How influential are film critics?

Recently, director Brett Ratner claimed that the relative failure of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which his company RatPac Entertainment co-financed, can be solely blamed on the website Rotten Tomatoes.

For those not in the know, Rotten Tomatoes collects all possible reviews of any given movie. A film is then classified as “fresh” if 60% or more of the reviews are positive. Likewise, films with 59% or lower positive reviews are classified as “rotten”.  Batman v. Superman holds a 27% rating on the website.

This little tiff got me thinking about something I’ve sometimes wondered about:  just how influential are film critics when it comes to a film being a success or a failure?

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Rotten Tomatoes rep Jeff Voris responded to Ratner’s criticisms, saying that the “Tomatometer score, which is the percentage of positive reviews published by professional critics, has become a useful decision-making tool for fans, but we believe it’s just a starting point for them to begin discussing, debating and sharing their own opinions.”

Ratner is not the first Hollywood player to blame a film’s failure on critics. When The Lone Ranger (which holds a 31% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) bombed in 2013, Johnny Depp, who played Tonto in the film, pointed the finger for its failure not at the screenwriter, or the producers of the film, but those who pointed out how stupid it was.

“I think the reviews were written when they heard Gore [Verbinski] and Jerry [Bruckheimer] and me were going to do The Lone Ranger,” Depp said at the time. “They had expectations that it must be a blockbuster. I didn’t have any expectations of that. I never do.”

I find Depp’s lack of expectations hard to believe, since the film was made by the same people who made the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Hence I, like many others, was expecting The Lone Ranger to actually be as successful as those films. Hell, I’d say the main reason it bombed was because it was too much like the Pirates series.

Lone Ranger producer Jerry Bruckheimer chimed in, basically agreeing with Depp. “I think they were reviewing the budget, not reviewing the movie,” Bruckheimer said. “The audience doesn’t care what the budget is — they pay the same amount if it costs a dollar or 20 million dollars.” He added that the film is “one of those movies that whatever critics missed in it this time, they’ll review it in a few years and see that they made a mistake.”

While I think the only thing funny about the film was the stupid bird Depp had on his head, both Depp and Bruckheimer, like Ratner, are wasting their breath. I’ve certainly heard a number of people over the years say they don’t listen to critics. I’ve even felt the need to check out some movies despite every review saying that the movies are awful. But there are a number of films that make huge amounts of money regardless of what the reviews may say.

One example of this is 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which was savaged by critics for not being as fun as the 1938 classic The Adventures of Robin Hood, in which Errol Flynn played the title role. (For the record, Thieves holds a 50% score on Rotten Tomatoes.) Most of the criticism was reserved for Kevin Costner, who played Robin Hood. Many said that he was too American for this very British role. Costner, who at the time was riding high off the Oscar-winning success of his directorial debut Dances With Wolves, would later be given a Razzie Award for his performance.

However, none of this kept Prince of Thieves from becoming the second biggest hit of 1991, trailing only Terminator 2: Judgment Day. I’ve always felt that this was because while, acting-wise, Costner certainly didn’t hold a candle to past Robins, the movie itself was exciting, with great action and wonderful supporting turns from Morgan Freeman as Robin’s Moorish friend Azeem, and the late, great Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham. Another nice touch was Sean Connery’s cameo as Richard the Lionheart, which was meaningful because Connery memorably played Robin Hood in 1976’s Robin and Marian. In addition, the film’s song, “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You”, sung by Bryan Adams, became a chart-topping hit and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song. (It lost to the title song from Beauty and the Beast.)

Other movies which have become massively successful in spite of bad reviews include the 1978 Clint Eastwood comedy Every Which Way But Loose, and its 1980 sequel Any Which Way You Can. Both of these movies involve Clint doing the tough guy routine he does so well, only this time with an orangutan named Clyde.

Clint was already known and loved for his tough guy roles by this point. So pairing him with an orangutan for laughs certainly raised many eyebrows. Many critics were quick to express their disgust with such a move, but Clint’s charisma and some genuine laughs helped make these two movies among Eastwood’s most successful.

I once noted that some summer blockbusters can thrive in spite of negative reviews, if they’re exciting. One thing both Batman v. Superman and The Lone Ranger have in common are that they are not exciting. In fact, I found parts of them quite boring.

