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Criticwire Survey: The Rating Game

How do critics feel about having to rate movies? And when they do, how much thought goes into the star rating or grade as opposed to the review as a whole?
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Tomatoes

Q: In his response to Vocativ's ranking of critics by how often they agree with a movie's Metacritic average, "most reliable" critic J.R. Jones takes exception to the practice of affixing letter grades or a star rating to a review. How do you feel about placing movies on a scale? Would you give your reviews a grade if you were calling the shots? And when you write for publications that require them, how much thought goes into choosing the rating versus writing the review itself?

Gary M. Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

I have always preferred not to use a rating system -- stars or grades -- for film criticism. I find such measures provide a shorthand way for readers to know if the film is good or not, and therefore, they become less inclined to read the review because they "know" from the stars or grades if they want to see the film, much less read about it. I've long wanted to advocate a simple three point grading system: Rush to the theater; wait/see it at home; skip it entirely. Because that's really all the guidance folks need when it comes to deciding if/when/where to see a film, right? For the few outlets where I do have to rate films with stars, I find 1/2 stars are lazy -- it's Poor Fair Good Very Good or Excellent. There's no in-between, and a review should justify why Good is neither Very Good nor Fair. I could get into a whole debate about 4- vs. 5-star rating guides (when pressed I do prefer a 5-pt system). Letter grades without + or - operate the same way, but on Criticwire, I rely far too much on assigning pluses and minuses because I feel that's my one way to provide nuance, especially in cases where I don't comment about the film. 

Josh Larsen, Filmspotting, Larsen on Film

I understand ratings systems serve a certain collative function and can also be a handy guide for a critic's readers, but in a perfect world I could let my words speak for themselves. A clue as to how much thought I put into my ratings would be the fact that it took me a few months on Letterboxd before I realized a 3 out of 4 star review on my own site should be a 3.5 out of 5 star review there, and this was only after it was pointed out to me by others who put more stock in such stuff.

Edwin Arnaudin, Asheville Citizen-Times, Ashvegas

I subscribe to the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" school of thought and have no problem rating films. I grew up on letter grades and stars and they still seem appropriate to me. As reviewers, our readers are accustomed to some sort of score that summarizes the film. If we stray from that format, we become essayists instead of critics. The two blur more and more these days, but I think it's important to separate the approaches and ratings do just that.

Greg Cwik, Indiewire, Wall St Cheat Sheet

I'm not a fan of rating films with traditional grading systems. The inherent problem with rating a film is twofold: it creates this idea of a "perfect" film, which is a fugazi; and it spurs this temptation to compare the ratings of different films. For example, I don't think "Under the Skin" is a perfect film. But its flaws are part of the film, and they can't be ignored, and yet they arguably contribute to its greatness. In a written review I would discuss those flaws and what they mean, and how they impact the film. So do I give the film an A, or a 5/5? And if I don't, but I give "Raiders of the Lost Ark" or "Aliens" a 5 because they're the pinnacle of escapist cinema, does that mean I think they're "better" films than "Under the Skin"? You can't compare them like that (and yet Rotten Tomatoes and its spawn do.) I recently gave a slew of Jackie Chan films 5 stars on Letterboxd because, despite their inane plots and lack of coherence or character development, they're ineffably fun. Movies don't get much more fun than "Drunken Master 2" or "Project A" (even the bastardized American cuts). Does that mean they're on par with "Vertigo" or "The Godfather"? Come on, now. Having to grade a film for a professional review is, for me, the worst part of the whole process.

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second 

I don't use a star rating myself. The closest I come to any such measurement device is via the Criticwire database, which uses the slightly-more preferable A-F scoring system. At their best a star rating acts as a shortcut for the fleeting reader (which isn't the kind of person I'm interested in attracting), while at their worst they're used as some kind of bizarre currency in attempts at discrediting critics who've provoked the wrath of a fanboy scorned; how many times have we seen "Critic X gave Largely-Maligned-Film 4 stars, but only gave Film I Love 3 stars!!!!" used to belittle a writer who dares go against the popular grain? 

