, only the first film earns a fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. There is 2010’s Alice in Wonderland which made a billion dollars worldwide. It made that money despite a 51% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a 6.5 rating on IMDB and a 53% rating on Metacritic. The negative reviews didn’t seem to matter at all. There is also Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It made $786 million and now people wish they could just forget its connection to the Indiana Jones’ franchise (ask an Indiana Jones film about this and they’ll go all Memento on you). These films would be considered “critic proof.” And it seems like critic proof films are usually sequels to different franchises (such as Indiana Jones, Transformers and Pirates) or a reboot of a beloved franchise (Alice in Wonderland). Critic proof films make a significant amount of money (generally over $500 million worldwide) even though when screened for critics, ended up getting awful reviews. There seems to be a clear pattern of established properties being able to skirt by on reputation. It’s like the Carmelo Anthony of film; sure, you think it should be good on the surface but when push comes to shove, this film is nothing but a big shortcoming.
Reviewers and Critics
But what about reviewers and critics? How are people consuming this information since printed newspapers are on the decline? Now that more and more people are consuming online media social media has become a juggernaut. According to a PEW research study, they looked at how many adults use social media from 2005 to 2015. What they found was staggering. Nearly 65% of all American adults use social media sites, compared to just 7% in 2005. The huge increase really came between 2008 and 2009, where social media usage went from 25% to 38%. It’s not a coincidence that’s around the time Twitter really exploded. People get their news, politics, debate and other life information from social media. Memes have practically replaced studies (those cats are just so darn cute). We have seen social media used as a tool to bring down governments. These sites have power and one way to measure influence is by number of Twitter followers and web traffic.
What are these sources of information? Well, websites and Youtube/Twitter reviewers, really. Websites such as Metacritic, IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes and Cinemascore gain millions of views every day. Online critics will be #JeremyJahns, #ChrisStuckmann, #ScreenJunkies and #NostalgiaCritic put up a video and people immediately watch. These people and sites have power over what influences others. Yet, all seem to measure quality differently. Metacritic is a website that aggregates reviews and by a mathematical process creates a score based on that. Rotten Tomatoes aggregates critic reviews based on a binary system; it is either a rotten (less than 60%) or fresh (60% or above) rating. The other major critic websites like IMDB has a user rated website and Cinemascore polls viewers opening day to give a letter grade rating the film. Each one measure quality even though each one has a problem with its methodology. Rotten Tomatoes binary system doesn’t give much room for a range variety and when a critic doesn’t give a letter or number score it becomes subjective if a review is fresh or rotten. Cinemascore polls people on opening night so the voters will be the ones most hyped for a film and potentially a strong bias. IMDB is based on user votes and while it doesn’t take in critic ratings, the amount of traffic they get (290 million visitors a month) people will look at the ratings. It would be disingenuous to think that IMDB doesn’t have an influence on film goers. The problem with IMDB is that because users and fans rate it we get Interstellar voted a better than Citizen Kane. Each one has its issues but there is no doubt that each site generates a huge amount of traffic. People will look to them to figure out what to watch.
For the critics themselves, they have quite a following. Each one has a unique take on how to review films (rating systems, style of videos, etc.) but each has a large following. At the time of this piece, Jeremy Jahns has 1.3 million Youtube subscribers and 140,000 Twitter followers. Chris Stuckmann has over 1 million Youtube subscribers and 109,000 Twitter followers. Screen Junkies, while producing their own original content, is a massive company that reviews films; they have over 6 million subscribers. Nostalgia Critic has a meager 895,000 subscribers. What does this mean? It means that these individuals hold a big voice. Now, even if we calculate that half of all their subscribers are crossovers (people who subscribed to more than one of them), that still means they reach millions of unique individuals. They have a voice, they use it and millions listen.
The chart below shows more Youtube and online reviewers and their followers on Twitter and Youtube.
The Effect of Critics on Box Office
Taking all of this into account, do critics make that big of a difference? Knowing that more and more people consume media on social media platforms, are these online critics impacting the nearly 25 million people who go to the movies each week? If we assume that these critics and sites took off around the same time as social media’s popularity (2008), then we should see less and less success from “critic proof” films. The Transformers and Pirates franchises are good places to start since the second Transformers film came out in 2009 and the third Pirates film came out in 2007.Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) grossed over $800 million worldwide with about half of that coming from the domestic (US) box office. It also opened up at $108 million. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) made over $950 million worldwide with about one third of that from the domestic box office. In 2011, when the third Transformers film came out, it made over a billion dollars, though just about a third of that came from the domestic box office. It could be that long franchises don’t work; these were the 3rd films and audiences were just fatigued with the property. Yet, how are the Marvel Universe and Star Wars properties doing? Oh, that’s right, they make a billion dollars and are continuing to grow. Also, the Amazing Spider-Man 2 (panned heavily by fans and critics alike) made over $700 million dollars and it was released in 2014. That a lot of money still, though only 28% of that came from domestic box office.Transformers: Age of Extinction (which is the fourth one if you’re bothering to count) (2014) also made over a billion dollars, but a measly 22% of that came from the USA. This film was hated on by just about everyone. Clearly this shows that critics don’t have a big impact, right? Well, while the international and overall box office is doing well the domestic markets are showing decline.
