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Beating the Box Office for Dummies

One of the first things they teach you in an introductory statistics class is that you shouldn’t take the average of ordinal data. It doesn’t make sense, because unlike 4 °C and 5 °C, the difference between four stars and five stars is neither quantifiable, nor the same for all people. For me, Twelve Angry Men is five out of five stars. It’s a great example of the use of dialogue and acting being the sole focus of the story. However, for someone else, it may be tough to watch… the movie is just twelve men in a room, being angry at times. The thing is, if they give the movie only one star, that doesn’t mean that they like it one fifth of how much I like it, it just means that they didn’t enjoy it.

It gets even trickier though, let’s say that me and my friend both give Fight Club four stars. Do we enjoy the movie the same? Likely not! So when a movie’s average is 8.8/10 on IMDb, that means… not that much except that people scored their appreciation of it 8.8, on average. It doesn’t mean you’ll like the movie, and it doesn’t mean that you’ll hate it. It may tell you something about the quality of the movie; I noticed that I tend to enjoy movies with ratings higher than 8 for sure, but I also dislike quite a few of them too…

Let’s get even more confused though, shall we? Ratings on IMDb are not distributed the same as Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, or Fandango. People who rate movies on Fandango seem to enjoy movies more than the ones rating on IMDb, and Rotten Tomatoes seems to have a nearly-uniform distribution. So not only are these ratings more or less meaningless, they aren’t even distributed the same! Considering all these drawbacks of ordinal ratings, we care an awful lot about them – to the extent that 36 percent of all movie-goers in the United States check these ratings when considering watching a movie. Essentially, you will never really know what that number really means, but it’s stuck with you as a form of prejudice for-or-against the movie.

With all the attention given to these ratings, you would expect movies rated on the lower end of the scale (say, less than 30%) to perform badly, right..?

Out of the most recent ones, the box office tells a different story. Box office is the place where you get your tickets to be admitted into an event, and in the film industry it’s most often the amount of money a movie makes when it’s being screened. It’s a good metric to determine whether or not a movie achieved success at its release, because it roughly demonstrates the amount of people who cared enough to see it as it was being screened.

In our weekly Rostra meetings, we propose ideas for articles. When I pitched the idea for this one, we had a small debate on why Emoji Movie made so much money. Alma pointed out that it’s a kid’s movie, so you’ll always have kids and their parents coming to the movie to essentially double or triple the box office figures. That makes sense, but it’s not really sufficient to explain cases like the new The Mummy, Baywatch, and Pirates of the Caribbean. All of them have ratings on the lower end of the scale, but range from $60,000,000 to $170,000,000 in box office revenues. To put that into scale, the cult-classic and critically acclaimed Fight Club only pulled in about $100,000,000.

Movies have been making significantly more money over the years, true. Even though there are outliers like Avatar (2009, $2,787,965,087 worldwide gross, $3,190,584,377.92 adjusted for inflation) and Titanic (1997, $2,186,772,302 worldwide gross, $3,345,134,883.58 adjusted), there is a strong trend in worldwide gross and box office figures. So comparing Fight Club to Baywatch may not be the best choice. However, it’s obvious when a bad movie does better than a good movie.

The discussion on this topic itself actually started from the Emoji Movie, by the way. The movie currently has a 10% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (which was actually 0% when it was initially released), but it made a staggering $25,000,000 in its opening weekend. No matter how much people care about the ratings, bad movies are clearly still in demand.

No matter how meaningless movie ratings are, in whichever form or website, their power is nothing to sneeze at. Rotten Tomatoes may not always be able to break a movie, but it’s also not able to save good ones either. War for the Planet of the Apes, with an incredible 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, made less than the new Pirates movie. If rating were anything to regress on, we seemingly can’t multiply 29% by 3, and get nearly $500,000,000 that War for the Planet of the Apes ‘deserves.’

In the end, the worrisome thing to me is not whether good movies will prevail or not—I’m sure they will—but whether bad movies will prevail or not. With the amount of money chick-flicks and bad remakes are making, the return-on-investment is too good for Hollywood to pass up on them. Although, who am I to call a movie bad? My one-star may be your five-star after all.


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