Michael Pattison, Sight & Sound, Fandor

I prefer to file reviews for outlets that don't assign grades, as it carries an implied trust in both the writer and the reader. Can you think of a more odious term in film criticism than "consumer review"? (Don't spend too long trying to answer that question; I don't want to ruin anyone's mood.) But: star-ratings have meaning, letter-grades have meaning. To claim otherwise is to defile the whole idea of signifiers and signifieds. The trouble is is that the meaning's more interpretable than the written word, especially in a publication with multiple contributors, each with her own idea of what five stars might mean. Another problem is that a star-rating (presumably) encapsulates an overall level of enthusiasm that might contradict the (possibly) narrower focus of the review itself. I've been known to write a review without listing any negatives, and then award the film "only" three stars out of five. While that's the right side of positive to me, to the financiers for whom nothing but absolutes will do, anything less than five stars is "unusable". I try my best to make every sentence I write impossible to lift-quote.

Of course, the appeal of criticism ought to be that opinionship is only a small part of it. Even in a critical culture that emphasizes how fast you can say something over what you actually say -- in a critical culture that encourages a publish-now, think-later attitude -- none of this is science: as writers, we're in a creative profession, and as thinkers, we should embrace dialectical contradictions wholeheartedly: not as historical anomalies in need of correction, but as necessary symptoms of a wider society in dire need of wholesale transformation. The revolution will not be star-graded: in fact, until we rid our cause of the avatars of yesterday, we'll never free ourselves from the burdens of resuming 1917.

Piers Marchant, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, phillymag.com

I suppose I understand the interest of a reader who just wants a super-quick idea of what a given critic feels about a film, though its certainly frustrating. It's for people who don't really want to bother to read the full review (and/or readers who don't want any of the plot details revealed to them), though it's a service I find difficult to even grudgingly embrace, as it makes our actual review that much less relevant. In this, I find myself guided by something my former film professor (and current popmatters.com editor) Cynthia Fuchs once said to me when I asked her if she had "liked" some particular movie or other. "It doesn't matter if I liked it," she said firmly, "that's totally irrelevant."

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

I have a love/hate relationship with the rating system. The biggest negative is that not every movie is well served by it, specifically those that fall somewhere in the middle. I recently had an unusual occurrence in which I gave a particular movie 2.5 stars in my review. Some people involved with releasing the film asked why I hadn't rated it "fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes. They felt 2.5 stars was fresh, I always rate it as rotten. In cases like this, the rating system seems somewhat pointless because it feels like you're splitting hairs. Another big problem is when different sites don't use the same rating system. I write for one website that rates on a 0-4 star scale. A different site I write for uses 1-5. Three stars on the first site is a recommendation, a miss on the other. It can be confusing for readers who check out my reviews on both sites. Heck, it can be confusing for me! And, of course, you've always got the potential problem that people will focus more on the rating and less on the words one has so carefully chosen in crafting a well thought-out review. Having said all this, I also kind of like the rating system. It can help pack a punch. Seeing an image of four stars next to a review drives home the point that it's a film the reader should pay attention to. Seeing an image of one star conveys that the critic strongly dislikes it. In the end, any kind of rating system is wildly imperfect, and it's quite likely many of us use them more out of tradition than actual usefulness. But readers almost demand a system of some sort, and if that's the case, it's an imperfect thing I can live with. 

Tony Dayoub, Cinema Viewfinder, The House Next Door

I'm not militant about this, so while I avoid rating a movie at my own blog, I don't have an issue doing it for another outlet I might be writing for. Many of these outlets are offering a consumer review for their readers, so why not? Personally, the idea of doing that is anathema to me, because I often find that I find things I adore in movies I don't and vice versa. A reader once told me he wished I would just say whether I liked a given movie in the first paragraph of my review. That's not really a person I'm writing to. Quantifying a film is a reductive exercise and who am I to tell anyone how they should perceive a film? What I strive to do at Cinema Viewfinder is tell you how I felt about a movie and support it with some facts. The rest is up to you.

