Do Critics Matter?

by Anthony Kaufman
September 2, 2004 8:18 AM
1 Comment
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In Rania Richardson's recent indieWIRE article "Getting a Buzz On: Word of Mouth for Indies," she wrote about the power of word of mouth screenings for specialized films.

"It's a lucky film that's blessed with both box office success and stellar critical acclaim," she wrote. "Often a film falls into either the category of 'crowd pleasing,' with broad audience appeal, or 'critical darling,' beloved by critics but too specialized or difficult to attract a large audience."

I immediately took exception to Rania's pigeonholing films into either successful crowd-pleasers or critically heralded bombs. So the two of us embarked on a debate about the power of the critic in fueling an art-house
film's box office. As relevant to the entire indie world, I thought it appropriate to include our email argument in a public venue for all to peruse.

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anthony,

to argue the point that critical hits don't make it with general audiences... using last year's voice critic's poll (just the top 10) as a guide,

# 3 demonlover $ 232,000
# 5 the son $ 70,000
#10 unknown pleasures $ 12,000

especially "the son" which was even on ebert's top 10... my "alma mater" winstar/wellspring pretty much had every release make critics' "best of" lists but only a handful made big $$$ (theatrically).

- rania

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Rania

as for critical hits vs crowdpleasers, the Village Voice poll is a barometer of the most high-brow critics in the land, so I don't think it's fair to use them as arbiter. For instance, New York and LA Times critics -- the most important -- don't take part in the VV poll. Neither does Ebert.

the fact is that positive reviews do drive indie films -- that's one of the ways that indie films find a way into the marketplace. So I still remain opposed to your central thesis -- until you can give me further proof beyond
a resonable doubt.

Best,

Anthony

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hi.

without other things going for it (names, good marketing, controversy, $$$ for ads, MAYBE awards) a well-reviewed film is not enough! when i was in theatrical sales, the ny times review was important for getting bookings,
but first weekend box office was more important, and 2 weeks of bad b.o. = little interest in the film, unless the film had some of those other factors. if you have a counter example, let me know (and remember, it can't be a word-of-mouth hit). i rest my case. -r


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rania,

I NEVER said a good review was the only thing a film needed to make inroads into the marketplace. I just said that reviews serve a very important function in helping small films reach audiences.

Small films nowadays, of course, need to have names and good marketing, as well as good reviews. So again, I think the contention that critics' favorites can do strong business still holds.

Examples: "Monster" was not a crowd-pleaser, but good reviews that singled out Charlize Theron's performance as Oscar-worthy drove audiences to see a dark film about a lesbian serial killer that was far from being a
crowdpleaser. "Memento" -- another dark, difficult hit -- was helped enormously by critics who championed it.

And what do you make of the $3 million box office of Sukurov's "Russian Ark" -- that's tremendous box office for such a small film, undoubtedly buoyed by critics who called it an unprecedented achievement in cinema. What about "Y Tu Mama Tambien"? What about "The Quiet American" -- Miramax basically gave it up for good, when critics took up the mantle and drove that film to award consideration and $13 million.

So there. . .

Anthony


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Monster- A-list actress, uglification a good marketing hook (+ Berney magic) Quiet America- Two A-list actors, not an art house film Memento- If per screen average grows over time, I consider it a WOM hit (+ Berney magic)
Y Tu Mama- A sexy comedy...didn't need critics (+ Berney magic)

I will only concede on "Russian Ark" because I have no other explanation. As you may recall, it did not do enormously well in NYC, but did very well in LA. I think it may be a "filmmakers" film.

MBFGW and Passion succeeded big time despite the critics. Don't worry, critics aren't TOTALLY useless.

************************

first of all, you can't credit a movie's success to "Berney magic" -- that doesn't mean anything. It's a complex collection of various factors: cast, marketing and reviews all part of the package.

And how do you think WOM gets started? It's not just something these companies miraculously pull of their hats. It comes from reviews and critics who help start a postive buzz about a film.

"Y Tu Mama Tambien" may have been marketed as a sexy comedy, but it was nothing of the sort. Reviewers expanded the audience for that film as a prestige item that went beyond some teen-comedy road trip.

An auteur film or a "filmmakers" film means little if it doesn't have positive reviews or those stupid pull quotes ("Two Thumbs Up!") to accompany it.

I've NEVER claimed that all films need good reviews. Of course, crowd-pleasers like Greek Wedding don't need positive reviews. I've never argued otherwise. All I'm saying is that some art-house movies (not crowdpleasers) -- like Memento, Monster and Y Tu Mama -- or foreign hits this year like Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ($2.3 million), Monsieur Ibrahim ($2.8) and Goodbye Lenin ($4.06) are driven by strong reviews. And not that strong reviews are the only piece of the puzzle, but an integral part.

Counter-counter-argument?

Anthony

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Hi, Anthony-

I suspect that smaller distributors with good product and no studio affiliation (such as New Yorker, Palm, Wellspring, Kino, First Run) do not have the $$$ to put into PR, ads, and striking lots of prints. Their films are mostly well-reviewed, but it is a rare one that breaks out of the pack.

Your non-Berney examples were all SPC, and I argue that it was money/resources that helped those, not the reviews, because my listed companies have had many, many well-reviewed films but smaller budgets. (Good reviews being the constant here.)

"Y Tu Mama" was not a sexy comedy? It was to me!

I disagree that critics start the WOM, although maybe you are lumping together scholarly critics with "regular people" reviewers like the ones on TV, who recommend the feel-good, accessible, happy ending movies that people tell their friends about. Of course, some of those are actually good.

For a small film without names/marketing/$/controversy or novelty going for it, the power of the critics is that they can kill it.

-Rania

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1 Comment

  • ulysses | January 20, 2005 11:24 AMReply

    Neither word of mouth nor good reviews necessarily help an indie film, which may disappear after a week or 2 anyway!... because studios either own the movie houses (as in Sony/Sony & other antitrust violations)...or blackmail them into booking $100 million bombs for 12 weeks in advance, or none at all. So the little films compete for the smallest screens, which can only accomodate them for a week or 2, no matter what. I cld mention a thousand examples which you are unlikely to have seen...e.g. 2 on hollywood, Mistress & The Anniversary Party...or one of the world's most unusual comedies, an Australian one called Love's Serenade, which should have taken all the booking spaces for Star Wars XXIII...but mysteriously vanished... except from the video catalogue...

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