Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Latest Criticwire Survey: Movie Rating Systems

Q: In his response to Vocativ's ranking of critics by how often they agree with a movie's Metacritic average, "most reliable" critic J.R. Jones takes exception to the practice of affixing letter grades or a star rating to a review. How do you feel about placing movies on a scale? Would you give your reviews a grade if you were calling the shots? And when you write for publications that require them, how much thought goes into choosing the rating versus writing the review itself?

I stopped using a grading system about two years ago now – simply because I got tired of getting questioned about it – mainly via e-mail from some readers. They wanted to know what qualified one movie as a 3.5 star one, and others as 4, something else as a 3, etc. It got tiring – and in all honesty, just didn’t interest me very much. When I used the system, I used the 4 star system – and it was based on Roger Ebert’s 4-star system, so basically 2.5 and down was a “thumbs down” and 3 and up was a “thumbs up”. For the most part, I didn’t put much thought into the rating – it was a gut call, and whatever star rating felt right is what I did. The only ones I really struggled with were the movies I couldn’t decide if they should 2.5 or 3 – the difference between a “thumbs up and a thumbs down” as it were, and the ones I couldn’t decide if they should be a 3.5 or a 4. Eventually I would decide, it would be another “gut call”, and I’d live with it. I decided to abandon the system not just because I got some annoying questions, but also I found that my star system was rather flexible – meaning that often when I looked back at a film, I’d want to either raise or lower the rating by a half star (rarely more than that) – but that I wouldn’t change a word of my review. Inevitably, this meant when it was time to do my year end lists, some initially 3.5 star movies ended up above 4 star movies – and some people are real sticklers about that and don’t much like it. To me, it was an instance of a “foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds” – basically because if I stuck to my initial ratings of movies – sometimes seen months apart, under very different circumstances, I would be wrong. Some people want absolute consistency – I wasn’t one of them. When it comes to rating movies, it can be tricky – and has much to do with outside factors as anything else. I’m going to be posting my review of Steven Knight’s “Locke” soon – and if I were to assign a star rating to the film right now, I think I’d give it 4. But am I giving it 4 because it’s a 4 star movie, or because most of what I have seen in the theaters in the past little while has been average at best, so Locke looks good by comparison? Had I seen Locke in November, surrounded by some of the best movies of the year, would I only give it 3.5? I have no idea.

I think star ratings are fine – I actually like them in a lot of ways, and will admit that when I’m planning on seeing a movie that weekend, I’ll often look at critic’s star ratings (or a film’s Rotten Tomato or Metacritic score) to gage what the reaction is without reading the reviews themselves and risking spoilers. But I do that knowing I’ll come back and read the reviews of the critics I like after I’ve seen the movie – because ratings, and Rotten Tomato scores don’t tell you EVERYTHING. A 50% Tomato score could mean that every critic thinks the movie is average – with some liking it a little bit more, some a little bit less, and breaking down the middle. It could also mean that many passionately love the movie, and many passionately hate it. I’ve read very positive reviews that make me dread a movie, and very negative ones that make me look forward to it.
This went on longer that it probably should have. Basically, I don’t have a problem with ratings – either an individual critics or an aggregate like Rotten Tomatoes. But that rating is no substitute for what is actually written about the movie – and the rating is the least interesting part of any review – which is why I stopped.

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