Guest Post: Disconnected – Public Opinion, Critical Acclaim, and The Academy

Nicola, who’s runs Uncultured Critic, has written a special guest feature for Cinema Fanatic about  “the disconnect between public opinion, critical acclaim, and The Academy.” I hope you enjoy it! And while you’re at it, y’all should follower her on Twitter, too!

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The Economist recently released an article with the following title:

A World of Hits: Ever-increasing choice was supposed to mean the end of the blockbuster. It has had the opposite effect

Ever-increasing choice? Not anymore! Since the advent of the latest 3D boom (-and-hopefully-bust), choices have dwindled considerably.

When How to Train Your Dragon was released, Paramount demanded screens reserved for Alice in Wonderland, late in its release, be cleared for incoming films. A week later, Clash of the Titans opened in cinemas, feeling the box office squeeze as How to Train Your Dragon prevented it from being screened in 3D at all venues. Not only are 3D screens at a premium, but they’re over-subscribed, with distributors squabbling over who gets them. This robs us of choice, giving the big 3D releases precedence over our cinemas.

The Economist article goes on to say that,

Although you might expect people who seek out obscure products to derive more pleasure from their discoveries than those who simply trudge off to see the occasional blockbuster, the opposite is true. Tom Tan and Serguei Netessine of Wharton Business School have analysed reviews on Netflix…. They find that blockbusters get better ratings from the people who have watched them than more obscure ones do. Even the critically loathed “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” is awarded four stars out of five. Ms Elberse of Harvard Business School has found the same of ratings on Quickflix, the Australian equivalent of Netflix.

There are a number of ways to read this. First of all, I don’t think that Netflix ratings are useful. I don’t claim to know how anyone else treats the Netflix rating system, but my thought process goes like this: Do I want them to send me more films like American Beauty? Yes. Five stars. Do I want to see more films like Idiocracy? No. One star. The trouble is that the scoring system is a way for Netflix to gauge what people want more of, not a way to allow its members to express an opinion. You can see the overall score and, basing popular opinion against your own, Netflix will guess how much you’ll enjoy the film. However, you can’t access a member’s page and check out their ratings; it’s a faceless rating system.

Generally, public opinion is measured not by audiences’ professed enjoyment of a film, but how many people went to see it. We vote with our wallet, thus creating box office statistics. Meanwhile, critics do the thinking and the Academy (of around 6,000 members) does the awarding. There are three strands to film opinion: success, reception, and acclaim. These tend to be quantified by box office statistics (the audience), critical opinion, and award-giving.

The problem with public opinion is that it does not take into account the audience’s enjoyment, but their initial choice to see a film. This goes a long way to explain the eminence of franchises, sequels, and the general popcorn movie mind-set: all action, no story.

Naturally, this does not sit well with critics. While critical opinion is deemed important, it rarely motivates sales; but can, at times, prevent them. Kevin Smith recently directed a hissy fit at critics for giving Cop Out negative reviews, which led (directly or indirectly) to a poor turn out. What Smith failed to see was that the same critics who panned his latest venture were responsible, in part, for his ability to make more off-beat films in the past. Would he have gotten funding to make Dogma if Chasing Amy and Clerks hadn’t had critical success? Probably not. Critical contribution is often unquantifiable. Films that are highly rated might never play at the multiplex, while M. Night Shyamalan’s latest offence opened with 8% on the Tomatometer and $166 million worldwide. We are unlikely to see it at this year’s Academy Awards.

The Academy Awards have a whole different set of criteria. Affected by both public and critical opinion, it’s a hodgepodge of good publicity, word-of-mouth, and politics. Although the peer system allows directors of photography to judge cinematography, composers to judge other composers, and so on, the biggest prize — Best Picture — is voted on by everybody.

Sick Boy: All I’m trying to do is help you understand that The Name of The Rose is merely a blip on an otherwise uninterrupted downward trajectory.
Renton: What about The Untouchables?
Sick Boy: I don’t rate that at all.
Renton: Despite the Academy Award?
Sick Boy: That means fuck all.

The disconnect between public opinion, critical acclaim, and The Academy can be an interesting one. The aforementioned Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was a hit at the box office, a critical flop, and was nominated for one Oscar: Best Achievement in Sound. I doubt that members of the popcorn-buying public were drawn to the film for its excellent sound design, nor that the critics were particularly motivated to give a good review based on sound alone. The Academy Award, along with many others, went to The Hurt Locker, which dramatically increased DVD sales. Having “Winner of 5 Academy Awards” is an excellent selling point, after all.

Had Transformers won the Oscar, though, do you think the DVD cover would say “Oscar Winner” across the top, or would it say, “#1 Box Office Hit!”? I can only imagine that the DVD cover would continue to boast box office success over acclaim because its primary aim is broad appeal. Critical commendation and Oscar acclaim, however, tend to go hand-in-hand. The Hurt Locker flopped at the box office, but received critical acclaim and a handful of Oscars. Generally, public opinion (based on Netflix and IMDB ratings) seems to follow the trend of Oscar-winning and good reviews, at least in recent years. But is the Academy’s opinion more valuable than that of 6,000 critics, or a $60m opening weekend?

Ultimately, it seems, the box office wins. Critical acclaim can lead to slow-burning successes (for example, Juno and Slumdog Millionaire), which often leads to hype come award season. The Academy can also bring a new audience to financially unsuccessful films, despite critical appeal from the beginning (see: The Hurt Locker). Regardless of the source, Oscars pave the way to financial success through DVD sales and re-releases.

However, none of this leads to more choice. While we probably don’t expect a Slumdog Millionnaire II, there will probably be another Avatar. When 2 films win 9 Oscars between them, and one of them is the highest-grossing films of all time, there is little room for innovation. The influence of the Academy Awards is wide, but its tunnel-vision has become so narrow that we are no closer to having 10 choices of summer film rather than one.

The Best Picture section with its 10 nominees represented choice, but the Academy picked the same pair of contenders over and over again. I can’t think of a better metaphor for our choices in cinema today.

Click here to see my guest post at Uncultured Critic.

About cinemafanatic

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on August 5, 2010, in Guest Post and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Thank you for your well written article. It had not occured to me before that buying a ticket is counted as “for” a film. There have been films I wanted to walk out of. In fact I did that recently and sat in the lobby reading until the person I was with was done. And yet who counts my walk-out? No one.

    Avatar. Yuck. Three of four family mambers hated it. Box office clearly doesn’t equal good. A poor script cannot be saved through special effects and if we had seen it in 3-D my husband would have probably vomited. 3-D is the current craze but the real pisser is that you pay more for those tickets and that surcharge is counted (I think) as part of the box office.

    This year the Oscars made me happy by picking The Hurt Locker. Now that I have seen Precious I think perhaps is was the best film. But with the Hurt Locker all aspects were great: script, cinematopgraphy etc. This may have been one of the biggest disconnects between box office and awards ever.

    I have decided that the people I trust the most about a film are the critics. Box office can by swayed by hype and sometimes the Academy awards based on sympathy or emotion.

    Meanwhile, I watch films and enjoy them or not but I still love them. 🙂

    • Hi kungfumom, glad you enjoyed it! It’s a shame that they count it this way, it is the easiest metric. There’s a disconnect between what people will pay to see and what they actually enjoy when they make it to their seat, though. I think the best way to decide what’s worth your money is to find a handful of critics who you generally agree with and see what they think.

  1. Pingback: Choosing Black & White: Guest Post from Cinema Fanatic Marya - robotnic.co

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