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Who Criticizes the Critics? Existimatum, That's Who.

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire September 18, 2013 at 4:58PM

A new site grades movies reviewers on their writing, and purports to separate the reliable from the un-.
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Keeping up with the hundreds, if not thousands, of new movie reviews published each week is a full-time job (and no, you can't have it). While review aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, Critics Round Up and (ahem) Criticwire boil the conventional wisdom down to a numerical score, they omit by design the insight and pleasure of reading a single, well-written review. But which one?

Enter Existimatum, whose name, their about page tells us, "is the nominative neuter singular form of the perfect passive participle of the Latin word existimo, which means to estimate, judge, evaluate, consider, or -- in the context of the arts -- to review or critique." What that means, for those who never got past "Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres," that the site pores over the reviews of a given new release and assigns each a score in four categories: Quality of Writing, Reasonableness, Spoiler Avoidance and Presentation. Those scores are then fed into "a proprietary statistical algorithm hatched out of M.I.T." to produce the ExistiMetric, an overall ranking  that "mutes the opinions of unreliable critics, thereby providing you with the world's most credible compound quantitative assessment of a film." At the moment, Blue Caprice leads the pack with an ExistiMetric score of 793 (out of 1000), while Mademoiselle C trails with a middling 583. 

Existimatum was founded by Peter Kern, a recent law school graduate who works as a prosecutor for the city of Orem, Utah, and his brother, K.C., an MBA student at M.I.T. In an email to Criticwire, he explained that the idea grew out of a scene in the movie Heckler where Jamie Kennedy confronts the writers of several especially vitriolic criqitues, and the collective critical response to Man of Steel.

"I am a huge fan of Superman and eagerly awaited the film," Kern explains. "In reading multiple reviews, I saw so many bad reviews that the idea for the site began to grow. One review went so far as to say that the film's 'bloated budget could have gone a long way toward curing cancer' as an aside.  There was a lot that I wanted to say about that review, but there was no platform."

The idea, Kern says, "was to make a site that combined the satire of the The Onion with the usefulness of Rotten Tomatoes." A team of 10 writers read reviews and provide critiques, and Kern edits each before it is published. "The ExistiMetric," he says, "was a natural outgrowth of the idea once we actually got into the daily work of reviewing reviews."

Given the total subjectivity of Existimatum's "quantitative" categories -- one person's diamond-etched prose is another's pretentious drivel, and I for one sometimes prefer my criticism unreasonable -- it's more intriguing for now to explore the four films for which Kern has added the extra step of reviewing the reviews themselves. Stephen Farber's top-ranked review of Prisoners "flows from one point to the next, never lingering too long and never giving any aspect of the film short shrift." William Bibbiani, by contrast, "milks and misuses language worse than a second-grader with a bad English teacher." 

Would it be petty to point out that Existimatum is not itself error-free? That, for example, that "word-count" does not take a hyphen, that the sixth sentence on the "about" page drops the "r" from "your," and that "accolading," while technically a word, is not an especially euphonious one? Probably. And there's no question that those who critique for a living ought to be able to take what they dish out. (Please leave any complaints about or corrections of this post in the comments.) But then, that goes for those who critique them as well. Who watches those who watch the watchmen?

This article is related to: From the Wire, Reviews


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