There’s also the fact that, in the age of the Internet, film critics themselves are increasing in number. One of my colleagues once wrote that the internet has destroyed the influence of film critics. I can certainly understand that stance. Before anyone knew what the hell the internet was, people such as Siskel and Ebert were, for all intents and purposes, the biggest reference points when it came to how good a movie was. In this day and age, however, pretty much anyone who can type can go online and critique a movie. Perhaps the key difference here is that some critiques are not as thorough as Siskel and Ebert’s or others who may have been inspired by them.

This may be a reason for Ratner and Depp’s criticisms. They see certain criticisms that may not be well thought out, and deduced that all such criticisms of Batman v. Superman and The Lone Ranger must be just as unfairly harsh. But film critics can be instrumental in determining if a movie is truly worthwhile. For me, they give me an idea of what to expect from a film, even if I don’t entirely end up agreeing with their final assessments.

For instance, the film CHiPs, based on the beloved 1977 – 1983 TV series, was recently released. Based on the reviews that make up its 18% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, as well as its low box office take, I can pretty much deduce that the movie pisses on that show by resorting to stupid, unfunny gags. The fact that it was written and directed by its star Dax Shepard confirms my thoughts that he’s become just a poor man’s Adam Sandler (yeah, just let that depressing thought sink in).

But hearing Ratner and Depp complain, they seem to be comparing their respective movies to films that weren’t meant to be blockbuster hits. During his tenure on the TV series ER, George Clooney starred in the terrific movie Out of Sight. This film got glowing reviews from critics but didn’t do much in terms of making money at the box office. However, the movie was a nice rebound for Clooney after starring in Batman & Robin, and from there, he would go on to win an Oscar for Syriana. But Out of Sight wasn’t intended to be a franchise like Batman v. Superman or The Lone Ranger. So does this means critics are to blame for Out of Sight not making as much money as that same year’s Saving Private Ryan? By the logic Ratner and Depp are presenting, this is certainly the case.

In short, there is and always will be a place for movie critics. By blaming them for essentially doing their jobs and pointing out how bad a certain work is represents, for me, the height of laziness. This is because people such as Ratner and Depp think that bad things that are said about their work are the reason their work isn’t successful, rather than attempting to see if there’s any validity in such criticisms.

I’m not saying that people shouldn’t disagree with critics. Lord knows I’ve certainly done my share of that. What I’m saying is that pointing fingers in this manner is counterproductive. Disagreeing with critics is one thing, but actually saying they’re the ones to blame for a movie’s failure doesn’t do much to turn things around for filmmakers. Maybe examining the work being criticized to see exactly why it didn’t generate enthusiasm among audiences would be a more productive approach.

Movie criticism should be viewed for what it is, which is simply a tool to indicate how a work has turned out. It should not be the end-all-be-all of how a person responds to criticism of their work. Viewing criticism in this manner ends up doing more damage to said person’s credibility rather than any work they may put out.

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  • JustMe

    Critics aren’t nearly that powerful. Critical reviews only really matter (In terms of box office returns) when they are good – a movie doing okay can be transformed into a movie doing gangbusters if the reviews are glowing. But look at BvS or Suicide Squad – both movies that were not liked at all by critics but they both still made lots of money at the box office.

    I mean… Ask Micheal Bay how powerful critics are. Last I looked, the transformers movies weren’t doing badly at the box office.

    • I wonder how well those movies would do if people in China were allowed to have opinions and express them freely. Maybe everyone over there goes to “Transformers” because they like spectacle but if they were given film reviews to read about the movies and the various failings they wouldn’t go in such high numbers.

  • The Tomato Meter is a helpful metric, if 90% of people paid to watch and evaluate movies say that a movie is good and worth watching then odds are it is. But it does not capture Depth of appeal.

    A movie that deals with specific or esoteric subject matter (let’s say “gay rights” or “the immigrant experience”) might be well produced, well acted, and give a valuable perspective on a topic not many people WANT TO SEE. This type of high grade film might be truly great and valuable, but that does not make it interesting to 99% of people who see movies as escapism.

