Do Critics Reviews Really Matter?
Caught a story by Dan Zinski on Screen Rant today (“Marvel Movies to Blame for The Forgiven’s Bad Reviews, Director Suggests”) that John Michael McDonagh thinks the reason his adaptation of Lawrence Osborne’s 2012 downbeat novel tanked is because of the corrosive effect Marvel movies have had on both reviewers and ticket-buyers. In an interview with The Guardian, McDonagh raised the question, “Has Marvel infantilized audiences?” McDonagh told The Guardian, extending his criticism to critics:
“Once you’ve introduced a character who says obnoxious things, there can never be any fluctuation. It makes American film critics – maybe audiences – feel uncomfortable. They want a smooth journey. Whereas in real life, we all know that we change our minds the next day.”
And then McDonagh joined such Marvel-bashers as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Ridley Scott, David Cronenberg, Alejandro G. Inarritu (among others) in taking a bat to the superhero brand because of its – in Scott’s words – “…thin, gossamer tightrope of the non-reality.”.
So – at least in my view – part of this is typical filmmaker whining when a project about which a director obviously cares so much goes down the tubes. There’s a nice, fat catalogue of directors’ alibis for when a serious flick crashes and burns: “The studio lost faith in the picture and didn’t put any marketing behind it,” or “The studio didn’t really understand the picture and marketed it all wrong,” or, “We were released at the worst time of year for this kind of picture and the biggies clobbered us,” or “The studio recut it and made a mess of it,” or — … Well, you know what I’m talking about, you’ve heard the rationales.
What you never hear is a director saying things like, “I cast it all wrong,” or, “We never got a handle on the script,” or, “I was trying something different and it didn’t work,” or, “It was a story I always wanted to tell but I don’t know what was going through my head to think there was an audience for it.” In other words, it’s never a filmmaker saying, “I fucked it up.”
That’s why it’s always so refreshing on those rare occasions when a director owns up, like when someone with Steven Spielberg’s stature – and with his batting average – confesses to how he fumbled the ball on 1941 (1979). Another favorite of mine is an interview I remember seeing eons ago with Sydney Pollack where he said (not the exact words but as close as I can recall) that if you get half of what you set out to shoot, you had a good day.
But McDonagh’s comments bring up a few points worth considering. The first is, Do critics reviews even matter?
Well, probably yes and no (how’s that for waffling?). They probably matter more to small flicks like McDonagh’s which are fighting for visibility in a marketplace that’s both cluttered and dominated by bigger, more spectacular releases rolled out on gigundo marketing tidal waves. But that they may matter more doesn’t necessarily mean they do much good.
Take Moonlight, easily one of the most lauded releases of 2016. Those glowing reviews helped Moonlight do almost $28 million domestic – an art-house hit on a budget of $4 million. Some of the movies that did better that year? Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip; Ouija: Origin of Evil; Dirty Grandpa; Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates.
How about 2018’s RBG, another critics’ favorite that had the added juice of plugging into the political polarization of the time: $14 million domestic. Critically-roasted Holmes & Watson bested it by $7 million.
And then there’s movies that are simply review-proof. Here’s some from 2018, the last year before the Covid-19 pandemic killed theatrical release: Tyler Perry’s A Madea Family Funeral did $73.3 million despite a Rotten Tomatoes critics rating of – get this! – 11%; The Meg at $145.4 million with a 46% splat! rating; and then new entry into the superhero ranks Venom, another splat! at 30% but hauling in (get the wheelbarrow, hon!) $213.3 million.
My point is that there’s just not a big audience out there for a McDonagh-type serious, downbeat, adult drama, and there probably hasn’t been for some time. In fact, it’s a fairly small crowd, and based on box office scores for even well-hailed serious indie flicks, it won’t support many of these in a given year, and generally tends only to break big for upbeat titles like Green Book (2018 — $85 million domestic, a monstrous $321 million worldwide).
As for the director’s charge about the corrosive effects of Marvel flicks (and let’s throw in the whole megabuck franchise thing), as far as the audience is concerned, I think McDonagh has it backwards; the movies haven’t changed the audience – it’s the audience that’s changed the movies.
Look, Hollywood chases money, money doesn’t follow Hollywood. I’ve been around long enough to see the blockbuster era begin with Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), saw the first of the modern day superhero spectacles with Superman: The Movie (1978), and witnessed, over the subsequent decades, how those movies metastasized – year by year, franchise by franchise – into what we have now because Hollywood has only done what it has always done: when it finds a formula that makes money, it beats it to death…and then resuscitates it only to beat the hell out of it some more.
Yes, you now have a generation (maybe two) which has grown up in a media environment soaked in various forms of the fantastic and that has no doubt shaped generational tastes and sensibilities (just like my growing up in the gritty 1960s-1970s shaped my tastes and sensibilities). I don’t know if “corrosive” is the right word, and I’m with him that it’s a suffocating, often monotonous environment, but at this point, Marvel et al and that box office-driving young audience are a self-feeding circle.