Ryan McNeil, The Matinee

Placing movie on a scale has long been a sticky wicket. On more than one occasions, I've been asked to explain how certain reviews merited the score it got. Questions have ranged from the score seeming high, to the score seeming low. Films that I've scored 3.5 out of 4 stars have prompted questions of "What cost it that last half a star?"...reminding me of bringing a test home with a mark of 97% and my father asking me where the other 3% went.

To me a score feels like the most arbitrary part of the review. Putting aside the notion that one might feel the urge to ratchet it up or knock it down on rewatch, a score is so subjective. There's no metric for a rating -- no series of criteria that makes a film succeed or fail. It's possible to give a film with highest production value a scathing pan, just as it's possible to give a film that looks like it was made for $5000 top marks. The moment you realize how backwards that seems, all bets are off.

A further question for those that use grades is to see if critics notice a difference when their grade is kept at the bottom of the review, and nowhere near the headline where agreeing or disagreeing could turn into click-baiting. 

I believe in grades as a form of shorthand, but when a critic has dedicated a few hundred words to the topic at hand, credence should primarily be paid to that part of their review, not the letter, number, or starts that punctuate it. Grades are impulsive and immediate - the writing is where the thought is.

Jason Shawhan, The Nashville Scene, Interface 2037

Ideally, I'd rather not use grades, stars, or any of the usual evaluative shortcuts, and I'm fortunate that my current home paper doesn't use them. I like the idea that the reader is expected to do just that in finishing out what all is afoot in the cinematic universe at that time, mainly because a film can never really be reduced to a letter or a number of stars. I've written for outlets that require them, and I've found ways to make do in those situations. It makes things easier for the reader, but it also makes them to some degree more likely to skip the rest of the review.

Josh Spiegel, Sound on Sight

I'm not wholly against placing a rating on any of my reviews (I do it every week when updating my Letterboxd account). The issue is that too many people, and I include myself in that group, often pay more attention to the numbers on websites like Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes than the content those sites are aggregating. The rating, whether it's a star or letter, may be a quick guide to know if a critic liked or disliked a film, but what they're writing is always going to be far more important than the grade. For me, there's not much thought in what rating I assign a film when I review it; it's more of an afterthought than anything else.

Danny Bowes, RogerEbert.com, Indiewire

When it's up to me, I don't give stars/letter grades, because all anyone ever says when I give star ratings (as is the policy at RogerEbert.com, and with which I comply agreeably) is "How could you give 'Ramaiyya Vastivaaya' two and a half stars and 'Madras Cafe' one and a half? You're an idiot!" It gives people an excuse to not read reviews. And, thus, I don't generally dwell overmuch on how many stars I give something, although I do take it seriously as part of the job and try to arrive at a number that accurately reflects the substance of my review. I'll always be fond of Mr. Ebert's tendency to give things that kind of sucked but that he still liked two and a half stars; a two-and-a-half star review from him often made me more interested than a three-star one. That, though, is the limit of my affinity for them. If they vanished from the earth, a brief pang for the proverbial Ebert two-and-a-half would be the extent of my suffering.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing

Maybe I'm in the minority these days, but I still find a value in star ratings. I'm even a stickler for the zero-to-four star system. Usually, I come up with the star rating as I'm initially thinking about what I want to say in my review, so it has an inherent usefulness for me as well. Keeping in mind that the reader also values these ratings, I think it's silly to get rid of them. Focus on the text of the review for sure, but don't make a big deal over whether you have to give something two and a half stars or not, for example. That's just me though.

Peter Keough, Boston Globe, Criticsagogo.com

Evaluation is a key component in criticism but reducing it to a rubric makes grading the entire purpose. Instead of an analysis and discussion of a film, a review is seen as a consumer guide, thus confirming criticism as an adjunct to the marketing process. That said, because of this requirement I have gotten into the habit of starting with a star rating, which often changes in the course of thinking about the film and writing the review.

