Monday, June 05, 2017


Broadway shows live or die based on critics. A NEW YORK TIMES pan and you’re closed by Saturday. At one time, certain movie critics wielded a lot of power. Pauline Kael in THE NEW YORKER was a force to be reckoned with, as were several others.

Siskel & Ebert held a lot of sway with their movie review television show. Long thoughtful analysis was replaced by thumbs pointing in different directions. Still, the effect was significant.

But Hollywood found there was a way to make movies critic-proof. Stop making intelligent films for intelligent people who read intelligent reviews. Or if they do, make fewer and fewer of them and only for the purpose of winning awards.

The majority of the studios’ slate was then big budget, splashy, action, comic book movies. Secure a beloved franchise, get a big name to star, open wide in as many theaters as you can, and just go for a big opening weekend. Even if the movie is a piece of shit, even if the critics think it’s worse than MANNEQUIN 2, as long as the film “opens” as they say and has a boffo first weekend they’ve won.

And that strategy worked for quite some time. TRANSFORMERS relied on it. So did any movie with Jar Jar Binks.

But audiences started becoming discerning. And then ROTTEN TOMATOES came along. Individual film critics might not make an impact but a whole bunch of them lumped together sure does. Studios are finding that a rotten ROTTEN TOMATOES consensus can make a huge dent, even into monster franchises. PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 13 (or whichever number this is) got a 31% approval rating. Boxoffice totals are down 35% from previous chapters and continuing to head towards Davy Jones' locker.  BAYWATCH got a 19% -- dead in the water.

What this means to me is two things:

Studios have a much harder time getting away with a bad movie. In the future they, God forbid, might have to make GOOD movies – with stories that are fresh and not formula, characters that are engaging and not one-dimensional, and more substance than explosions.

And secondly, stars can’t automatically open movies anymore. Who’s more popular than the Rock? Yet BAYWATCH tanked. Johnny Depp means nothing if his movie gets only a 31% approval rating. Amy Schumer’s fan base doesn’t mean shit when SNATCHED gets a 37% yes vote. Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, any Tom you want – if they’re in a dog people now stay away. Ticket prices are just too high. Denzel is not enough.

Personally, I think this is a good thing. Like I said, it might force Hollywood to make better movies. But what is their initial reaction (at least from some studios)? Don’t let reviewers see their films until after they open. Brilliant.

First off, that won’t happen. Secondly, whenever a studio holds back a movie for review it sends a loud and clear message that the movie is a disaster.

No, gosh darn it, they’re going to have to make better films. And for the filmgoing public, tomatoes never tasted so sweet.


Roseann said...

Need a good movie to see? The Zookeeper's Wife. Devastating.

VincentS said...

Wow. First more intelligent television, now more intelligent movies? Hope springs eternal.

Pat Reeder said...

I was always a movie buff up through college, but these days, I find that I seldom go to theaters anymore. I have no interest in the "blowed up real good" comic book movies, even when I can see them free on the Amazon Firebox. Lately, we've been watching a lot of movies from the '40s and '50s on the TCM app, which have obsolete things like plots and dialogue. Yesterday, my wife watched (and loved) "Separate Tables." Just an engrossing story about a group of ordinary people in a hotel and the secrets they're hiding from each other. Imagine Hollywood making a movie like that today. They'd have to end it with the hotel imploding via CGI when Thor hurls his hammer at it.

VP81955 said...

Word of mouth still gets it done, despite the "rave" reviews often cited by pseudo-critics who secretly have studio ties. "Wonder Woman," a film that breaks many industry conventions (particularly regarding gender) as it roared to a $100 million opening weekend, is a case in point.

Sheryl said...

Or as Boston Legal's Denny Crane said "Hope springs a kernel."

Frederick Herman "Freddy" Jones said...


I read your post with great interest.

I would agree with you on many points, but I think there are greater influences at play here.

Professional critics have always overinflated their role in influencing society and the choices that people make. A relatively small few follow the dictates and/or suggestions of a critic. It looks good to have a blurb or a giant thumb (or two) up on a movie poster, but it's foolish to think that a critic holds sway over the majority.

A majority of critics have hated a lot of movies that made huge amounts of money. Critics have praised films that made little. Their opinions are not sacrosanct, and their opinions hold even less meaning today.

Newspaper circulation is down - a critic has less influence. Television viewing is declining or more fragmented (diluted) - a critic has less influence. (I didn't realize it, but "At the Movies" has been off the air since 2010).

So, I agree with you.

Rotten Tomatoes is a different beast. It has a critic score and a movie audience score. However, I think it still holds only a minimal sway in influence. Folks are figuring out that the numbers are skewed, massaged and manipulated. Why? Money.

Revenue potential for newspapers is gone. Revenue potential for radio was gone a long time ago. Now television is losing viewership and its influence is gone with advertisers fleeing to places such as social media and websites.

Rotten Tomatoes is a business, and the business model depends on eyeballs looking. It's become an "influence" only because it's gaining eyeballs while others are losing them.

Unfortunately, the perception of influence comes with having money (eyeballs). Truth, being factual and being good have no meaning anymore. Rotten Tomatoes is using a flawed method to score movies, but it doesn't matter. It's still getting clicks, and the revenue (influence) is growing.

The other item that you mentioned is that studios will begin making better films because of blockbuster failures.

Specifically, you mentioned Baywatch and the new Pirates film.

Baywatch has an estimated $40 million production budget. It's made $67.2 million if you include the worldwide total. Studios are catering more and more to a worldwide audience. Some 40 percent of the Baywatch revenue comes from a foreign audience. Is Baywatch a hit? No. Will it still make the studio some money? After VOD and DVD and all the other factors are added - Yes.

