I was really looking forward to seeing Pacific Rim: Uprising today. The first Pacific Rim was dumb, but it was a lot of fun. When the Rotten Tomatoes score for Uprising dropped earlier this week (currently at 47% as I write this), I wasn’t too worried: Pacific Rim isn’t a movie you go to see for its artistic merit, you go to see it to enjoy watching giant robots fight giant monsters. Before finalizing my plans to see it this morning, I checked to see its CinemaScore: a “B.” That was enough to convince me to stay home. But what is CinemaScore? Why did it convince me when Rotten Tomatoes did not? Should I even care about what such sites say?
The short answer to the last question is: probably yes. But before I explain why, let me explain a bit about some of the major websites that people go to for aggregated film reviews and how they work.
Rotten Tomatoes assigns a Tomatometer score by compiling anywhere between dozens and hundreds of film reviews from professional film critics and boils each review down to a simple question: did the critic like the film, yes or no? The score then reflects the percentage of critics who liked the film. It is NOT a reflection of how much critics liked the film. For example, Black Panther’s 97% on Rotten Tomatoes does not mean that critics gave it a score of 9.7 out of 10. It simply means that 97% of critics liked the film. To get an idea of how much critics liked the film, you need to look at the number (in much smaller font) of the Average Rating located under the Tomatometer. In the case of Black Panther, you can see that the average score from critics was 8.2 out of 10. Likewise, Rotten Tomatoes also provides an Audience Score detailing what percentage of an audience liked the film, with an Average Rating located underneath. (Note that the Average Rating for both critics’ and audience scores isn’t even visible in the mobile version of Rotten Tomatoes’ site. You’ll have to view the desktop version to see them). However, while the Tomatometer score is determined based on reviews from verified professional film critics, the Audience Score is determined by anyone who decides to create a Rotten Tomatoes account and rate a movie. Most of the time, this isn’t problematic, but every now and then, a group of angry and overzealous “fans” will organize online and work to artificially alter the Audience Score by having individuals create multiple accounts and provide multiple ratings. This happened recently with Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Black Panther (with the Audience Score being driven down) and Batman v Superman (with the Audience Score being driven up). To get a far more accurate (and less manipulable) audience rating, I prefer CinemaScore.
(Before I discuss CinemaScore, a brief note about MetaCritic. MetaCritic works similar to the Average Rating on Rotten Tomatoes: it averages all of the critics’ ratings to let you know how much critics liked the film, rather than what percentage of critics liked it. It’s also pickier about which film critics it includes in its score. While Rotten Tomatoes can use reviews from as many as a few hundred critics, MetaCritic tends to use reviews from around 50 or fewer critics. Thus, MetaCritic can be a good resource to turn to if you’re specifically interested in how some of the more prestigious critics actually rated a film.)
CinemaScore, on the other hand, is a market research company that’s been around since 1979. Every Friday night, CinemaScore visits movie theaters in 25 randomly chosen cities throughout North America and asks audience members of newly released films to grade the movie on a scale from A to F. CinemaScore then averages the results of these surveys to give the movie a grade (note that these grades include a plus or minus scale, e.g., A-, B+, etc.) Thus, there is significantly less of a chance of artificially manipulated scores. (It should be noted that one downside of CinemaScore is that its scores don’t come out until late Friday night/early Saturday morning since the surveys aren’t administered until Friday night).
Aside from the fact that Rotten Tomatoes and MetaCritic use critics’ reviews and CinemaScore uses feedback from a general audience, it is important to highlight one additional difference between RottenTomatoes/MetaCritic and CinemaScore: film critics go to see almost every movie that comes out (that’s their job, after all) whereas film audiences are composed of people that specifically chose to go see a specific movie. Thus, the critics are probably likelier to be harsher judges (not only because they tend to look for more of the artistic aspects of the film, but also because they probably didn’t choose to watch that movie), whereas the audiences on CinemaScore will tend to skew positive (because they were interested enough to go see the movie on a Friday night in the opening weekend).
So, coming back to the original question, should you use these sites to guide your moviegoing choices, and if so, how? I think the important first question to consider for any movie is: are you interested in seeing it? When it comes to knowing your personal movie preferences, no one is a better expert than you. If there is a movie that you think you might like, then you should consider seeing it. And, while it’s important to expand your moviegoing horizons and try new things, if there is a particular movie that you don’t think you’ll like, you’re probably right, even if critics and/or audiences are raving about it. So, for the films that you are considering seeing, this is when I think it is helpful to look at critics’ and audiences’ reactions. If both audiences and critics like the film, I consider that a green light: go ahead and see it. If both audiences and critics dislike the film, I consider that a red light: unless you think that there is a specific reason that you’re likely to disagree with both critics AND the fans who were interested enough to go see it in the opening weekend, you should probably avoid it. When the critics and audiences disagree (a yellow light) that’s when things get more interesting: here you have to pick who you think you’ll side with in that particular situation. I’ll provide a few recent examples.
A couple years ago, X-Men: Apocalypse got 48% on Rotten Tomatoes and 52 out of 100 on MetaCritic. Thus, critics thought it was pretty mediocre. However, I love superhero movies, and unless they’re really terrible, I tend to enjoy them (I even have a bit of a soft spot for Spider-Man 3). So because I tend to approach superhero films as more of a fan than a critic, the fact that Apocalypse got an A- on CinemaScore meant that I was likely to enjoy it (and I did; while I recognized some of its flaws, I still loved it). Conversely, I tend to enjoy intellectual sci-fi films. When Annihilation came out last month, it got a C from CinemaScore. This may seem discouraging, but it also got a 88% on Rotten Tomatoes and 79 out of 100 on MetaCritic. In this case, because I was more interested in the intellectual and artistic filmmaking aspects, and less interested in the spectacle and popcorn-flick-iness of it, I decided to trust the critics (and it paid off; while it won’t go down as one of my all-time favorite films, I did enjoy it, and thought it was intellectually stimulating). Flash forward to this morning: even though Pacific Rim: Uprising wasn’t particularly well-received by critics, I still planned on seeing it, because I expected it to be a bit of mindless fun – until I saw its CinemaScore. A “B” grade may not sound that bad, but since CinemaScore tends to skew positive, a B usually indicates that audiences found the movie to be somewhat mediocre. (If I’m expecting to agree with the audiences, I tend to use a B+ as my cutoff score). So rather than invest the time and money to go and see a movie that audiences didn’t find to be particularly fun, I decided to stay home (and write this post, actually). I’ll probably still rent it.
As for how this can help you, if you’re planning to see a movie that critics and audiences disagree on, ask yourself: are you planning to approach that particular movie with more a critical eye, or are you just looking for some fun entertainment? Depending on your response in that situation, it can be helpful to give more weight to the advice from whichever of the two groups you’re likely to side with.
Anyway, there is my advice (that ended up being way more long-winded that I intended) on how to use movie review sites to your advantage. What do you think? Did you find this particularly helpful? Also, what did you think about this in-depth discussion of moviegoing habits? Should I write similar posts in the future? (I’m already considering writing one about whether box office numbers actually matter – spoiler warning: they do – and how to interpret them.) Be sure to let me know!