    Conversely, movies that are supposed to be escapism and have shallow subject matter will be evaluated by critics on terms of production and acting and whether the shallowness of the subject matter is obscured or forgiven. If you make a movie about giant monsters and just want the appeal of the movie to be about Giant monsters, that movie had better not be boring and filled with faux profundity (I’m looking at you “Godzilla”). Give me “Pacific Rim”.

    But even those two broad views are based on my personal values. We all have personal values, tastes, interests. Look for a critic who can express their opinion well, so that you can understand your own tastes and then use that critic as a measuring tool. If they complain about things you don’t care about and praises things you like you know when they say “I liked everything but (thing you don’t care about)” you know you will probably like the movie.

    Rotten Tomatoes allows you to simply play the odds, and sometimes you will lose (for instance, I fucking hate “Boyhood”).

  • Gearóid

    What Ratner says is rubbish.
    Whats annoying is that all the valid criticism of the DC universe is being ignored, just look at the new Justice League trailer, as RedLetterMedia said it looks like a rain puddle of muck. Through in some really bad attempts at humour and a popular pop song.
    They really do not know what they are doing, it feels like a slap in the face to have not listened to the audiences.
    Bret Ratner and Zack Snyders movies look like crap but I suppose I am not a discerning enough “fan” to get the deeper meanings.
    What a bunch of fools.

    • Wizkamridr

      So D.C. fans defending these films are fools? Get off your high horse buddy. People are allowed to like films whether someone else thinks they’re bad. And not all D.C fans are defending these films. There are D.C fans who absolutely hate what WB is doing.

      • Gearóid

        I was calling the two directors fools.
        I like Superman and Batman and want DC to do well.
        I will never call the fans of DC fools if they like the films or not, I think there being treated badly by the two people above, insulted even.
        I am a big comic fan myself but dont know DC at all but have massive respect for the company and the industry history.
        But at the end of the day I am just giving an opinion.

  • Marsden

    Good article. I think if you’d like to include an instance of the movie makers putting more effort into condemning critics than actually making a good movie, that Ghostbusters remake from last year certainly fits.

  • Deneb T. Hall

    The whole thing’s complicated, to be sure. I think it ultimately comes down to individual preference – i.e, do you look to other people’s opinions to figure out whether or not to see a film, or do you wait until afterwards to see what said people thought about it?

    Me, I fall into the latter category. I HATE having all the good parts spoiled for me in advance; I prefer to go into a movie knowing as little about it as possible, past the stuff that actually got me interested in the first place. Have I seen a trailer for it that looked good? Does the basic plot description sound promising? OK, then; I’mma sealin’ myself away from anything else about it until the movie actually comes out and I’ve watched it. Reviews? They can wait; I’ve got to see this thing fresh. The main exception to this rule is older movies, a lot of which I only hear about in the first place through reviews – but even then, if the movie sounds like it’s a goof one and I’ve decided to see it, I’ll generally skip to the wrap-up if it looks like there’s going to be spoilers.

    I realize that I’m somewhat in the minority on this, though. After all, we live in an era where any trailer relevant to a fandom is immediately seized upon by the internet and analyzed shot for shot months before the actual film comes out – and the same applies to any leaked material that might appear. To THOSE sorts of people, reviewers’ advance opinions are more the icing on the cake than anything else – they’ve already made up their mind well in advance and started squabbling about it with other people who have done the same thing but come to different conclusions.

    I suppose the only real crossover between the two camps is when there are a few influential reviewers out there whose opinions can genuinely sway the tide in one direction or another. Richard Ebert was one of them, and there are a few others who still have followings today. In that respect, yes, I suppose they are still influential – but they’ve got a touch time ahead of them if they want to remain so against the swarm of over-analysis that is becoming such a prominent part of ‘Net culture.

  • Justin D.

    I think one of the reasons film critics are being listened to more often now than they were in the past is the cost of entry. Back in the day we weren’t spending $10-$15 on a single ticket (to say nothing of IMAX and 3D ticket prices). If enough people are saying a film isn’t worth the price of admission, and the price of admission is already steep, a person less likely to pony up the dough.

  • Matthew Thiel

    Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, at the very least, helps me determine the general consensus of a movie without running to spoilers.