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What Would Happen If Filmmakers' Compensation Was Tied to Movie Reviews?

Criticwire By Matt Singer | Criticwire March 1, 2013 at 3:25PM

Believe it or not, it already happens in the world of video games.
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"Tomb Raider."
"Tomb Raider."

Yesterday, Movies.com's Peter S. Hall sent me this tweet:

"I think @mattsinger might be interested in this. Are there movie critics who write "mock reviews" for distributors? http://bit.ly/Z3sg2m"

If you click through his link, you'll find an article on Penny Arcade by Ben Kuchera about the new "Tomb Raider" and its glut of early reviews. The game doesn't come out until next week, but most major websites' reviews were published last Monday, a full seven days early. According to Kuchera's sources, publisher Square Enix was confident the game was good and decided to permit critics to write about it early to try to boost pre-orders and increase the buzz around "Tomb Raider"'s release. 

The question, of course, is how Square Enix knew the reviews would be good -- and that was the part that got Peter Hall's attention: Kuchera says that video game publishers solicit "mock reviews" from gaming critics in which "a writer plays the game, writes their review as if it were going to a publication, and hands it into the publisher instead." Game companies use these mock reviews to gauge the critical reaction and prepare accordingly.

So do movie critics write "mock reviews" for distributors? I've never heard of such a thing, and neither have any of the colleagues I asked yesterday after I read Kuchera's piece. Film critics often receive requests from publicists to share some brief, general thoughts after press screenings, either in person on their way out of the theater or via phone or email several hours later. I suppose that serves the same purpose as these mock reviews; we just never thought to try to monetize it.

I also asked a colleague who covers video games for a living whether he knew about this stuff. He said he did, and then he told me about an even more surprising practice in the video game world, one that's been written about publicly before, but that I'd never heard about because I spend all my time reading, y'know, film nerd stuff instead of video game nerd stuff. Get ready to have your mind blown:

In the world of video games, creators' compensation is sometimes tied to the quality of their reviews.

The most high profile example happened last year, when the developers of "Fallout: New Vegas" didn't receive a pay bonus because the game failed to reach a score of 85 on Metacritic -- by a single point. It got an 84, and thus, no bonus. At Kotaku, Jason Schreier responded to the news with an editorial about the hazards of this sort of system including the inherent subjectivity of gaming criticism and the somewhat nebulous way that Metacritic calculates its scores. 

Certainly it's unfortunate when someone misses out on a pay bonus by such a small margin. And clearly any kind of system like this is fraught with opportunities for corruption and payola. Logistically, it seems completely impossible to maintain and police. But theoretically, I can't help but speculate: what if filmmakers got paid based on how well their movies were reviewed? Would their movies get better?

If you're a believer in capitalism, you have to think they would. With a financial incentive to impress critics, filmmakers would have a lot more reason to be bold, take risks, and reach for greatness instead of settling for "good enough." I don't know how you'd objectively measure critical success (although, hey, we do have our Criticwire Network sitting right here), and I don't know how you'd ensure people didn't bribe their way into critics' good graces. But the idea itself is kind of interesting.

It's also interesting to compare how other art forms look at criticism. At the very least, a deeply flawed money-for-good-reviews system still shows an enormous amount of respect for -- and an acknowledgement of the expertise of -- video game critics that I'm not sure always exists in the film world. 

Read more of "'Tomb Raider"'s Early Reviews: The Science and Art Behind Publisher Confidence" and "Why Are Game Developer Bonuses Based on Review Scores?Do you think a pay-bonus-based-on-reviews system could work for movies? Leave us a comment below.



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