Monday, May 31, 2010

Do Reviews Matter Anymore?

I'm under no delusions that I am an influential reviewer. Heck, I'm thrilled anyone would ask me to review anything. I review books and movies because it's fun. I like to spread the word about certain books throw in my two cents concerning popular movies. It's an ego driven exercise for sure, but as long as I can get away with it, I'll probably keep doing it. But do reviews have a meaningful impact in the real world? When I was growing up there weren't that many reviewers out there. Everyone I knew watched "Siskel & Ebert" and two thumbs up from those guys could make or break a movie. If you were really ambitious you might look in your local newspaper and see what they had to say about the latest movie and book releases. My newspaper had a Sunday insert called "The Sunday Ticket" and that was the biggest compilation of reviews around. But things have sure changed haven't they? The internet explosion has changed reviewing forever. And it's not just people like me-- though there are a lot of us around. Nowadays Twitter and Facebook play a huge role in determining a movie's success. Take this Memorial Day weekend for example: "Sex in the City 2" is the perfect example of a movie that absolutely defies expectations. I am not a huge fan of the series (it would be all too easy for me to go off on a digression about why I think the stereotypes in SATC are bad for women-- but I think I've gone on about that topic enough to last a while) so it's not a movie that would normally come to my attention. But the reviews for this haven't just been bad, they've been savage. Rotten Tomatoes -- which I consider a great reviewing tool and something I check often before I spend theater prices on anything-- gives SATC2 a 15% fresh rating. Ouch. But the terrible aggregate score for the movie doesn't seem to be scaring audiences away. The returns for the movie over the Memorial Day weekend, worldwide, are at $78 million. It looks like the movie won't need more than two weekends to turn a profit. And "Sex and the City" isn't at all a lone example of a review proof movie. The highly mock-able "Twilight" scores only a 50% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes but pulled in over $400 million at the box office. Both "Sex and the City" and "Twilight" have a couple of things in common. They're both part of franchises that exist outside the movie theater and were hugely successful prior to making it to the big screen. They are also the kind of movie that women go to see in packs, who then "Tweet" about how much they loved the movie. Believe me, I have seen this phenomenon. But I can't blame the reviewer/audience disconnect on the chick-flick audience. "Shrek the Third" is sitting at a so-so 41% fresh rating, and yet it has pulled in almost $800 million dollars. And do I even need to mention the craptacular "Transformers 2" and its massive earnings? However, these successes could be attributed to their sequel status. So the performance of "The Prince of Persia" is tougher to categorize since it has only garnered a 40% fresh rating, but looks like it will also exceed its budget by the second weekend of its release. Does anyone read the reviews anymore? Clearly reviews do have some weight. At least the recent lackluster performance of "Robin Hood" would seem to indicate that they do. But then again, is it really the reviews, or is everything now based on word-of-mouth spread by the various social networks? I'm actually stumped by the review-proof phenomenon. Movies aren't cheap and I don't like wasting my hard-earned money on movies (or books) that I'm pretty sure I'm not going to like, so I do check the reviews. I scan my favorite blogs and check in with reviewers I trust before I buy anything. But I wonder, have I become the exception?

19 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

I actually don't think I ever paid much attention to movie reviews, except if they were from folks I knew who liked the same stuff I liked. books are somewhat different because I care so much more about them.

SQT said...

Charles-- I have very few friends who have similar tastes to mine, so I'm kind of dependent on the reviews. Especially if we're going to do a family outing to the movies-- that costs a small fortune anymore. Books are tougher because I don't really trust Amazon anymore (I should have included that in the post now that I think about it, but it could warrant it's own post anyway). But I'm also uncommonly lucky to get a lot of free books so it's not as much of an issue.

Harry Markov said...

You know, I was going to write a post on the same topic soon, but from a slightly difficult agnle. I would have posed the question, whether reviewers [movie ones] are cruel mean bastards or are people dumbing down and which is the atual audience that teh reviewers write for?

SQT said...

Harry-- That would be a good post. I tell ya, I think movies are dumbed down these days. My husband loves classic movies, so we're always watching old Marilyn Monroe or Cary Grant movies. We also watch classics like "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Casablanca" fairly often and I'm not sure any modern movies I watch live up to the standard set by those old films. To be sure there are a lot that I like for pure entertainment value-- like "Iron Man," and I'd put "The Dark Knight" in my top ten regardless of how many classics I watch. But it's rare that I watch anything and end up wowed anymore.

I think tv is basically horrible these days too. Reality television has replaced a lot of scripted tv, and I'm sure those reality shows are super cheap to produce. As long as viewers choose to tune in to crap, they're not likely to chance what they're doing. I suppose that's why I'm stingy with my money. Maybe a lack of profit would encourage them to actually work on their craft.

Books are good though. Definitely a more reliable form of entertainment.

Wilson said...

You're not alone. My friend takes it one step further. He refuses to watch movies even if he's just renting if from the neighbourhood store. He must get a review of it first before renting it.