Marc V. Ciafardini, Go See Talk, Big Fanboy

A reviewer has the right to evaluate a film in whatever format they (or their outlet) desire. So be it the famous "thumbs," numbers, stars, whatever, the scale in question should always be meant to support the written evaluation not take its place. If a film has lots of nuance or subtlety it can be difficult to grade it on a scale without undervaluing or overhyping anything. It's really a means of summing up a review but if the scale, should one be necessary or mandatory, seems limiting then widen it up to be as fair (or unfair) to the film as the written review.

A scale is a really good thing to have because it offers the reader a quick evaluation if they prefer not to know too much about the plot, events, etc. or they simply care less about a written opinion. I never read a review unless I've seen the film (call me weird if you must) so I prefer a good/bad/indifferent scale and am glad of those outlets and reviewers who have one.

Further, I find many review scales are limiting which is why I created our own system and rating graphic (it's based on the dramatic theory Aristotle documented in his work Poetics; we've narrowed those 11 principles down to 4 key criteria we use to evaluate films). But again it's always meant to support the review and be as fair and thorough as possible. I asked my reviewers to think of the rating graphic going into each film and some have found it helps them better structure their write up because of the criteria on which it's based. At the end of the day the content of a review is a subjective opinion and not a factual doctrine. So if you have fun with your review then, if you're able, try to have a little fun with your scale. 

Sean Chavel, Flick Minute

Star ratings are fun and amusing to see how they come out on average, I wouldn't take it away. But it shouldn't be taken too seriously. Movie fans should find a couple of critics that appeal to their vibes, and actually read them. Right now, I love Wesley Morris.

Scott Weinberg, FEARnet

I never do it! My only concession is for Rotten Tomatoes, and even then I only go with "fresh" or "rotten." No number grade. One reason is pure ego: I want people to read the review. The other reason is even more pretentious: I don't think art should be graded on a numerical scale.

John DeCarli, Film Capsule


No, star ratings are not particularly insightful as criticism, though I do find them valuable both as a reader and a critic. Assigning a star rating via a quick gut check helps me organize my thoughts on a film and establish a starting position from which to start thinking about it more deeply. And for me, star ratings are always subject to change. Mostly though, star ratings appeal to the obsessive side of my nature, the side that likes to catalogue what I watch and to crudely rank things in my head. Over time, a personal rating system helps you keep track of an expanded list of favorite films -- which movies matter most to you.

John Keefer, 51 Deep

How many Oscars, how high on the Tomatometer, how much in box office receipts, what ranking in the most recent list of the ten best movies released in the last ten minutes. These are the things that people who know nothing about movies care about when it comes to movies. That and their own uninformed opinions, which they hold dear. How else would you determine exactly how vile of a thing to say in the comments section without it? The faceless mass thinks in terms such as "good" or "bad", which are terms completely useless to the hopelessly obsessive. I can love a film because of the grain count of the film stock used to shoot it. I can be floored by the timing of a cut. Floored! I am a lunatic who is of no use to you because you aren't an obsessive lunatic. You think in terms of "good" or "bad" rather than interesting. You want to be coddled and made to think that if called upon you could indeed fight off a group of highly skilled kung fu zombie chickens who want to take over the world. And you can so get to it! So how do we, the lunatics hiding in dark places and you sheep I mean lovely normal people, communicate? We all went to school, presumably, so grades! That's the solution. We all get what a B+ means. That means pretty good or better than normal or if you're the kind of lunatic obsessive who cares about grades and higher education it's an invitation to extended self-flagellation. The point is it gets the job done in the quickest, most meaningless way possible. It is, like everything else, mostly useless and the best idea we've had so far. So if you enjoy movies about highly skilled kung fu zombie chickens attempting to rob every bank on Earth at the same time than this is the survey question answer for you! I give it a Z plus or minus 20.

Only Lovers

Q: What is the best movie in theaters?

A: "Only Lovers Left Alive"/"Under the Skin" (tie)

Other movies receiving multiple votes: "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "Ida," "Blue Ruin," "Locke."

This article is related to: Criticwire Survey


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