Poorly reviewed movies are becoming box office hits with increasing regularity. Why? Because what matters these days isn’t what the critics think, but how well-established the brand is
Critics get it wrong again! Having given the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody a broadly unfavourable review last week, I’m braced for that accusation, now that the movie has been a huge hit. The film took an estimated $50m (£38m) in the US at the weekend and has already made more than $140m worldwide, despite many negative reviews. It currently gets 49% on Metacritic (which aggregates critics’ reviews) and a barely respectable 60% on Rotten Tomatoes (which measures the proportion of positive reviews). But, according to Rotten Tomatoes’ audience score, 95% of people who saw it liked it.
No critic imagines their words are going to make or break a movie, but perhaps we should question how useful we are. Poorly reviewed movies are becoming box office hits with increasing regularity. Take the Spider-Man spin-off Venom: “Clumsy, monolithic and fantastically boring,” according to the Guardian’s film critic, Peter Bradshaw. On Metacritic, Venom gets 35%, Rotten Tomatoes: 29%. But again, Rotten Tomatoes’ audience score is 87% and it has made more than $500m. Our weapons are useless against them and we know it.
If you had asked me if Bohemian Rhapsody was going to be a hit, I would have said: “Yes, definitely.” One thing many critic-proof hits have in common is brand recognition. You know what you’re getting – triply so with Bohemian Rhapsody: an iconic star (Freddie Mercury), a medley of familiar Queen songs and a straight-ahead rock-biopic format. Barely any movies find success without being a sequel, a franchise instalment or a reboot. It used to be the star power of actors that drew in audiences and defied critics; now it is the star power of the people they’re playing. Critics do sometimes get it “right” – hits such as A Star Is Born, Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War were all positively reviewed – but there’s so little correlation, we might as well be picking names out of a hat.
This is where the movie industry begins to look archaic. If we don’t like a TV programme, we can watch a different one at no extra cost. We can listen to music before we decide to buy it. Most retail items are refundable. But with movies, you’re still paying a lot of money upfront for an experience you may not enjoy. If people actually listened to critics, they would go to even fewer movies and the industry might collapse altogether. And then we would be out of a job. So, er, don’t listen to us.