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Why Film Ratings Don’t Matter

May 12, 20185 min read

It’s a scenario we’ve all been in: you get in after work or school, you sit down with friends or family, and you try to find a movie to put on. What’s the first thing you do when you think of one? Google the title, look at the Rotten Tomatoes rating and decide based on that.

I realize explaining how I rate films may seem a little hypocritical but hear me out. I personally rate films not by knocking off points for the presence of elements I consider bad, but rather by starting from zero and adding points for elements I consider good. So, if I watch a film and 11/14 or so of the elements I look at are positive, I would rate that film as an 8/10. Also, I operate on a 10 point scale (rather than a 5 star or even thumbs up/down one), as I feel it gives me enough wiggle room with ratings to be fairly specific.

Obviously, though, this system leaves some problems. What if a single element is so amazing or terrible that it should really drastically drag down the whole score? What if I completely neglect to take an aspect of the film into account that has still implicitly influenced my viewing of it? I agree that these questions are reasonable, and my answer is that to deal with them I often throw the previously stated system out of the window and go with my gut. By doing this, it renders my rating only helpful or relevant to me, meaning nothing to anyone else with a different instinct. This is inevitable for anyone who rates films.

Despite the popularity of aggregate ratings on sites like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb, I’ve begun to find the numbers that this arbitrarily puts out profoundly unhelpful. On the latter, a few 1/10s from a minority that hated a film can drag down a high score from the majority who liked it to make the score seem mediocre. Take, for example, the film Lucy, which currently holds a rating of 67% on Rotten Tomatoes, not because most people found it to be of average quality, but because people who passionately loved or hated it drags the rating in opposing directions, coming to a score most people would associate with movies considered ‘alright’. Compare this to a far less polarising film like Curious George, which has the similar score of 69%, but with this instead projecting something hugely different: rather than being ‘love it or hate it’, it’s a harmless movie that won’t make most people feel strongly either way. Although for scores in the 10% or 90% range a consensus can be more clearly drawn, the system is far more problematic for movies that fall in between.

Even amongst individual critics, the rating systems are hugely different. Youtuber YourMovieSucks is known for giving much harsher ratings than many other reviewers, often giving 5s and 6s to films he genuinely likes. On the other end of the spectrum, legendary film reviewer Roger Ebert has himself said that he grades “higher than other critics” even if the general consensus is similar. Ebert also used the uncommon 4-star rating scale, which is tough to immediately compare to other 5 and 10 point scales when casually flicking through scores for a film. This isn’t to say that either reviewer is right or wrong, just to point out that scores aren’t as easily comparable as you might think.

Therefore, whoever is reading this, I urge you next time you’re deciding what film to see or game to play or book to read that you read a full review rather than relying solely on the score that pops up when you google the title. I guarantee that you’ll gain a far better insight into whether the film is worth your time and money, particularly if you find a favorite critic or two to keep up with.


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Zoe Crombie

Film student from Lancaster, U.K. who loves movies, old video games, Modernist art and my hamster Vlad.