Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Why critics don’t matter…and why they do

After the announcement of the RTCC nominations, there is always a flurry of activity for me which also coincides with the madness of “back to school” week. The dust from all that has almost settled so there is this brief lull before the explosion of fall openings, starting with a new round of “Wonderettes” at the Mill and the unleashing of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” at the Tavern this weekend.

Into that lull, I’d like to throw an observation from another artistic realm into the mix. The last couple of films I’ve seen at the actual movie theater share an interesting characteristic. A few weeks ago, the family “took me out” for my birthday and we selected “ParaNorman” as a rare “good for the whole family” kind of movie: a horror movie scary enough for teens, smart enough for adults, but animated so easily digested by the youngest in the crowd. This past weekend, I took the boys out to see “Premium Rush,” starring “The Dark Knight Rises”’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a NYC bike courier who inadvertently ends up in a bind with the local cops.

Both movies were much better than I would have expected. And my expectations were pretty high because both movies were almost universally praised by the critics. “ParaNorman” got an 87% positive rating from RottenTomatoes and had people like Bruce Diones from the New Yorker saying, “The film avoids the pandering of many animated features, bringing an acerbic edge and a thrilling intelligence to its story.” In the Chicago Tribune, Michael Phillips said, “Premium Rush" is great fun — nimble, quick, the thinking person's mindless entertainment” and it has a 76% positive rating.

The one factor that lessened my expectations was that both movies have done relatively dismal business at the box office. After being in theaters a month, “ParaNorman” has brought in $45 million ($65 if you add in foreign receipts) versus a $84 million budget. That is third the amount (or less) earned by the sequels recycled as part of other big animated series that opened this summer (Madagascar #3: $215 million; Ice Age #27?: $158 million). In three weeks, “Premium Rush” has scored less than $17 million. It’s hard to know what exactly to compare “Rush” to but the box office tabulators put in the category of “On the Run” thrillers, a category that includes movies like “The Bourne” franchise, the latest sequel of which has earned nearly 10 times what “Rush” has.

So what gives? People regularly complain that there is nothing original at the movies and what comes out is just regurgitated sequels and mindless action or horror. But then movies like these two come out, the critics rave about them, and hardly anyone goes to see them.

One simple conclusion to draw is that critics don’t matter. Their opinions – whether pro or con – pale in comparison to the marketing juggernauts that are the real determining factors in whether a movie succeeds or fails. The two movies I saw recently didn’t succeed commercially because they weren’t marketed well or they opened at the wrong time. They didn’t find their audience because their audience didn’t even know the movies existed and critical support wasn’t going to change that.

I think this is conclusion is probably valid. I have no idea why a movie like “ParaNorman” is opening at the end of the summer versus pre-Halloween. “Rush” arrived as summer vacations transitioned into the back-to-school frenzy. I might have seen one ad for each movie but, even if there was a “Dark Knight” style blitz going on, I probably would have missed it. Similarly, I wasn’t reading reviews at the end of August. I was trying to finish reading a summer novel and looking over supply lists for school. It’s hard not to think these movies weren’t doomed before they even opened.

But still… even though it opened pretty badly, “ParaNorman” has stuck around for a month, not plummeting quite so quickly as other late summer releases like “Total Recall” or (ugh) “Sparkle.” And, from what I can gather, among the pre-teen and teen boy crowd, “Rush” has a moderately fervent following. In the “ParaNorman” case, I’d conclude that there has to be a fair amount of parents out there like me who were dealing with kids who still wanted to see movies even though school was open. And when they went to see what was out there, they went to see what the critics had to say. And even though the title might not have been familiar, they chose something critics were saying good things about. In the “Rush” case, I expect some sub-17 year olds have had to ask their parents to take them to see the movie and the responsible ones checked the Internet to see if it was good. And reading the raves, they might have decided “Rush” was a good choice.

So critics may not have the power to move audiences toward or away from specific movies in the way they might have been able to in the past. But they still serve an invaluable service: providing insight on the potential return a patron might expect from their $10 investment in an unknown or unfamiliar movie.

This is an important conclusion to draw, in my opinion, because of the extrapolation to theater criticism. I don’t think a rave for a local stage production is going to bring scores of people into the theater or that a pan is going to keep everyone away. But with theater, the proportion of unfamiliar titles is much higher and the dollar investment in a ticket is usually higher. So while the value of arts criticism may be diminished from what it was years ago, it’s not quite worthless yet.

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