I’ve been fascinated by the reaction to the recent article by marketing professors Wagner Kamakura (Duke University), Suman Basuroy (Florida Atlantic University), and Peter Boatwright (Carnegie Mellon University), which argues that film reviewers’ silence on certain films can tell us something about their opinions of those films. According to a Duke University press release, the study
finds that many film critics, faced with far too many movies to write about, tend to avoid writing reviews of bad films that they’ve seen. At the same time, a few critics, faced with the same overwhelming choice, tend to avoid reviewing good movies that they’ve watched.
The study has been widely criticzed, with Kamakura seeking to clarify their research on Poynter Online in response to these scathing comments by MCN’s David Poland. It’s a little difficult to develop a full reaction to the study without reading the whole thing, but several things seem problematic, at least when looking at the press release. First, they seem to describe the decision to review films as a free choice (“faced with far too many movies to write about, tend to avoid writing reviews;” “a few critics, faced with the same overwhelming choice”), which seems like an imprecise understanding of the requirements of professional reviewers. As Mark Caro points out, when a newspaper only has two or three reviewers, critics don’t always get their choice about what to review, especially if they are the paper’s junior critics (Ebert is suspicious of the study for similar reasons).
I’m also wondering how they handled other institutional issues, especially the complicated relationship between studios and distributors and the newspapers and magazines where these reviews are published (how, for example, might a magazine like Entertainment Weekly, owned by Time Warner, which also has a major film studio, shape who reviews what film or, more importantly, what films get reviewed?).
I’m going to refrain from criticizing their study further until I get a chance to read it. I know that university press releases can often miss the mark terribly when it comes to describing the significance of a given study. But the research does raise some interesting questions about the motivations for writing reviews or what function reviews might function in the consumption of films. In my own experience, I generally seek out independent and documentary films (you may have noticed this by now), in part because that’s what I like and in part because no one is paying me to watch Date Movie.
Their follow-up study seems similarly strange. According to the press release, the researchers are “now exploring the relationship between a movie’s critical acclaim and its box office sales,” with an eye towards determining which critics most affect box office. If they’re planning to judge consensus grades on films against box office, such a study would seem flawed from the beginning, especially when studis will spend as much as $40 million to buy an audience for their film. Again, I want to wait until I see the study, but I’m guessing that critics likely have their greatest effect when they campaign for or promote films that might not otherwise receive a wider audience. Still, I’d be curious to hear from both film reviewers and people who read film reviews (including mine). Does the quality of a film affect whether you write about it? Or better, what motivates you to write reviews, usually for no money, on your blogs? And for those of you who read reviews, does a critic’s silence on a certain film affect your perception of it? In general, how do film reviews shape your experience of or desire to see a given film?
Note: The Cinemarati discussion of this study is also worth checking out (and my questions are similar to theirs).