In the past, the evidence shows that there is some validation to the idea that critics influence box office. An examination by a student at Berkely University (based on a Timothy King article from 2003) found that there is a strong correlation between Metacritic ratings and box office performance. Most of this data comes BTR (before Twitter Revolution), so that means the 90s and early 2000s. It also shows that box office can improve week to week based on word of mouth and good reviews. Another undergraduate study at the University of New Hampshire found that people are more likely to trust a consumer rather than a reviewer because they could identify with them. This would give more weight to sites like IMDB and Cinemascore rather than Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes. However, though the researcher says that it does have an effect, they acknowledge that it depends on the person and the reviewer. So there’s a lot of variables to sort through there. Another study done by Tepper School of Business Professor Peter Boatwright (Tepper is the business school at Carnegie Mellon University) looked at 466 films released between December 1997 and March 2001 with 46 “widely accessible film critics.” What they found was that critics influenced how many early tickets were bought and that the good reviews would slow down the rate of box office decline week to week. This was regardless of big blockbusters or smaller films.
So, what happens when these sites’ and critics’ reach is given an internet megaphone? It’s harder to gauge. As we’ve seen, domestically, the box office for some of these flicks have decreased. Looking at this summer, there are lots of films that would be considered big money makers for studios. #WonderWoman, #TransformersTheLastKnight, #GuardiansoftheGalaxyVol2, #SpiderManHomecoming, #DespicableMe3, #KingArthurLegendoftheSword, #AlienCovenant, #Baywatch, #PiratesoftheCaribbeanDeadManTellNoTales, #TheMummy and #Cars3. The chart below shows how the film performed in their first 4 weeks, calculates the percentage of box office drop week to week, international verses domestic box office total and reviews from the aforementioned websites.
Baby Driver was used in this because of its wide release, fantastic reviews and being an original film. It fits with what shouldn’t do well at the box office yet could manage to get some good money in there because of the good reviews.
Overall? Well, it doesn’t seem to indicate much. Sure, Transformers and The Mummydidn’t do well but making over $100 million domestically is nothing to shake a stick at. Unless you’re Marvel or DC, in which case they made that much over one weekend. Yet Baby Driver has not even cracked $100 million total, much less domestically. Sure, it did better than King Arthur and will probably pass up Baywatch (NOTE: Baby Driver did that and The Mummy this last weekend) domestically but it won’t beat out Cars or the aforementioned Transformers or Pirates. Yet, this film is considered a huge success. Why? Because of expectations, release and production budget.
The big losers that we can see are King Arthur, Transformers (especially based off of previous outings by the franchise), Despicable Me 3, Alien: Covenant, Baywatch and Cars 3. These films definitely had bigger expectations than this. While some would argue that Despicable Me 3 is a winner because it came away with over $600 million worldwide and $200 million domestic, I argue “no” because it could have been a billion dollar film like their Minions spin-off but fell very short of it.
Apparently, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson believes critics were to blame for Baywatch tanking. Look at what he had to say on Twitter:
“Oh boy, critics had their venom & knives ready. Fans LOVE the movie. Huge positive scores. Big disconnect w/ critics & people. “
But what is the data saying? There is a correlation and even the data suggests that there is a relationship though it’s still murky. Even before the advent of Twitter and critic websites, the impact was not seen as massive. If critics help with word of mouth that can help seeing that word of mouth can travel really fast. For people who read reviews, critics have been shown to affect the outcome of box office. But for the 25 million people who attend the movies every weekend, marketing also plays a big part of it. Sure, these critics and websites gain a lot of traffic but how much crossover is there? And even if there isn’t any crossover, the critics followers and subscribers still amounts to about half of the weekly audience. Yes, there are “critic proof” films but that’s only because people will see what they want to see. The rating systems are going to be looked at certain ways because there is no way to effectively measure ratings. And I haven’t even mentioned the potential impact of video on demand (VOD) such as Netflix or Amazon have on box office. I also haven’t mentioned the potential impact of the Golden Age of TV. There is so much good TV on right now, and it presents itself as a movie (Game of Thrones I’m looking at you) that there is less of an incentive to leave the home; it really reminiscent of when the television was being widely used in homes back in the 1940s and 50s.
However, looking at the drop of Baby Driver backs up earlier research done by Tepper Business School. Word of mouth seems to work. It worked with the positive buzz surrounding Wonder Woman despite earlier failures in the DCEU. The other data shows there is a correlation, at least between Metacritic and box office. Then, in the UNH study, it showed that people are impacted by reviewers, as long as they can relate. If the past studies are an indication of today’s modern internet critic and his or her impact on box office, then there can be an impact. However, right now there is strong correlation but it lacks causation. After looking at the data, there definitely seems to be an impact; but the extent of it seems to be smaller than I would have expected. However, after seeing what Valarian did this weekend, I think we may be at the point where critic proof films will be rare. Good job, internet, good job.
I’m going to go get some coffee now. Let me know what you think in the comments. What did I get right? What do you disagree with? What did I miss?