Have those kinds of flicks worn down critics? Again, I think we come to yes and no. A forty-year-old movie reviewer growing up with these movies as the standard; they’re their baseline. But movie geeks of my generation, I don’t know so much the word is corrosive as…hungry.
Back before newspapers began cutting back on staff because people preferred the Internet and pictures of bikini-clad celebrities, Stephen Whitty was writing for New Jersey’s biggest state paper, The Star-Ledger, and was easily the state’s leading film reviewer which also meant he was one of the major critics in the New York metropolitan area. Some years ago, I interviewed Whitty several times about reviewers and reviewing. I think something he said then has some relevance here:
What people don’t understand is that I see maybe ten times as many movies as the average moviegoer – and that’s only what I see for the job! A typical person who likes going to the movies might go three times a month. A more casual goer, maybe once a month. A lot of people go to the movies only three times a year or so. For them, it’s like eating out. Maybe they didn’t go to a fancy restaurant, and the food wasn’t five-star, but they think, “Well, the veal parmigiana was pretty good, it was ok, the place was nice…” Nothing too special; they had a pleasant night out. For me, it’s like going out to eat every night, and it’s, “Oh, God, I ate this fifty times before!”
You see so many movies, novelty becomes more important to you. You’re hungry to see something even a little different.
So maybe reviewers get overly effusive over something like Black Panther (2018) because the superhero genre had finally seen fit to have a superhero of color in the lead…even though the general configuration of the movie was still kinda/sorta familiar. Christopher Nolan brings a nice noiry flavor to the Batman franchise, muddies them up a little bit…but they still more-or-less do what superhero movies are supposed to do. So, Mr. McDonagh, while I get your frustration, I don’t think “corrosive” is the word. In fact, I think there’s reviewers – particularly of a certain generation – damned hungry for a meaty, layered, adult piece of entertainment. And, in fact, McDonagh didn’t get a bad deal from reviewers: 66% positive based on 116 reviews – not great but still in Ripe Tomato territory. Where he took a beating is in audience reviews with a splat-worthy 57%. Bottom line: the people who went – and I very much doubt the same crowd that drools at the idea of yet another Avengers spectacle coming down the pipe gave The Forgiven a shot – just didn’t like McDonagh’s movie.
I honestly don’t know how the pandemic/post-pandemic rise of streaming is going to change marketplace dynamics, but up until streaming became a big thing, for some time we’d seen a bifurcated film world developing.
If you’ve been following my series on overlooked movies, many of them from the 1960s-1970s, what you see is what today we would probably think of as art house indies…except back then, there wasn’t much of an art house circuit and those indie-type flicks were being made by the same companies that were releasing mainstream flicks. The same Paramount that turned out Chinatown (1974) turned out The Longest Yard the same year, and the same screens that hosted Chinatown in June featured The Longest Yard in August.
There was an art house circuit and that’s where you went to see foreign flicks and oddities like David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) or John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972), but by and large, the movie biz was the movie biz for big flicks and small flicks, with the same execs saying yes to The Odd Couple (1968) and The Godfather (1972), and with the same audience (more or less) going to both.
But that’s not the case anymore and hasn’t been for years. Hollywood chronicler Peter Biskind gives a rich account of the rise of indies and the indie circuit in his 2005 book Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, a side of the business that, according to Biskind, reached an economic zenith in the 1990s. As the youth audience gravitated in humongous numbers to blockbusters, the rising indie circuit became a redoubt for more life-sized and – for lack of a better word – adult fare. The gap between the two veins would, in time, become so great that by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, a common gripe among the majors was how indies were regularly glomming up Best Picture Oscars while the Academy was cold shouldering what was passing for big studio prestige releases…like Harry Potter movies.
Streaming, with its bottomless appetite for product, may provide a home for flicks like The Forgiven, but not necessarily a hospitable one. Among the clutter of the streaming universe, subscribers tend to gravitate toward the familiar: familiar titles, familiar stars, familiar genres. And in the post-pandemic not-really-a-recovery of theatrical, the same ol’ same ol’ continues to overwhelmingly dominate the box office. This is what sits at the top of the numbers game thus far in 2022:
Top Gun: Maverick $693 million
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness 411
Jurassic World Dominion 375
The Batman 369
Minions: The Rise of Gru 356
Thor: Love and Thunder 338
Spider-Man: No Way Home 232
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 191
Of the ten, only two are not connected to an existing franchise or are a sequel. These ten releases currently account for over 62% of the total domestic box office for 2022 so far.
My point? I understand Mr. McDonagh’s frustration. He tried to make a serious movie based on a serious novel that a modest majority of reviewers liked. He put a lot into it; the movie had to close down because of Covid-19, and then he had to pick it up again after several months and turn that into a cohesive, effective drama and it seems he managed to pull that off. And now he’s looking for a reason that more people didn’t want to see a grim drama about obnoxious, unlikeable people who commit a rather horrible act.
Like I said: I understand his frustration. What I don’t understand is why he’s surprised.