Features and Columns · Movies

Even for the BBC 100, Box Office Matters

By  · Published on August 26th, 2016

The not-so-surprising link between box office and audience reviews for the BBC’s greatest films of the 21st century.

Here at Film School Rejects, we enjoy a good movie ranking controversy as much as the next film critic or blogger. So when the BBC posted its list of the greatest films of the 21st century, it was only a matter of time before one of us decided to dive into the numbers and see what kind of information we could find. I’m glad it ended up being me. If you’ve read any of my stuff by now, you know I’m more than a little fascinated with the intersections between film criticism and popular film culture. And after playing with the numbers a little bit, I think there are some fun questions to ask about how even a list as artistically driven as this one can reflect some commercial considerations as well.

One major caveat before I get started: as should become painfully clear in just a moment’s time, I’m not a particularly great mathematician or statistician, so there is probably a more effective way to illustrate my point than the two slapdash graphs I put together below. However, the broader idea is to point out how box office serves as a dividing line between IMDb users – our stand-in for general audiences – and the opinions of 177 critics, academics, and insiders from around the world.

Each of the BBC Top 100 titles plotted based on IMDb user score and domestic box office earnings

To get things started, I thought it would be helpful to provide just a top-level visualization of the way the BBC films rank in domestic box office and IMDb user scores. That’s a pretty telling cluster of dots near the zero-dollar line. Did you know 22 of the 102 films on the list grossed less than one million dollars at the domestic box office? Or that those films scored disproportionately lower with IMDb users? It’s true. The average rating for films that grossed less than one million dollars was 7.4; the average rating for films that grossed over one million dollars was 7.8. If we raise the threshold even higher to only include films that grossed over $100 million at the box office, we see the average rating spike even more, this time settling in at 8.4 out of 10. Either movies are inherently better the more money they make or there is something to be said for the intersection of art and popular cinema.

Since we’ve folded IMDb users into the conversation, let’s compare this Top 100 list to the IMDb Top 100 list on their website. It’s not a perfect 1:1 correlation; the IMDb list does not filter by century, so its top 100 slots are not all occupied by movies from the last fifteen-plus years. That being said, another piece of the puzzle drops into place here. Of the thirteen titles shared across the BBC and IMDb Top 100 lists, only one of them – Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy — was not nominated for an Academy Award. Even when IMDb users venture towards low budget or foreign cinema, they still seem to stick within the comfort of the Hollywood award season. As further evidence of this point, a few of the 21st century titles omitted from the BBC Top 100 list but featured on the IMDb Top 100 list include the Lord of the Rings films, another Christopher Nolan movie (Interstellar), and additional Oscar contenders like The Departed and Whiplash.

BBC Top 100 films with an IMDb user score of 7.7 or lower grossed an average of $15 million dollars per movie; film with an IMDb user score above 7.7 grossed an average of $61 million dollars per movie

We can tackle this one last way. The average IMDb rating for every film on the BBC Top 100 list is 7.7. With that in mind, let’s split the dataset into movies that received a lower or higher rating than the aforementioned score. I’ll even be generous and include all movies with a 7.7 rating in the lower end of the spectrum. What we see now are two very different numbers. For IMDb users, all movies at-or-below the mean user score averaged a domestic gross of $15 million while all movies above the mean user score averaged a domestic gross of $61 million dollars. None of the movies in the first group earned $100 million or more at the box office; the second group, meanwhile, includes ten such films, six of which went on to gross $200 million-plus in theaters.

Your typical audience member may look at this data and come to the conclusion that critics and industry professionals are overvaluing the place of independent and micro-budget cinema in today’s cinematic landscape. Likewise, your average cinephile might conclude that audiences are overvaluing movies with a longer reach and more critical success. The answer, as always, probably falls somewhere in the middle. I am not suggesting that either side is wrong for favoring the types of movies that they do; instead, I’m only suggesting that there are preferences at play in how film insider and audience members tackle the vague title of “best”. To a certain extent, all film criticism is film promotion, and people in my line of work are never happier than when they can champion a movie that might otherwise be seen. And, to a certain extent, all film is entertainment, and audiences are never happier than when they can spend a night at the multiplex and get a strong return on their investment.

So what’s the overall lesson here? Certainly it’s that I’m no Walt Hickey; if you walk away only remembering that, I won’t hold it against you. But it would seem to me that for all our hand-wringing about blockbusters and commercial considerations, it is the big movies – the ones that exist at the intersection of entertainment and art – that best bridge the gap between hardcore cinephiles and the sort of people who use IMDb scores as their barometer of success. Everyone’s gotta start somewhere, and for casual to moderate movie fans in the year 2016, it would seem that filmmakers like Christopher Nolan are the perfect place to start a conversation.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)