Do film critics like me still matter? Occasionally, yes
Donald Clarke: In a freak occurence, a movie has topped the box office based only on good reviews
It wouldn’t be a box office piece if it didn’t start with William Goldman’s most famous maxim. “Nobody knows anything,” the distinguished screenwriter told us.
Well, we know a few things about the current box office. Right? Only franchises make serious money. Projects that have no familiar source material will never become huge hits. Movie stars can’t sell movies unless those stars were once called the Rock (and even he couldn’t flog Baywatch).
We know one thing with absolute certainty: critics don’t much matter on the larger stage. If they did, more people would have gone to see Andrey Zvyagintsev’s austere Russian drama Loveless than went to see Fifty Shades Freed.
The performance of John Krasinski’s terrific horror film A Quiet Place causes us to again heed Goldman’s advice. Following a family menaced by monsters who hunt by sound, the picture has just scored the second highest opening of the year in the USA. Only Black Panther took more in its first weekend.
The picture has also opened healthily outside its home territories. Box office nerds overdosed on obscure records. A Quiet Place is the second-cheapest movie ever – behind Paranormal Activity 3 of all things – to open higher than $50 million “domestic” in the US. It is the 15th highest opening ever for a film not based on any earlier source material. And so on.
How did this happen? You can’t credit “word-of-mouth” for a film’s performance on its opening day. Even in the age of Twitter, recommendations don’t spread before paying punters have seen the film.
Though a super actor with many fans, Emily Blunt, the movie’s lead, doesn’t open films the way old-school stars used to. It’s not as if she’s the Rock. John Krasinski, who also appears in his own film, isn’t the Rock either (though he is Blunt’s husband, which is some consolation). As we’ve established, A Quiet Place is not a sequel and it’s not based on a book or a comic.
Horror movies often open well. But they almost never open this well.
For once, we can reasonably suggest that the critics really have had an effect here. Word got about that this was a film worth seeing.
In The Irish Times, beneath five stars, Tara Brady described it as a “perfectly calibrated, high-concept dystopian thriller”. In another five-star review, Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian said: “If ever a film had me mentally tiptoeing over a booby-trapped carpet of eggshells while silently gibbering with anxiety, it’s this brutal sci-fi suspense thriller.”
At time of writing, Rotten Tomatoes, the unavoidable review-aggregator site, registers 197 positive reviews and just nine rotten notices. A Quiet Place is, thus, among the best reviewed horror films of all time. Those reviews were about the only significant factor setting A Quiet Place apart from less lucrative recent horrors such as Happy Death Day, Jigsaw or Winchester.
We have long known that critics have an effect on the performance of independent and art-house releases. Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird would have struggled to take its $72 million if the critics hadn’t got so strongly behind it. But these are small players in the bigger game.
Black Panther, currently standing at $1.3 billion, can claw in Lady Bird’s takings before breakfast. The third-highest grossing English language release of 2018, Fifty Shades Freed, was brutally eviscerated by virtually every critic on the planet.
Yet the evidence suggests that the professional reviewers have some effect on the performance of even upper-end franchise pictures. Sadly, such conversations rarely revolve around the intricacies of a notice in the New York Times or Sight & Sound.
The dreaded Rotten Tomatoes rules all. The highest scoring DC release on that site is, by a country mile, last year’s Wonder Woman. It is also, by a similar rural unit of measure, the highest-grossing film in the DC Universe.
A few months after Wonder Woman left cinemas, Justice League – despite finding roles for Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman herself – bombed with Rotten Tomatoes and with punters at the box office.
One could, of course, argue that audiences are simply flocking to the better films and staying away from the weaker ones. But those opening weekends do still wax and wane in direct proportion to Rotten Tomatoes scores.
If a film’s status as “fresh or rotten” was not an issue then why would the more fanatic of DC supporters continue to allege that there was a critical bias against their superheroes and in favour of Marvel releases. Obviously, this is nonsense. When DC actually delivered a decent release with Wonder Women, the critics swung enthusiastically behind it. But it is significant that the accusers feel the accusation worth making. Those scores do have an effect.
Critics can, if they wish to stay sane, tell themselves that the words themselves matter. They do still matter in some places. The move to ban advance press screenings at the upcoming Cannes film festival confirms that festival directors don’t want to accompany directors up the red carpet hours after critics have slammed the debuting film. And nobody cares about Rotten Tomatoes there.
In truth, however, it’s the scores, rather than the beautifully honed phrases, that drive success such as that justifiably enjoyed by A Quiet Place.
Or maybe it’s not. I don’t know anything. You don’t know anything. Nobody knows anything.