Are Movie Audiences Getting Dumber?

To answer this question it is important we understand one of the most important concepts in statistics (and possibly even in life). It is a concept that can, if you allow it, change your entire life, or at the very least allow you to see things that little bit more clearly. The concept is known as “confirmation bias”.

“Confirmation bias” is the idea that we tend to favour information or data that already fits into our existing beliefs.

So if we have a belief that we are more likely to be victims of crime than a generation ago, every story we read about a brutal murder only serves to confirm that hypothesis. This is regardless of the fact that every statistic says violent crime is going down. After all what newspaper puts on their front page “NO BRUTAL MURDERS TODAY”?

Another example might be a gambler who won big immediately after wearing a brand new pair of boxer shorts. He assumes the boxer shorts are lucky, and wears them every weekend as he makes a bet. He loses for the next five weekends, but never wavers from his original hypothesis.

As far as movie going goes, the hypothesis is this, movie audiences are getting dumber. It used to be amazing, films like The Godfather and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly were equally loved by critics and audiences alike, but now reviewers can go on all they like about how great a film like Hurt Locker is and hardly anyone will go and see it.

Part of this hypothesis goes that the gulf between audiences and critics developed after the 1970s, and so in an effort to prove or disprove this theory, I’ve decided to look at audience’s preferences, that is the highest grossing movie from every year since 1970. If the hypothesis is correct, I would expect to see most of the films of that decade be critically acclaimed, and since then it has been a much more mixed bag.

Using Rotten Tomatoes as my source, the graph below (which you can click on to get a bigger view) shows my results:

BoxOffice70s Present

So, what can we conclude from a graph like this? Cinema-goers do not appear to be as far from critics’ tastes as we might have expected. In fact the past ten years (2003-2012) 8/10 of the best performing films at the box office have been well reviewed by critics (80%+ on Rotten Tomatoes). Compare this to the 1970s where 7/10 films were well reviewed.

So what is happening here? Why is it so widely assumed that audiences are getting dumber and that critics are being listened to less and less?

The first thing to say is that it suits critics to claim they know better than the general public. It is obvious that they would say so. As someone who dabbles in film criticism myself I completely empathise with their feelings of hopelessness and yet again another Michael Bay movie outperforms their favourite five movies of the past year put together.

The mistake they make is to think it was ever any different.

I am sure there were critics in the 1970s who wrote scathing articles attacking the franchise of Bond (a huge box office success in the decade). Why aren’t people watching modern classics like Chinatown or The Last Picture Show they may have argued?

Or how about a critic in 1980 complaining that there were too many superhero movies like Superman II, Flash Gordon and Popeye. Why won’t more people go and see Raging Bull, a film about a real, flawed anti-hero?

As a a side note, one flaw in my methods might be to suggest that the types of movies which were well reviewed in the 1970s are of a different quality and class of more recent movies. Can we really say The Godfather and Toy Story 3 are in any way comparable despite having almost identical scores on Rotten Tomatoes?

The issue here is nostalgia. Alfred Hitchcock is a useful example to cite. In his lifetime he never received an oscar for Best Picture, and his films were criticised by some critics for lacking substance. However, since his death his reputation has grown and he is now widely regarded as one of the greatest directors of all time. His film Vertigo recently topped Sight and Sound’s prestigious critics’ poll.

Who knows, perhaps films like Lord of the Rings and The Dark Knight could be similarly revered in forty/fifty years time?

So what can we conclude from these results? I think the most important thing to say is that confirmation bias is one of the most scary and dangerous aspects of human behaviour (or at least it is to me as a mathematician). It is important that before we make statements like “movie audiences are getting dumber” we have real, far-reaching evidence to back up such a statement. Otherwise we are simply making vacuous arguments that, for whatever reason, suit our own worldview.

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9 responses to “Are Movie Audiences Getting Dumber?

  1. It was Vertigo that was at the top of the Sight and Sound list (although it should have been Rear Window, yes)

    • Thanks Matt. Think I was having a look through the list to see what Hitchcock films were on it, and have written down the wrong one. But yeah, I have a soft spot of Rear Window too so that might explained it. Have edited it now.