Pirates is an even better example. The production budget was $230 million. Domestically, it has been a disaster and has netted, so far, $141 million.

However, the studio counted on Pirates to perform much better overseas, and it has. It's gotten $387 million overseas (77 percent of its $501 million in total revenue thus far).

So, the recent Pirates is another hit for the studio even though the domestic total was a disappointment.

(Incidentally, a comedy does not always translate well for overseas markets. Fewer new comedies are being made as a result.)

The studios have not learned any lesson because the revenue is still there, and they will count on superheroes, Star Wars, sequels and remakes for their vast fortune and continue to take fewer risks by producing something new with an actor that will demand too much money for their name or with unknown actors.

Rotten Tomatoes will have no sway for a movie studio because they will continue to rake in the profits by increasing movie prices and throwing in gimmicks like IMAX 3D for an even higher ticket price until there is a tipping point.

The tipping point is near domestically, but the U.S. is the world population minority.

The ONLY thing that will make the studios relent is when the revenue dries up. It's already starting to disappear domestically, but worldwide numbers will let the studios hang on for a bit longer.

So, I tend to agree with you on all your points, but ...

It's not Rotten Tomatoes that will eventually hurt the studios. It's rotten movies with fewer eyeballs.

Peter said...

I'd agree with you, Ken, except that most of the box office for studio films comes from foreign markets. Pirates of the Caribbean 27 has already grossed half a billion, most of it outside the States. Even if domestic grosses steadily drop, international box office guarantees another 10 Pirates and Fast and Furious sequels.

Even the Transformers franchise, which is one of the most consistently poorly reviewed movie series ever, kerchings a billion per movie.

Personally, I'm amazed anyone is still paying to watch Pirates of the Caribbean sequels. I saw the first one and enjoyed it but haven't seen the others. They all look the same. I swear if you showed a random clip of any of the sequels, not even the directors could probably tell which one it's from. And the comedy value of Johnny Depp acting drunk in a cockney accent wore thin before the first movie had finished. It's particularly unfunny in the wake of the tape of him screaming abuse at his ex wife.

Ted said...

It used to be that people would say, "Well, this is just a fun movie, and those egghead critics don't understand." But most critics actually love fun movies when they're good. These are movies that should be fun, but aren't. For example, I've seen two clips from the Baywatch movie, which were shown when the actors appeared on late-night talk shows (meaning they should have been the highlights). One was a horrifying scene in which the characters were interacting with dripping bodies in a morgue. (I suppose horrifying scenes can also be funny, but this one wasn't -- at all.) In another, a male character was repeatedly humiliated for glancing at a swimsuit-clad female character's chest. (This in a movie whose whole reason for existing is to invite the audience to ogle the actors' bodies.) This movie is advertised as an enjoyable romp, but it sounds as if it's just awful. And I'm glad the critics were there to warn of that in advance.

sanford said...

As for the Zoo Keepers wife it got 61 on rotten tomatoes. I haven't seen it yet. However the audience gave it 80. So much for critics. I don't know what it cost to make but at least domestically. RT doesn't give production costs. There is new movie called Past Life that got 3 stars on Ebert's site. Seems like a good movie but no one will go see it. I think the only effect critics have is to look at movies that most people wouldn't know about. Those types of movies don't get advertised much on tv, so we would hardly know about them. Like a lot of things it is a real crap shoot as to what movie goers will go see.

MikeN said...

Your post would be stronger if you actually bothered to look up the numbers when you gave your examples, instead of picking two movies you didn't like.

Baywatch and Pirates when you factor in global audiences are going to be very profitable. The former has made back its production budget, while Pirates has more than doubled it.
Have you forgotten? Germans love David Hasslehoff.

Tom Wolper said...

Two comments: It was clear watching Siskel and Ebert that they wrote their newspaper reviews about a movie before taping the show. They didn't do hot takes. Once their format proved itself others did similar shows but the reviewers didn't take the time to think up and write out a longer review before making their shows.

And it is no coincidence that superhero and franchise movies rise as the ability of stars to sell a movie has fallen. The first stroke of business genius from the movie industry was figuring out that by selling stars instead of movies they give moviegoers a reason to anticipate a new movie. Once people stopped looking forward to seeing their favorite stars the studios shifted to anticipating seeing their favorite superheroes and Star Wars (etc) characters.

Daniel said...

I just wanted to offer a defense of Siskel & Ebert. I actually became a serious film buff largely because of them and the exposure that I (a sheltered suburban kid in the 1980s) got to art house and foreign films (as well as revivals) through their show. I know they get dissed a lot because of the whole "thumbs up/thumbs down" thing, but their banter on the show was actually pretty intelligent and thoughtful. And Roger's writing and analysis in those old yearbooks he would put out was quite good.

McAlvie said...

The best part of Rotten Tomatoes is that you are getting both ratings and comments by a wide range of people. I always read the comments, too, because people do tend to have varying taste, so what makes a bad movie for some might not bother me. But they are always from regular people who didn't go to film school and aren't so enamoured by technique that they ignore story. You get reviews by people who go to the movies for the same reason we all do ... entertainment.

I will say that even though I didn't always agree with either Siskel or Ebert, I found their reviews to be real. Even when they dissed something, they might still admit that they got a few laughs out of it, or there was one or two really good scenes.

But all of that said, RT has been around for a few years and I haven't noticed studios paying much attention.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Everyone has pointed out the "Worldwide" box office.

It's why Animated and SuperHero movies are the best movies for the Studios to make.
Both have little dialogue to overdub, and when there is dialogue it is very easy to overdub into Chinese/Japanese/German etc.

Especially when Iron Man or Spiderman are donning their masks.

Johnny Walker said...

Completely agree! When it upsets Brett Ratner you know it's a good thing.