How Movie Critics and Moviegoers View Films Differently
Critics of the cinema have been around for as long as cinema itself. During private screenings they are silent observers, but in their written reviews, their critical opinions can speak much louder than the average person. The job of a film critic is to critique films for their quality on a very specific set of “professional” film standards, as opposed to a regular movie attendee, who instead views a film for its entertainment value. It would make sense that the two different parties assess the quality of the film from each of their respective viewpoints, but the levels of quality enjoyment can seem too varied to just be their perspectives alone. Also, there exists a major discrepancy between one film critic and the next, and their reviews are rarely very similar. Why then, do average moviegoers and their critical counterparts vary so drastically when it comes to the criticism and overall enjoyment of a feature film? This article explores the dissonance between what film critics and the average moviegoer experience through the scopes of historical change, the underrated horror genre, and the modern critical vigilante.
Generally, horror movies don’t score too highly when reviewed by critics, but are sometimes highly acclaimed by hundreds of audiences looking for that experience. The general audience goes with the expectation to be scared and is greatly entertained when they are, while critics arrive with preexisting expectations of their own. This discrepancy has been increasing over the years, and much has changed since the time when the success of movies depended on the reviews of America’s greatest film critics, such as Roger Ebert (1942-2013). Conversely, moviegoers are increasingly less attentive to movie critics then they are their own peers when it comes to deciding if a movie is worth more than the ticket price. Other factors such as media coverage, changes in the style and taste of the horror genre, and user-reviewed movie websites may all have a role to play in modern movie satisfaction. Major shifts in marketing and cinema exposure have also led to a potential shift in audience opinion as well, being much more prominent today than forty years ago.
In the past, people relied on film critics to guide them with a wealth of cinematic knowledge to draw them into the theater. These critics had the power to make a movie’s success skyrocket or plummet at the box office. As more people became interested in becoming movie critics, more diverse opinions began circulating around the nation. Today, not only are there many acclaimed film critics in the profession, but more also exist in other places as well. There is at least one film critic with a column in every major newspaper across the nation, not to mention the hundreds of personal websites where other self-acclaimed critics express their opinions. With the increasing popularity of social networking and internet blogging, any person can now become an unofficial critic if they have a trustworthy fan base, regardless of how small.
These two groups have continued fighting for the trust of the viewer since, with the traditional movie critics striving to reclaim their respectful image, and the unofficial critics claiming that the opinions of the others are not trustworthy. It is no wonder, then, that the reputations of critics are declining. With less differentiation between the acclaimed critics and the critical vigilante, the average moviegoer is increasingly doubting the reliability of any reviews outside of who they know, and having a hard time trying to distinguish which opinions to adopt. Websites like IMDB, Metacritic, and Rotten Tomatoes exemplify this differentiation. They now allow for critical reviews and ratings in one category, and an opposing category for average reviews, where anyone with an account can rate and comment.
An established movie critic views a film from a much different perspective than does the average audience member. First, they are attuned to the critical aspects of cinematography studied in films; they are instead looking for cinematic elements such as proper stage setting (Mise en scène), directing, plot, character development, cinematography, editing, and special effects. A problem associated with this is that there is a significantly lower ratio of moviegoers who regard these things as very important. A critic will analyze a film for visual, auditory, and plot perfection, while the general audience only regards the movie as a form of escapism and entertainment. This is a key difference between critics and their audience counterparts. Over time though, critics have earned a fair amount of trustworthiness when dedicated moviegoers turn to them before walking into the theater. Unfortunately, this trust may be misguided.
While specific attention to certain details may facilitate a similar core system of rating (usually resulting in the four star emblems appearing on posters and TV ads), opinions outside of the guidelines vary greatly from critic to critic. These differences may make it difficult to know when to trust the professional critics collectively, or when one is truly more reliable than another. Regarding these variations, this bias is very prevalent among contemporary critics, although long has this existed. In some cases critic “corruption” leaks into the public eye.
In 2011, a group of movie fans in America, named Citizens for Truth in Movie Advertising, tried to sue the movie studios, claiming that the reviews by these critics have been compromised by the studios’ agendas. They claim that the reason the critics are swayed is by giving them countless benefits behind the scenes in order for them to produce generous reviews (Campbell, 2011). More recently, critics have discovered that their opinions appear more relevant to their listeners when they begin to draw less from their usual standards and instead begin to identify with the things an audience can personally relate to without extra knowledge required. There are also critics who will appeal directly to the emotion of the movie, admirably stating that “This movie is a tearjerker”, or “Prepare for the ride of your life”.