  2. A couple thoughts:

    First, I think it is a mistake to use Rotten Tomatoes scores to evaluate the perceived quality of the biggest hits for two reasons:

    (1) The dichotomous scoring system (“fresh” or “rotten”) is a misleading, or at least ambiguous, measurement because it fails to capture the *degree* to which the movie is acclaimed. A movie that, by consensus, is deemed “good” is effectively no different than one that is deemed “great.” For example, The Avengers and Amour both have a 93% Fresh, and while both received good reviews, Amour was the film that drew much stronger, passionate accolades. Over at Metacritic, where there is more focus on degree of acclaim, Amour has a 94/100 and The Avengers has a 69/100. Both of those scores would net a “fresh” rating at RT. Therein lies the notable and problematic discrepancy.

    (2) The pool of critics approved for the Tomatometer is highly suspect. Not all critics are equal. Some hardly meet the definition. (RT was wise to distinguish a group of “Top Critics,” but even that remains unsatisfactory and conspicuously homogenous.) The internet has turned many vociferous but inexperienced people into self-proclaimed critics who have tainted critical appraisal of modern cinema. I realize this sounds highly elitist, but there is importance in ensuring that the arbiters of taste, at the very least, are well versed in the complete history of the medium, which is not the case for many.

    Second, the idea that the highest grossing movie of the year reflects the audience’s preference seems flawed, especially in the 21st century where immense marketing campaigns are launched at the average moviegoer. That opening weekend gross is more important than ever, and that total doesn’t necessarily represent the audience’s quality evaluation of that blockbuster, just the successfulness of the studio’s marketing. I would bet good money that if you had polled the moviegoers of 2006 and 2007 at the end of those years, they wouldn’t have ranked the two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels among the best movies they saw in those two years.

    I would posit that movie audiences aren’t getting dumber, they are just getting more complacent in film selection. Most people want more of something they know they like, and therefore the onslaught of sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots, repackaged formulas have made moviegoers less interested in going outside their comfort zone, less willing to be challenged. Perhaps that is being “dumb” from a different perspective.

    • I take on board your point about metacritic being potentially a better judge of critics’ tastes than Rotten Tomatoes and will look into producing another graph based on those scores.

      The rest of your points I would contest. We may not like the pool of critics on Rotten Tomatoes, but I do not think they would any less typical than those that would have existed in the 1970s. Forty years ago there will still people who called themselves ‘critics’ but who perhaps wrote for the Tabloid press, and whose tastes would have been similar to those of internet bloggers today.

      What you appear to be asking for is to see if critics of the kind that produced the aforementioned Sight and Sound poll would have rated movies today much lower than movies of the 1970s. I do not think these critics would rate Jaws, Star Wars or The Exorcist that much more highly than The Dark Knight, Lord of the Rings or Toy Story 3. All six films are very well made blockbusters which benefited from Hollywood’s marketing machine at the time of release.

      And again I would challenge the idea that marketing of films is now more influential than it was in the 1970s. More sophisticated yes, but the advertising campaign for Jaws is seen as a watershed moment for Hollywood:
      http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/4600557.stm

      Finally, box office figures were used for the reason that they are the things which matter most to movie execs. What audiences are actually willing to part with their money for over time, is the best indication of their taste. If, as you suggest so many people disliked POTC 2, why then did so many pay to see POTC 3? For whatever reason audiences love that franchise, and until that changes we will continue to see more chapters in that series.

      • @thefuturemrgittes

        As stated above, I looked into metacritics, but the number of reviews for movies from the 1970s is too low (5-10 each) for it to be an accurate reflection of critics’ tastes. There are other things I could do like look at the Tomatometer “average score” instead of “fresh” rating but I can’t see it changing the results significantly (feel free to prove me wrong on this)

        I think the main way I could improve the statistics would be to look at more than one film from each year. So say take the Top 5 films from each year at the box office, or even the Top 20 films from the whole decade, and again see to what extent the critic’s opinions matched how the public spent their money.

      • Thanks for looking into that, Mark! Maybe expanding it to the top 5 box office hits of the year, as you suggest, would yield different results. Interesting post and investigation!

  3. There are also more movies made than before, that and the independant movie market is targeting their niche markets better and more effciently. It’s a new world for film audiences and if all you’re doing is checking out major releases, well you’re missing a whole lot.

    Here’s the numbers I do not know if they are one hundred percent accurate, but it’s the best I got.

    Movies released 1971
    http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/year/1971

    Movies rleased 2012
    http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/year/2012

    You can see the difference in how many are produced and seeing how they can reach their niche markets more effectively means that maybe the major releases are dumber. