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THE INCREASINGLY HARSH AND DELICATE NATURE OF BEING A FILM CRITIC
Every day, I log onto Rotten Tomatoes at least once to check for the general numbers of how the upcoming weekend is doing and how upcoming films are holding up in the ratings. Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised, sometimes I’m disappointed; it comes and goes. The one thing I consistently noticed during this summer movie season was low or sub-par ratings for highly anticipated films; sure, I was disappointed, but I wasn’t surprised. And then Suicide Squad released, and things quickly got tense between critics and audiences. How did it come to a 14,000 signature petition to shut down one of the most famous movie ratings sites in the world? And why?
I have been a self-proclaimed film critic for some time now, and though not entirely of a professional level (particularly with my lack of reviews as of late), I generally consider myself experienced and objective enough when watching most movies to give an unbiased and generally accurate opinion on the subject. I do a lot of research on the general concepts and requirements for film criticism and try and see a good deal of new releases each year so that I can keep up with what’s going on in the cinematic industry. But what strikes me the most about being a film critic is the association that people have with the word “critic.”
As it is used to describe a job, “critic” does not mean “to bash, to demean, or to lessen the value of.” It never has, and it’s always baffled me that people can’t seem to make the very simple association between the word “critic” and the word “critique,” which if anything is really an analysis or a “review” of what a thing is. In fact, on page 55 of his screenwriting book, Developing Story Ideas, 2nd Edition, author Michael Rabiger details criticism in this fashion: “Criticism, so often assumed to be a negative activity, exists to identify a work’s real nature, illuminate its inner workings, and find how to enhance its potential. It’s wise to seek it and supportive to give it.” So why are so many people hostile towards critics, particularly movie critics (and especially the site Rotten Tomatoes) when it’s pretty clear that “critic” is not a negative term, except as projected by those people?
Part of the issue is definitely the projection of the negative connotation on the word “critic,” and of course there are for sure a few bad apples that give this connotation its decided weight, but there is also a larger problem at hand: people aren’t thinking clearly about how a critics’ job works. So many people completely forget that there is a reason critics get paid to write reviews, whereas it’s not a very popular career path for the average person, statistically speaking. Most people will see an absolute maximum of 20 movies in theaters per year, on average. Critics see well over 40-55, generally (I saw 55 only last year). So searching for excellence in film and recognizing what great film looks like is more difficult for an average audience that doesn’t study the craft or its intricacies, nor see as many movies per year.
If you had a friend who saw perhaps 10 movies in theaters last year, and another friend who had seen 16 movies in theaters last year, you know they will have different opinions on what the best movie of the year was, as well as on the films that both of them saw, but whose verdict would you trust more? I’d say it’s probably the safer bet to go with the 16-count person. Now, let’s blow it up to a much larger scale. If the first friend has seen 20 movies this year and the other friend has seen over 50, which friend will have a better idea of what the best films of that year will look like? This is part of the disparity between critics and the average audience.
Let’s shift gears for a minute. The whole Rotten Tomatoes debacle is an interesting one. Some young men created a petition to get the site shut down due to its negative reviews of the current run of DC comics films, which reached 14,000 signatures before any research was done. Here’s what they missed: Rotten Tomatoes is not a review website, but more of a review conglomerate. The site collects data and reviews from hundreds, even thousands, of different certified critics who have been working in the field for a long time, have an adequate numbers of reviews and generally good review traffic, and gives an estimated percentage based on what the general consensus seems to be. A movie that receives a 29% is given that estimate because approximately 29% of the critics that saw the film gave it a 60% or higher, which on Rotten Tomatoes, is a fresh score. The 29% is not a percentage out of 100 that the site is giving the film as a review, but rather the estimated numbers of critics that said they liked the film. On the other side, in order for a film to become “Certified Fresh,” it has to have a certain number of reviews attached at a consistent fresh level above 70%, meaning that if it drops to the 60’s or doesn’t receive enough reviews, it won’t get certified, but could still be fresh. The films that receive fresh scores but are not certified are generally hit or miss in quality, as they were seen by limited numbers of people throughout their theatrical run. Many smaller limited releases fall into this category.
Of course we have to keep in mind the most important thing: all film is subjective on different levels. Drama, action, and adventure are generally agreed upon by a wide variety of people, but genres such as comedy and horror tend to be less so. All people have different opinions on different films for different reasons. It just so happens that critics’ opinions are just that as well: opinions. And while perhaps these opinions are more reliable than that of someone who saw only 10 movies in the entire year, that does not mean they are the be-all-end-all of consensuses. However, critics, when sharing their own opinions (fueled by years of film-watching and of research and study of things an average audience generally doesn’t look for such as editing, sound design, production design, costumes, etc) seem to get ridiculed for them a lot more than one who understands how film criticism works would deem justifiable. With the adjusted numbers and just a little research into different review sites, hopefully the average audience can open up a world of understanding into the thought process that most critics have, but unfortunately, people don’t seem to be eager to learn, nor give “critics” their appropriate connotations back.
Jacob Jones, Asbury University