Why Do Critics Care If Audiences Hate The Movies They Like?

Some online movie critics are voicing their displeasure over the disappointing performance of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, despite widespread critical acclaim. Are those critics caring too much?

You might remember that about a week or so ago we ran a piece asking the average movie goer why they care if critics hate the movies they like. It was a wonderful op-ed from our own Paul Young, who had grown frustrated with a seemingly increasing trend of movie fans slamming movie critics, simply because the critic had a bad opinion about a movie the fans loved.

Well, flash-forward a week and now it seems we're having the opposite problem: critics are up in arms that movie fans didn't turn out in droves to support a film critics felt deserved the box office profits to match their high acclaim.

The movie in question here is Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, which was part of a three-way box office showdown this past weekend, facing off against the macho-man action throwback The Expendables and the chick-lit sensation turned Julia Roberts vehicle, Eat, Pray, Love. When the box office receipts were tallied, Expendables and Eat, Pray took the top two spots, while Scott Pilgrim came in at number five, despite being a film that was lauded by most critics for being unique, original and genuinely fun and enjoyable to watch.

In fact, if you check out Rotten Tomatoes, you'll see that Scott Pilgrim was way ahead of its competition in terms of critical praise, sporting an 81% rating compared to The Expendables' 42% and Eat, Pray, Love's 38%.  At the current time, some of the very movie critics from around the blogosphere who helped establish that high Pilgrim rating are none too happy that the larger movie going audience seemingly ignored their collective praise of the film. And they haven't been shy about voicing their displeasure.

scott pilgrim weak box office

Since the weekend box office numbers have come in, you can practically feel the backlash coursing through the movie news community. Here are some of the more notable examples:

  • The Hollywood Reporter points out that Geeks are having a hard time proving their box office clout, lately.
  • Harry Knowles of AICN is not happy with THR's assessment, and wishes people would "wake up to Scott Pilgrim."
  • Hitfix is tossing out the idea that Scott Pilgrim's underperformance could signal the doom of "inventive" comic book films.
  • Devin Faraci of C.H.U.D. warns fans to see Scott Pilgrim now, before they "regret 'discovering' it on DVD."
  • Geeks of Doom is taking a more level-headed approach, reminding fans that one comic book movie failure isn't the end of the genre.
  • While James Gunn is simply relishing the fact that director Edgar Wright made a movie that he (Gunn) thoroughly enjoyed.
  • Just search Scott Pilgrim on Twitter, and you'll find any number of online movie personalities ready to blame everyone from Universal Studios to the Canadian Prime Minister for "marketing the film wrong."

In my opinion, this is the point where the blurred line between movie blogger and movie critic becomes problematic: when you see this sort of (overly?) impassioned reaction to how a movie performs, from some of the same people who are looked to for an evaluation (and grading) of its quality.

On the one hand, for a movie blogger, it's totally OK to let your voice be heard about...well, basically anything you want to discuss and think your audience will be interested to read. That's basically what this gig is all about. Generally speaking, movie bloggers are also deeply passionate film fans, therefore  it's easy to understand why they would want to proclaim it loud and proud when they find a movie they feel is unique and original and fun. People impassioned about movies want to see movies they can be impassioned about, and movie bloggers have a viable platform upon which to make that very demand of the movie industry: It's one of the great perks of this job that I personally enjoy :-) .

However, movie critics have traditionally been something else entirely: a circle of people we trust to watch cinema and assess what they see, according to a set of criteria we expect them to be knowledgeable about - in this case the mechanics, history and medium of film.

A critic is meant to watch, to assess, and traditionally that's where it is supposed to end. A movie critic - as I've always understood the job title - is not  supposed to then criticize the audience for not responding to a movie in the manner the critic(s) felt appropriate. A critic should not step in to point fingers or assign blame to those within the studio system they think failed to sell the movie properly.  In my opinion, critics should not be wrapped up in the marketing or box office processes at all; a critic should only be concerned with his/her primary task: assessing the work of art and conveying that assessment to the listening audience. This has always been the relationship between a critic and his/her audience - and frankly, it's a relationship that has worked well.

movie critics Roger Ebert, Cole Smithey and Armond White

The problem today, as I've stated, is that the line between what constitutes a movie critic and what constitutes a movie blogger is too blurred - or perhaps the old role of the critic is simply evolving into something new. I don't think anybody really knows for sure where the line is drawn anymore...

Head over to a site like Rotten Tomatoes and you'd get the impression that the movie critic community has quadrupled in the last five years. Why? Because today more people are able to "publish" their opinion about a movie online, and if they do that at least fifty times a year, it qualifies them for a state critics association, which therefore qualifies them as critics,  according to Rotten Tomatoes' standards. Many of these same "new critics" also run movie blogs, which extends their opinion well beyond the vacuum of criticism, to a point where they are continuously engaging with and reacting to the same movies they must eventually criticize. It's a fine line to walk, as we at Screen Rant know: we too have maintain the critic/blogger balance every day.

Head over to Metacritic and you'll find the standards for movie criticism to be vastly different:  only the boys and girls writing for the big trade publications (traditional homes of the  "professional critics") are to be found. You won't see many of those "professional critics" letting their passions flare all over the Web, or writing piece after piece dissecting the performance of a movie they reviewed. Even Armond White, who wrote scathing reviews of popular movies like Toy Story 3 and Inception (and received much flack for doing so), isn't on his blog page throwing a fit becaus those movie were ultimately box office successes that many people enjoyed. It would seem Metacritic has a very different definition of what a professional movie critic is, and those perceived as "bloggers" don't yet fit the bill - perhaps because of the very same issues I'm addressing here.

Why do I care about any of this? I care because despite the obvious point that I am part of  this sphere of professional movie bloggers, I do still have a certain respect for the old-school pedigree of professional critics. I'll probably read Roger Ebert's work until the man has no more to offer (won't always agree with him, but I'll read); I also happen to value traditional professional criticism for what it is: an educated, experienced and insightful opinion which should be engaged. Not necessarily agreed with, simply engaged, as has been the tradition up until now. If blogger-critics ("blitics?" "croggers?") continue a trend of taking swipes at the moviegoers they claim to serve it's the business of criticism which will ultimately suffer, as people are driven away from what they perceive to be "bullies" rather than "critics." I'm pretty sure nobody really wants that.

professional movie bloggers critics

If the sort of passions we've seen flare over this Scott Pilgrim issue are left to rage unchecked, the image that is created for the blogger-critic community  is  that of a pointy-eared geek stuck on his laptop, "geekgasming" over everything he thinks is great to an almost fetishistic degree. And, personally speaking, I'd rather not have people know that I'm like that in real life ;-) .  As one of the people trying to find his way on the path that runs between movie blogger and professional critic, I want people to trust in my opinion - to trust that I am person worthy of carrying on the next generation of movie criticism. I'm sure that most movie bloggers who do this for a living would agree with that sentiment - the trick is, actually earning that trust while staying true to the very thing that got us doing this in the first place: great movies and memorable experiences inspired by cinema.

It's great to have passion about something and it's great to want something you love to be the best that it can be - but a good critic always keeps sight of where their opinion should end. Something that us bloggers might want to consider.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is in theaters now. Check out our official Scott Pilgrim review to see what we thought of it.

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