"I just don't want to waste my time." Even if there's a zombie movie that gets him all hyped up (he's a huge zombie movie fan), he'll cautiously put aside his excitement, go home, and check good ol' rotten tomatoes before making his decision :D

Personally, I've learnt to both pay attention to reviews, as well as my heart.

Critics hate big action movie because its all explosions and no exposition? Thats ok, I want them explosions. At least I know what I'll be getting when I walk into the cinema :)

As a side note, movies here in Fiji cost the equivalent of $2.71USD. On the flip side, we're missing out on them IMAX theatres ><

Harry Markov said...

Yes, nothing has wowed me since the early 2000s and I have experienced some phenomenal Golden Hollywood movies, which blow away almost every new movie from this century. It is a bit depressing... And what is worse is that people don't mind it...

And when you look at books you can see the whole pattern in full force. What exactly tops the best seller list as far as fiction goes: Brown and Meyer...

darkul said...

Movies with quality are a rare incident in our times. Nowadays I can summate a few reviews via internet and can use them as a helping indicator. Usually I find them very helpful.
But there is one thing I dislike and I have to struggle with it: I will sit in the cinemas and pay heed to the negative aspects those reviews told me.
That means I cannot watch the movie without paying particular notice to those mentioned points.
So my own reception of a movie is somehow colored by reviews.

That means my question is always: should I just go watch this movie and risk some money or should I just watch movies that are rated very high and look as they are interesting to me? Should I just look at the rating or should I read the whole review?
Sometimes reviews can cost the fun to experience a movie.

Another problem is with trailers. Too much is given away by them in 90% of all cases, best-scenes, twists and most of the time that's it. The movie is not more than that trailer showed. Disappointment. But I'm somewhat a trailer junkie. My fault maybe.

For books: without internet reviews I wouldn't know that an author exists or a new book may be of interest to me. I dislike bestseller lists and monthly sales and top rankings though I mostly read honored books which've won some famous award. That makes me relying on reviews and review bloggers. Usually most book reviewers do that very good, very erudite, well-read. They seem to be reliable. But never ever use amazon reviews to buy a book.

"Twilight" phenomenon:
hyped franchises can never be talked down by reviewers. Write a sincere review and hope that some of those fans realize a few years later, when they stumble over your review, that you are right.
I guess those frantic "fans" never read reviews about their loved movies and if they do, they are like young girls, getting crazy, feeling offended, sulking, spitting out immature comments.

Keep on reviewing. I think that is a great hobby. Serious readers/viewers will always recognize the benefits of it.

Sullivan McPig said...

I read reviews for both books and movies, but I must confess I only read reviews by bloggers and such as the actual movie and book critics are not to be trusted in their opinion I think.
Here in the Netherlands movie critics like to think of themselves as superior and they bash about every movie and actor.
As for book reviews: I usually read the reviews on blogs of people that I've come to recognise as people with simular tastes as the reviews on amazon and other such sites are either way too negative or way too positive.

Stewart Sternberg said...

The world of the critic began to change with Siskel and Ebert (I think I need to write a blog about this). Prior to their show, which was first broadcast on PBS, most reviewing was printed and fairly removed from the motion picture audience.

Siskel and Ebert made reviewing a contact sport, and attracted a fairly impressive audience. So much so that ABC stole them from PBS and gave them a show late Sunday nights.

People were able to identify with these two. They were so freakin' ordinary it hurt. It was like listening to your uncles argue on the sofa after a bad Thanksgiving dinner. Soon, people were emulating them, reviewing film with the eye of the common man....

...um....I'm going to continue this on my blog and link to here. Sorry, but once I get going...long story short---critics are too often bought and paid for by the corporations, and with more of them accessible the buyer must beware.

furiousBall said...

I agree with Charles. I've never cared for much of anything that is mainstream in any medium.

Michael Cummings said...

"Influential" reviewer? Depends on your definition of influential, I guess. I read about a half dozen sci-fi/fantasy book review blogs. Most overlap, both in what books are reviewed and how much a particular book was enjoyed. Sometimes, real life catches me and I just have to mark all of you as read and hope I didn't miss anything.

So, "influential?" Yep. Because each of you review the same genre, same set of books - except one of you will include book X, and another book G. The worst part is getting intrigued by a book you have reviewed, then find yourself trying to remember the name of it in a bookstore with your iphone, cursing why "super hero 2009" doesn't get you anything but comic book releases, even when you search against the list of blogs you follow (Santa Olivia was the answer, many hours later). And I wouldn't have even known about this book if one of you hadn't mentioned it. Certainly wouldn't have caught my eye by title or cover art.

I think that was an ego boost. Or I hope it was. As for movies? Bah. Waste of good time, usually, which is why I just stick with brainless mindcandy action flicks no matter what the reviews - lowest possible expectations will never be beat.

S.M.D. said...

I think there's a serious disconnect between the review community for film and the same community for books. I get the impression that most people don't read reviews about the movies they go see, or if they do, they go to Fandango, which currently lists the rather mediocre Robin Hood as a "go" by the fans and a 53/100 from critics.