There is a certain power instilled in people listening to one’s opinions, and critics sometimes attempt to sway most listeners in their favor to gain credibility for their accurate depictions of a film. If the critic steps into the shoes of the moviegoer and analyzes the plot and focuses on things relevant to the story, then, in theory, they become more popular, as do their opinions. In a way, this is forcing some critics to break traditional high-class movie rating standards and instead identify with popular appeal to remain relevant. In part, this is why their credibility is declining for those critics who don’t adapt, and as a result, moviegoers are left to either trust in the knowledge of the critic or turn to another source, often personal contacts through means like social networking applications.
Some unofficial critics have taken it upon themselves to try to absolve the “corrupt critic system” by offering their structured opinions that seem to mimic professional critical standards. Philip C. Congleton, an average movie lover, describes how he rates his movies, which is surprisingly intricate. He looks for plot, continuity of the story, character development and rating of the acting, music and singing elements, directing and editing style, cinematography and special effects. He then assigns them a letter value based on a ten point number system. He takes the averages and afterwards illustrates a final critical review rating, and only then does he review it for the qualities important to regular moviegoers (no date). This may illustrate that while many people are shying away from critics, their necessity may be more obvious in that some less-experienced critics are still taking their place, because most people like to hear other opinions. In this case, they would seem to rather hear it from someone who is not established nationally, to avoid what they would refer to as corrupted reviews. Let’s now switch gears and discuss how the horror genre can dramatically affect how critics and average viewers view a film’s entertainment value.
When avoiding critics, on the other hand, the general moviegoer critiques a movie based on the entertainment value of their experience. If they enjoyed themselves in the theater, then the movie is highly regarded. The most prominent reason behind this rationality is an idea of a certain set of standard expectations one would expect to be included in a movie. Expectation follows suit with the genre of the film, which is the classification of the film in which expectations derive from. Insight from Richard E. Klinck illustrates that the movie Stagecoach (1939) successfully began to set the stage for expectations in future western movies.
He mentioned that Monument Valley was a perfect scene to capture a western attitude (p. 1). After the movie was produced, this location became iconic, and a standard expectation was born. During that time period, if this landscape were missing, the movie itself would seem disappointing. For my primary example, and like any other genre, horror movies also come with their own set of expectations.
Horror movies have adapted much throughout time, adjusting to each generation to tailor to the audience’s worst nightmares. Movies shown today that are regarded as scary would be petrifying beyond comprehension if played sixty years ago. People and their fears are demanding scarier and scarier content, reflecting what current trends people find terrifying. The brightest attraction to horror movies revolve around its characters delving reluctantly into the unknown, where the viewer themselves are too afraid to trek. While usually being classified as supernatural, psychological, slasher, thriller, and religious sub genres, certain expectations are also anticipated similarly by viewers and critics alike. Visual elements would typically reflect sharp shadows, scary locations, creepy artifacts, low-key lighting (a dark color scheme), quick edits (cutting on the action), disorienting depth and space within the frame, as well as high contrast elements. The auditory sound scape should be expected to be crafted masterfully, fully incarcerating the audience into a horrifying world where their worst fears sound all around them. More masterful is the lack of sound in a theater, when scenes involve absolute silence for contrasting effects. Music is then carefully placed at moments when pure terror is destined to ensue. General viewers enter the theater expecting to jump in their seat, grab at their racing hearts, and cover their eyes with anything they can place between themselves and the screen. Most critics, however, enjoy the scare factors far less, as they attempt to follow suit with their critique rationale used for every movie they attempt to analyze.
Insidious (Wan 2010) is a story that is centralized on the idea that demons can possess not only just houses, but also the people who reside within them. Kids are especially susceptible, and thus the horror story begins. According to Owen Gleiberman, a critic for Entertainment Weekly, Insidious is a movie that has “some of the most shivery and indelible images I’ve seen in any horror film in decades…Yes, it’s that unsettling” (Par.1). Conversely, Roger Ebert, an internationally established film critic, asserts that “This one is not terrifically good, but moviegoers will get what they’re expecting” (Par.1). What is going on here? First, with a horror movie of any kind, they face certain hard criticisms because they lack the traditional cut and dry angles and techniques used in other genres. Contemporary movies in the horror genre typically try to bend the conventional setups in an attempt to disorient the viewer just enough to place them into the director’s world.
