Has Film Criticism Lost its (Box Office) Mojo?

In what is becoming an annual ritual, yet another discussion about the role of the film critic in shaping popular taste has emerged. The most recent diagnosis of the distinction between the popular and “quality filmmaking” comes from Guardian film blogger Danny Leigh, who observes that the most successful Harry Potter films have also been those that were most reviled by professional film critics, leading him to the conclusion “that critical voices have become not only irrelevant, but counterproductive.”  Leigh goes on to observe that most of the top grossing films of all-time are sequels (or based on familiar comic book franchises) and often feature “bad” filmmaking (although he never quite defines what counts as “bad”).

First some background: In 2006, New York Times critic A. O. Scott noted that negative reviews in magazines and newspapers across the country could do nothing to stem the barbaric hordes from storming the multiplexes to watch the dreaded third installment of the pirate-movie franchise.  Back then, I observed that popular excitement about an upcoming film didn’t necessarily translate into the belief that such a film was “good.”  And I still believe that to basically be true.  While the most recent Transformers movie may be approaching $400 million in domestic box office, suggesting that audiences just don’t appreciate film criticism enough, its user score on IMDB is a relatively paltry 6.3 out of 10.  Sometimes people just want to see stuff get blown up, and such niceties as character and plot don’t matter.  In 2008, this conflict reemerged over the reception of The Dark Knight, with some fans openly chastising film critics who failed to appreciate the greatness of Chris Nolan’s film (some similar issues were addressed in a Salon discussion of Ronan McDonald’s book, The Death of the Critic).

In all of these cases, critics seem to be imagined, first, as consumer guides, gatekeepers who can tell us how to spend our $8.50 (or whatever) on our weekly (or semi-weekly) trek to the local multiplex, but I think that may be a misunderstanding of what good film critics can do in fostering a more productive and engaging movie culture. Instead of seeing film critics as telling us what movies we ought to see, wouldn’t it make more sense for reviews, whether in blogs, newspapers, or magazines, to start a conversation about whatever movies are out there?  Critics could, by advocating for specific directors or storytelling techniques, shape popular taste, perhaps, but the idea that a small number of underpaid (and now underemployed) critics are going to have the same megaphone as all of the major studios creates an impossible battle, one that will continue to exacerbate what I believe to be a false opposition between critics and the popcorn-munching cultural dupes who get (falsely) blamed for all of this.

First, I think it’s probably safe to say that some films, especially on opening weekend, are critic-proof.  Again, this isn’t because people are cultural dupes but because the hype machines of the major studios–through advertising, trailers, viral marketing, and conventions such as ComicCon–far outweigh, at least in volume, a newspaper or blog review.  Second, I do think that film critics, often over the course of several articles, can champion the better independent filmmakers such as Ramin Bahrani and Kelly Reichardt, and in the best cases help them find a wider audience.  This is the goal of Ted Hope’s recent compilation of websites that will review undistributed films (something I’ve also done from time to time).

Still, treating film reviews as part of a conversation seems like a much more productive approach, a point that I think is best illustrated by reviews of the most recent Harry Potter film.  In my own review, I admitted my lack of knowledge about the franchise and discussed my reaction to the film in terms of its ability to engage fans and non-fans alike, as well as the ways in which film franchises might now be better understood in terms of a “serial” model that has had some success on television.  Comments to my review addressed some of my concerns, often by discussing the challenges of adaptation (especially when you’re working with a beloved, widely-read text) and how the Harry Potter film franchise fits within the new blockbuster economy.  Although I admitted that I found the film tedious and slow, I was more concerned about how it was engaging with larger debates in film culture, and those were the issues that seemed to engage my commenters.

Obviously we’ll continue to have reviews that conform to the thumbs-up, rotten-tomatoes, three-and-a-half-stars approach, but I think the “consumer-guide” approach to film reviewing and the related belief that film critics are “failing” because they can’t stem the tide of people seeing Transformers or whatever obscures some of the more complicated interactions between film critics, their readers, and the movies we love (and sometimes love to hate).

Update: Just wanted to mention that I write this with the awareness that film marketing departments continue to rely on having positive reviews that can be pullquoted on posters, DVD cases, and other marketing tools and that reviews are part of the larger entertainment economy, albeit one that may be bypassed as bloggers and others gain credibility as valued voices about given films or genres.


  1. Jonathan Gray Said,

    July 25, 2009 @ 8:32 am

    I’m glad to see you challenge the regularly accepted idea that high box office equals great movie. On one level, as you point out, many people watch blockbusters that they don’t necessarily expect to be excellent, but they do expect to be somewhat fun and full of action, explosions, etc. But even beyond that, box office often merely measures curiosity. Compared to the metric of the Nielsens, which (if you can put aside for a minute its many flaws) can measure whether people are still watching after several episodes or seasons, box office only ostensibly tells us if people showed up curious. Especially when many blockbusters earn a third or more of their take in the opening week, it strikes me that box office is a much better measure of the effectiveness of the marketing campaign and/or of the strength of the franchise or brand than it is necessarily of the quality of the film. Case in point — find me someone who thinks Phantom Menace is a good film, yet it earned close to $1B in world box office, which tells me that Star Wars was at that time a powerful brand and that the marketing campaign had been well-managed.

  2. Chuck Said,

    July 25, 2009 @ 8:50 am

    I like the formulation of “box office [or ratings] measures curiosity.” In fact, some of the big “surprise hits” like Blair Witch and Cloverfield were also as much about curiosity as anything else. And this is especially true given that people “vote” before actually seeing the product in most cases (repeat viewers notwithstanding).

    I think this works well to explain responses to final episodes of series as well. Although the Seinfeld finale was widely-seen, it’s also (correctly) considered an awful episode. Same with lots of other TV shows.

  3. Chuck Said,

    July 25, 2009 @ 8:52 am

    The big point, of course, is that the public isn’t as “dumb” as some of these critics seem to imply.

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  6. E.M.A. Said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 12:13 am

    The blame rests largely with the studios. Ask 100 random people on any street corner in American and you’d be hard pressed to find five that have even heard of the most acclaimed independent films out right now, let alone seen any of them. Studios have the power to make virtually anything a hit. Run enough TV spots and people will see your movie. Quality has nothing to do with it. Mainstream culture chooses terrible movies largely because they don’t know they have other options.

  7. Chuck Said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 9:12 am

    Absolutely. It’s a deliberate strategy by the studios to focus almost exclusively on expensive, but familiar, franchise products.

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