Features and Columns

Talking Heads: What Makes You Go See a Movie?

By  · Published on April 29th, 2011

Every week, Landon Palmer and Cole Abaius log on to their favorite chat client of 1996 as MonkeyTailBeard38 and LifeFindzaWay394 in order to discuss some topical topic of interest.

This week, the duo attempt to figure out word of mouth, movie advertising, critical response, and which one is to blame when a movie fails.

Or, you know, it could just be the movie’s quality, but we hate simple answers around here.

What separates the blockbusters from the flops? What makes people go see movies?

Cole: So it turns out that critics can destroy a movie just by willing it. That’s pretty awesome, right?

Landon: You know, I felt significantly more powerful this morning. I’m glad it wasn’t just gas.

But wait, I thought critics were powerless and irrelevant and movies were critic-proof? Can it be both?

Cole: I’m not smart enough to answer that, but my gut says “no.” Actually, my gut says that we have no real way of tracking the impact of critics just like we have no concrete way of proving that advertising works.

Landon: And most assumptions of a critic’s relationship to box office supposes a specific type of critic that is imposed as a unified whole. Many critics don’t see their job as telling what to and what not to spend your money on.

Cole: But there’s also a third option.

In addition to critics being powerless and critics being all powerful, there’s also the case where critics can universally pan a film, and it still makes a lot of money.

Let’s call it, counter-powerful.

That’s what happened with Atlas Shrugged. All the critics hated it, and it still made more money than 125 other movies so far this year. It made over $3m, which most indies would wet the bed to get.

Landon: But while Atlas Shrugged didn’t have movie stars, a huge marketing campaign, or a named director behind, there is a built-in audience for that movie, as there is for any famous book. But it seems in terms of both numbers and critical reception that the built-in audience is the only audience the movie spoke to.

In which case, for the success the movie has made, critics really are irrelevant.

Cole: But is that such a bad thing?

Look at directors like John Waters, Kevin Smith and Roger Corman.

Landon: It’s not, but then it shouldn’t be a surprise when the movie isn’t a box office extravaganza.

Cole: They make movies for a specific audience, and 2/3rds of them never (publicly) cared about critics.

Landon: But the people who made and saw Atlas Shrugged seem to care a great deal about critics.

Cole: I couldn’t begin to speculate why, but I think the old Samuel Goldwyn quote applies here: “Don’t pay any attention to the critics. Don’t even ignore them.”

That seems to nail down exactly the relationship between filmmakers, critics, and the box office.

Landon: That nails it. And the role of critics changes with each and every case. If a small indie is surprisingly successful, it was a sleeper hit with good word of mouth and critical support. If Transformers 5 makes $500 million domestically, it’s critic-proof and points to their irrelevance. If one is looking for a scapegoat for bad performance (and, as you argue with Atlas Shrugged, the false notion of a bad box office performance), then critics are a unified front.

In the first two cases, it’s not correct, but it’s not exactly wrong. Critics do “do” something, but certainly not everything.

Cole: That’s where the disconnect comes from. It certainly FEELS like a large critical reaction one way or the other should have an influence, but it’s never clear how or if it actually does.

Landon: There just isn’t a formula for it. It’s different with each and every case.

Cole: But I do have a radical theory about the future (based on the past).

Landon: If A.O. Scott gave Atlas Shrugged a good review, a few people who weren’t initially inclined to see it probably would have been interested.

Let’s hear it

Cole: Back in the day, all people had was a local newspaper critic to ignore. Now we have all critics all the time lumped into one big mess. But it’s still new.

If critics ever do have an impact, it’ll be when people really get used to going to Rotten Tomatoes and seeing a number instead of reading an in-depth review of what worked and why.

Landon: Honestly, that could be a big part of why critics are wrongly perceived as occupying a unified front – because we’ve come to expect consensus in one way or another with one of the least quantifiable of practices.

Cole: So it won’t even be the critic who matters, but the giant, nameless, faceless, lump of democratic appeal.

And it’s growing every year. To the point where the producer of Atlas Shrugged actually believes we all hang out together and decide what movies to hate.

Landon: It’s interesting that for emerging critics, Rotten Tomatoes is considered the mark of legitimacy – you’re legitimate not when you find your own voice, but when your voice is lumped together amongst everyone else’s.

Cole: Wow. It’s been a poignant discussion. I almost wish Ken Burns was filming this. Or filming pictures of this.

Landon: But that would probably mean that we’re dead.

Cole: I want Christopher Walken to narrate my words.

Landon: Which makes for a good segue actually (death, that is, not Walken), because I think M. Night Shyamalan is a fascinating case study.

Cole: A case study in critical reaction?

Landon: He criticized critics last year for writing off The Last Airbender, not going so far as to cite conspiracy theory, but reiterating an Uwe Boll-style “you don’t get it” or “it wasn’t for you” brand of argument. But what does that mean then for the positive overall critical reception of his other films?

Cole: And now you’ve brought up Boll.

Maybe Shyamalan finally pushed past the mental capacity of the critics? Maybe he made great flicks that were for those people who did get it. And then he made a children’s movie far too intelligent for others to grasp?

Landon: Engaging in this vast denunciation of critics always involves cherry-picking and cognitive dissonance – because either it means he’s infalliable and the critics just don’t get it or that critics have a vendetta against him. Either way it’s cherry picking through generalization.

Cole: Which sounds delicious.

Landon: Or maybe I’ll have a kid who will explain to me its brilliance several decades from now.

Cole: Yeah, right. Your kid will be born wearing a corduroy suit coat with elbow patches.

Here’s the main question: if critics don’t matter, who does?

I expect your answer in the form of an haiku.

Landon: Money’s no matter/Unless you’re an LA suit/Fuck the box office

Cole: Haha, but what makes you go see a movie? Advertising? Friends? Reviews?

Landon: Advertising, talent, my own tastes, reviews when they’re surprising…But as cinephiles we desire to see almost everything so I’m not sure if we’re the right answer to this question.

Cole: So you’re saying we should have our mothers on the column to get their response.

Landon: Yes, and that’s the perfect opportunity for me to announce Momma Culture Warrior, starting this May!

Actually, I take that back, because people with an active and regular investment in movies are the ones who are exposed to the critical consensus.

Cole: At this point, I’m opting for either nihilism, or claiming that a giant turtle in the sky dictates how many people will go see The Smurfs 3D.

Landon: Here’s my take: box office will continue to be a point of heated discussion, but it never determines a movie’s worth. I think if one is going to determine a movie’s worth, critical consensus is more valuable then box office, but ultimately one’s personal relationship to a film is the only important factor.

That or the nihilistic turtle thing.

Cole: Hear hear.

To the turtle thing.

And, I guess, to that other part.

So, how would you rate our chat about critics and box office?

Landon: 12% Fresh.

Cole: Ugh, you just don’t get it.

Landon: Now you’re ready to direct a movie!

Join the discussion by leaving your two cents below and check out more Talking Heads every Friday

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.