Book reviews are a little more difficult to avoid. Since a good portion of shopping is done online through Amazon and similar places, the reviews are generally right in your face. You can see the out-of-5-star rating right at the top and scrolling down to see what people think is only a few clicks. Whether people actually read them is a different story.

That said, I wonder, as you have indicated in the comments, how many people care about the reviews on Amazon, with so many reviews becoming political moves and so on. Amazon is not the easiest place to get honest reviews from...

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Sex and the City's weekend take baffles me as well.
You're not the only one to check reviews. Rotten Tomatoes is my favorite spot for movie reviews and I like to read the individual reviews to see why it was given a fresh or rotten tomato. Sometimes it's obvious a movie has connected with a certain type of audience, especially when opinions are diverse. I also look for common threads. Depending on what I find, I might take a chance on a movie with a 40% rating like Prince of Persia. (Which I found enjoyable due to great performances.) When it dips below 25%, I usually pass.
Reviews matter to me.

Budd said...

with social networks and bloggers, everyone is a reviewer. You also can't believe anything you read on the internet. If you put the two together. you have thousands of reviews on every movie out there that you just can't trust. So people take chances.

BStearns said...

I find that if I read a review about a movie I was skeptical about (take Prince of Persia for instance), and it gets a good review, I'll go and see. On the flip side however, if I see a review for a film that I was all psyched up to see and thought it would do great things, and the review is bad, it generally won't stop me from seeing it. Sometimes however, it does, as with Clash of the Titans. I do believe that many movies have become dumbed down because too many people don't want to be challenged. I find a lot of the people that like the crappy movies/tv are also people that don't read books. I think that has caused a huge disconnect, because people find it easier to watch tv or play video games so their mind can be turned off, rather than be challenged by a good book or great movie.

I realize I may have gone off topic a bit, but my point is that to these people, reviews don't matter too much to them because they are the type of people that don't go to find something out, if you catch my meaning. Take Jennifer's Body for instance. It did absolutely horrible in the box office, yet I knew people that went and saw it and told me it was pretty good and that I should go see it. When I told them that I'd heard nothing good at all about the movie, they responded with "Ya, but I thought it was good, so you should see it." These are the people that bring in the money for sub-par movies, and most likely contribute to the fact that reviewing doesn't hold as much weight anymore.

Okay, I'm done now.

-Bryan
sff-hub.blogspot.com

SQT said...

So many great responses...

One thing I would add, regarding my own tendency to turn to review sites like Rotten Tomatoes, is that I find that the average person, you know-- the ones who give their "thumbs up" to pretty much everything and post it on Twitter-- are not really critical thinkers.

For example, most reviews I read on "Avatar" said it was pretty and entertaining, but they had actual criticisms regarding plotting and dialogue. But when I'd ask people, they weren't particularly interested in whether or not it was well written. They just wanted the spectacle.

But I need a little more than that. Part of the reason is that I have poor eyesight and it makes it hard for me to track too much action on the screen. I tried to watch "Avatar" but my brain shuts down when it gets too busy. So I need compensating factors, like a good script, to make it worth my while. So, in my view, reviews are very helpful.

Carl V. said...

I think reviews carry some weight, be they from individual bloggers or sites like Rotten Tomatoes, but it depends on the movie being considered and what else is on that weekend. In other words, timing has a factor in whether reviews make or break a movie. If a movie comes out that is similar to several others that have been out lately, or is competing with like material, I think reviews can really make a difference in whether or not a person chooses to see the movie in the theater. However, films like SATC are timed perfectly to catch at least a big opening weekend regardless of reviews. It is targeted towards an audience that is not normally targeted with a ton of choices: middle-aged women. Twilight is a similar thing in that it targets girls and women. Usually these films are not put in the theater to compete with one another so women, couples, etc. come out in droves because that is all there is to see, in their opinion, critics be damned. SATC was perfectly timed for the long Memorial Day weekend where people were going to go out and do something no matter what.

Twilight benefits from the book mania. They don't have to be perfect films, just good enough to satisfy the readers. So they make a bunch of money.

For me, low RT scores will keep me from seeing, say, a stereotypical adventure film in the theater because often there is another one like it just around the corner so I'm not starved for entertainment.

that's my take on it anyway.

Carl V. said...

Also, SATC weekend take is not surprising because they built up a huge fan base with the show that hasn't had anything similarly successful to replace it. Those folks who loved the show are not going to miss out on an opportunity to see their favorite characters one more time. It will take a few duds to make them gun shy.

Karen said...

Websites that review independent films are a great resource for me. I don't want a play by play of what happens in the story but I do want a short explanation of why the reviewer thought the movie was good.

With sci-fi films I tend to check out the reviews after I watch the movie to see if people had a similar reaction as I did. I like reading other people's take on the film, and sometimes they provide new insights that I look forward to upon a second viewing.

Movie reviewers spark conversations and that's the cool thing about the Internet.