Silence is Golden

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).

6 Comments »

  1. dvd Said,

    February 27, 2006 @ 1:57 am

    The quality of a film certainly has a lot to do with why I might write about a film, but more than that, in the case of my reviews, is a desire to help in whatever way I can in getting the word about a particular picture. If something feels like it might slip through the cracks, every bit of press helps.

    Writing scathing reviews of bad films used to be really fun, but I don’t do it much anymore. However, I’ve really come to enjoy writing constructive pieces on film that I feel could have been great but somehow fall short of the mark.

    I write about film because a.) it helps develop my skills as a writer, b.) it helps me develop critical faculties, and c.) I just love film, and it’s enjoyable to write about it. Oh, and getting to go to press screenings is a nice bonus, too. If only I had more time to write serious reveiws (my Reversing The Gaze site is slowly dying from lack of attention on its creator’s part) — I can blog carelessly about a film any time, but I’m not a strong enough writer to dash off a piece of criticism that meets my (admittedly mid-level) expectations.

    I generally hear about films so far in advance that by the time they’re coming out, I’ve already made up my mind about whether or not I want to see it. The critics I read generally review everything I want to see, so there’s not too much influencing going on there.

  2. Chuck Said,

    February 27, 2006 @ 10:27 am

    I have similar goals. There are so many films that are seeking distribution or being self-distributed that I want to help those films find wider audiences. The same is true about major indies, even though they usually have a wider audience already.

    I’ve only milked my blog for a few press screenings, but I have been able to score some DVD screeners, which is kind of cool. Like you, I don’t enjoy ripping “bad” films that much, if only because it means watching that film for two hours.

  3. Chris Said,

    February 27, 2006 @ 11:46 pm

    Glad someone else noticed this study being a little waky. Although you certainly put it a great deal more eloquently than I.

    I’m with you on their “sequel” piece of research– and there’s a new trend that should throw them off. There have already been more films in 2006 held back from critics than in all of 2005– including this past weekend’s #1 film, “Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion.”

  4. Chuck Said,

    February 27, 2006 @ 11:55 pm

    Wow, Chris, I hadn’t heard that so many films have been held back from critics this year. Interesting that Madea was one of those films. It has been aggressively marketed in my neighborhood (posters in the subways, etc), but I wonder what their motivation might have been for holding it back (putting aside questions about whether or not they believed the film would be received positively)?

  5. Chris Said,

    February 28, 2006 @ 12:17 am

    8 so far this year, against 7 all of last year, per Lou Lumineck at the New York Post. I would expect to not see 4 per month for the rest of the year, of course, the first 2 months of the year are all dreck.

    Yeah, advertising and promotions often have different tracks. I think it’s more a pure business decision. The studios realize that for films which the critics will hate anyway (like Perry’s first film), it may not be worth going through the trouble and expense of critic’s screenings.

  6. Chuck Said,

    February 28, 2006 @ 11:46 am

    Interesting that there have been so many films that have bypassed critics already. I have a hard time believing that film quality varies that drastically from year to year, so it’s interesting to see what seems like a conscious decision to make a greater effort to protect “weaker” films.

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