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by Cassie Ochoa

97%, 2 ½ stars, thumbs up or down, there have always been different methods of trying to figure out exactly what movies to see in theaters. With the rise of film critics and the popularity of breaking down complicated ideas into quick hard facts, some moviegoers truly rely on these numbers to make the decision for them. Bad critical reception might not completely destroy a blockbuster film, but it can significantly bring down independent cinema attendance. But what does it all mean? This is a quick examination into the rating system, and the problems that it can cause.

The Film Critic in M.Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water (Legendary Pictures)

Critics have existed as long as art has existed, but film criticism took off with newspapers. Local papers would sometimes cover cinema as a diversion, with respected critics, such as Otis Ferguson, who dabbled between criticism for normal subjects and film. With the prevalence of local papers, but a lack of respect for cinema, sometimes a critic would have legitimate sway in a town and their word would become a sort of judgement. The more the film industry grew, the more legitimate criticism took off. The rise of film theory and Cahiers du Cinema helped give film legitimacy as art form in addition to just entertainment for the masses, creating a duality in terms of what cinema could be. Arthouse film movies and mainstream cinema rarely intersected, so critics themselves became divided in this regard. This continued to build to television, with Siskel and Ebert becoming the biggest names in movie criticism and bringing back a sort of casualness to watching movies. They cared about enjoyment of a film, regardless of artistic merit, which has helped shape a lot of modern film criticism. If you’re extremely interested in the subject, look into the documentary For the Love of Movies, which features extended interviews with various film critics about their passion for cinema.

Alas, Siskel and Ebert have passed on and in their wake, is the modern film critic. Snarky and more focused on buzzwords than critical depth, the modern film critic can sometimes delve into hyperbole for clicks. Internet websites that rely heavily on percentages are slightly misleading. They collect reviews from “respected critics” with various degrees of acceptability in terms of what type of critic is able to submit a review. Luckily, reputable sites such as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic have breakdowns to their algorithms: here is an extensive list of the qualifications for being a critic and here is an explanation to the algorithm for another site, but a lot of people do not frequent these pages. They then, ignore the finer details in paragraph reviews by respected critics like A.O. Scott and David Edelstein.

Birdman confronts a critic in Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

So what does the audience truly want? Simple, they want to know if a movie is worth their time and admittance. Movie reviews and aggregate websites fulfill the need to encourage or discourage people to see a certain film. Usually, reviews are the first nearly unbiased word against films, so audiences are able to feel the general consensus of a movie. Audiences know trailers are misleading and marketing is prevalent, but the word of the critic is something akin to a super cool friend who got to see it early. The true misunderstanding is the way in which many people navigate aggregator sites; a casual glance at a site that creates a solid number in representation for a film, can tilt the viewer’s perspective in a very unusual way.

Inglourious Basterds

An audience’s understanding of aggregator sites is based on percentage, like a test score: the higher the percentage, the better the film. This leaves audiences confused when they disagree with a film’s “score”. Especially in regards to independent films, where a vast amount of reviewers don’t necessarily get the option to see a film or at least publish their reviews, the scant numbers can truly make or break a film. What the people who use aggregator sites and rely on critics need most of all is a grain of salt for the reviews and an understanding of how they work. So go in with an open mind and truly experience a film, not just a quick glance at a ranking.

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