Review Websites and their Impact on the Film Industry

Even with millions of dollars dedicated to advertising, films often live or die based on word of mouth.

The buzz in film starts well before release, with advance screenings setting the tone for all subsequent reviews. This influence is considered to be so strong by film studios that they will delay advance screenings if they fear that bad reviews will leave a film dead on arrival. Still, while websites such as Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb give website users more of a say than ever before, but how much of an influence do these reviews have on potential audiences?

More and more film professionals are blaming online reviews for tainting the success of their movies. Even in China, the film industry is quick to blame review sites for floundering box office numbers, even when their American counterparts are giving similar reviews. In late 2016, an article on People’s Daily, a Chinese news outlet, criticized some of the country’s prominent online review sites, suggesting that they may have been hacked and stating that one particularly brutal review was “akin to libel.”

In the United States, similar sentiments have been expressed by individuals such as Batman v. Superman producer Brett Ratner. Ratner speaks about the disparity between the financial success of the film versus its online reviews, with the belief that it would have performed better were it not for critics. He went on to call Rotten Tomatoes and its ilk “the destruction of our business.”

There’s no denying that word of mouth can have a significant impact on the willingness of audiences to watch a film. Word of mouth has been enough in the past to propel some films to levels of cult success and undercut others. However, there is sometimes a disparity between what audiences are saying and what critics are saying. Rotten Tomatoes even features a section for audience reviews, though it is given far less emphasis than the usual critic review area.

A study conducted by the University of New Hampshire in 2015 implies that, while audience reaction to reviews can vary wildly, all are influenced to some extent by the content of reviews. Some participants felt that they could trust reviews written by consumers more due to the lack of complexity and perceiving them as being more similar to themselves. This offers a possible explanation to recent critical dissonance with films such as Batman v. Superman.

Others were shown to trust reviewers more due to the more nuanced opinions that they offered, and desired the closure of knowing specific details about the quality of a film. Still, in any case, responses varied depending on the content of a review, so it can’t be said that reviews are, by any stretch of the imagination, the primary factor in whether or not audiences are willing to watch films.

It would seem that, as far as films go, people put more stock in the opinions of their fellow audience members than that of critics. Regardless, critics can reinforce previously-held ideas of a film and even sway consumers to watch movies they may not have otherwise. Though about a third of Americans seek the opinion of professional film reviewers, they only serve as a general indication of how a film will perform and not an exact predictor.

So what else goes into the success of a film? As previously mentioned, strong advertising can make a huge impact, as can the star power of featured actors. As far as recent failures in the box office are concerned, some of the dropoff can be attributed to a higher standard for content among audiences; with online streaming services and other media clamouring for attention, the cinema runs the risk of being marginalized by its online competitors.

Originally published at on April 4, 2017.

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