Who Do You Believe When Film Critics And The Fans Disagree?


Why do critics and audiences disagree on the quality of movies? Actually, they often do not. Most of the time critics and audiences are, to mix a metaphor, on the same page. Of course, every person has the right to an individual taste, and there are many times we might actually like movies that are not rated highly because they work for our individual taste.

But there are certain times when looking at an “aggregator” site like Rotten Tomatoes to see if critics liked a movie when a film that rates very highly is frustrating when it turns out to be a bit of a dog. Part of that is due to the fact that these sites don’t rate how good films are, but whether or not the critic liked it. A film like Lady Bird got a 100 percent positive rating, meaning that every critic liked it. But what it really meant was that no one really disliked it. It was well-meaning and not really boring. The Dark Knight got a 94 percent rating and is considered by many as one of the really great films of all time. The difference? Some (a tiny handful) of critics did not like the film. Being innocuously pleasant brings up your score; get tough and brilliance might just not be enough.

On the other hand, comedies often do not do well. Just have Adam Sandler or Tyler Perry in a movie and the critics come for blood. On the other hand, audiences come flocking to their films because they’re fun. Low comedies generally do rather badly with critics, while “high-toned” comedies, meaning those aimed at intellectuals, often do better. But audiences have come to appreciate the differences and often skip films that some critics urge them to see.

A favorite example of mine is Venom. Only 29 percent of critics liked the film, less than one in three gave it a favorable review. But 81 percent of the audience liked it. And there was a very large audience for it. Birdman, which won as Oscar, got a 91 percent rating but did poorly at the box office despite its win. When I went to see it, I was the only person in the theater.

Forbes did a study of the Star Wars franchise, comparing audience favorability rating to those of critics. The first trilogy (actually 4, 5, and 6 in the numbering screen) showed a fairly close correlation between the scores: about a three point higher audience rating for the first two, but a 12 point one for the third (chances are those going were already real fans). But the last two films of the new trilogy were very polarizing. Critics loved The Last Jedi but audiences really disliked it; 91 percent of critics thought it good but only 43 percent of the audience. But The Rise of Skywalker, the last of the films in the series, reversed that. Only 54 percent of critics liked it but 88 percent of the audience did. A major difference: number 8 was more social justice with less on the Skywalker clan while the ninth was the opposite. The audience was far more interested in Rey and Kylo Ren, and the critics wanted the control of the Force spread around.

Why do we have differences like that? A lot of it has to do with expectations. Some movie makers are considered a “cut above” the rest, and there are some critics who will love their work even if it is awful. On the other hand, there are other critics who will carp that it falls below their expectations, which might be impossibly high. Remember also that critics see a lot more films in a year (and lifetime) than the average movie goer. They (and that includes me sometimes) get a bit jaded. Niche films often do well, particularly horror movies. After all, all the film has to do is be really scary. If there is some wit and charm, well, that drives the critic’s numbers up. Of course, we should also remember that audiences who like horror movies feel the same way, and so numbers match. But that is for these specialty films.

So what are you to do? How do you know what is good or bad, especially in a time where we see so many great trailers that can either inform us about a movie or fool us by showing 90 seconds that show every highlight of a boring film? Now that movies seem to be coming back, my best advice is to do what you did before. If the movie looks good, see it somewhere, either on the big screen or wait a few weeks for the small screen. If it looks great, go see it right away.