As it seems, the same old horror story dies quickly in modern human culture. Insidious uses a variety of camera angles that purposely disorient the viewer, making them struggle to make sense of what they are forced to interpret. This is a contemporary and yet artistic technique used in many horror films of the decade. Second, the horror genre is torn apart by critics because they seem to lack a deep enough plot. With a horror film, the plot can only be as deep as the fear, and the fear is only as deep as what personally affects each individual viewer. A personal experience will impact a viewers’ interpretation of a film far more than someone who has never feared the plot before. Horror films chronicle the fears that people experience, and thus may be limited when writing a script meant to horrify a diverse audience. Usually, general audiences hold a higher regard toward any horror movie than a critic, who sometimes fail to differentiate between this point and instead place different genres (and their specific film styles) on the same scale, which can be hindering to any film’s review.
The famous horror movie Psycho (Hitchcock 1960), was released around a time when psychological fear and murder was growing in popularity among the masses. Though the themes were as intriguing as they were horrifying, Hitchcock managed to pack every showing of this film without ever giving away many details. Even today, it’s rated number 30 for the highest rated movie of all time (source: IMDB). Near its release date, every critic was raving about it. Even today, critics still regard it highly, and popular opinions suggest it was because it was filmed to be a masterpiece. Not only was it directed by Hitchcock, it was created using the same techniques critics have always looked for, and as a result they were amazed. During the time period, most movies made sure to follow these critical guidelines, because the success of the movie depended on how critics wrote about it. Today, this is not so much the case.
Insidious (2010) is a prime example of a contemporary horror genre film because it breaks away from the conventional setup of classical masterpieces. Insidious was released 50 years later, when the fears of the culture had changed. This movie revolved around haunting by spirits and demons, which was unheard of in the cinema in the 60’s. Insidious has received unusually high ratings for a horror movie of the last two decades, regardless of some critical reviews that address the negative qualities of the film (as mentioned earlier in Ebert’s review). Even still, most critics, even with negative reviews, still mention that a regular viewer would still be satisfied. These high ratings resulted because it appealed to both critics and general audiences alike. Insidious is a rare gem in which cinematography, along with the other elements mentioned earlier, was done exquisitely well, and had a plot and characters to match. Most of the critics who have adopted the contemporary review style identify with the audiences and rave about the plot, characters, and overall story; most viewers of the film have later agreed with those critics. Michael O’Sullivan of the Washington Post claimed that “Insidious [was] proudly being marketed: You can’t criticize it for false advertising…You’ll jump out of your skin so many times that, after a while, you may just decide to leave it off” (2011). Some traditional film critics generally would agree that if nothing else, it was captured beautifully.
Horror movies face some of the toughest criticism from all angles because its success depends almost entirely on the entertainment value of the audience in the theater. Some people still rely on critics’ reviews to go see a film, but most modern film critics don’t hold up against the traditional prestigious values that film criticism was founded on. For the critics that do, other than their loyal fans, they are losing popularity and their overall voice for as long as their reviews don’t appeal to the average viewer. It seems that average moviegoers are in the theater to partake in a manner of escapism, and simply want to be entertained during the films. This means that, more often, people are beginning to seek reviews and criticisms in from other sources, because of the stigma placed onto traditional film critics. These factors together are changing the manner in which people see and enjoy movies, and are changing the critic industry as a whole.
Why is there a difference between what film critics and the everyday moviegoer experiences? It would appear that this is because these two parties are simply looking for different things when it comes to viewing a film. The general audience is looking to be entertained with a good story that fulfills their expectations, and a critic tries to dissect a film for the quality of its creation. The time is changing from when people relied on a good criticism to view a film, and instead turn to either their own interests, opinions of people they know, or what other publicity has been produced on the film aside from critical reviews. With exception to the most loyal fans, critics must either adapt or phase themselves out in a world where people no longer rely on a criticism to draw their own conclusions about a film.
Campbell, D. (2011, July 10). Film fans sue over “corrupt” reviews. The Guardian, p. 1.
Congleton, P. C. ((no date)). Critics Corner; a Guide to Film Critique. Retrieved December 1, 2013, from Mecfilms: www.mecfilms.com/critic1.htm
Ebert, R. (2011, March 31). Insidious Review. Retrieved November 29, 2013
Ford, J. (Director). (1937). Stagecoach [Motion Picture].
Gleiberman, O. (2011, April 05). Insidious (2011). Entertainment Weekly, p. 1.
Hitchcock, A. (Director). (1960). Psycho [Motion Picture]. Shamley Productions.
Klinck, R. E. ((no date)). Movie-making in Monument Valley. Retrieved November 29, 2013, from The New Mexico Geological Society.
O’Sullivan, M. (2011, April 1). Haunted house? Think again. Washington Post, p. 1.
Wan, J. (Director). (2010). Insidious [Motion Picture]. Film District.
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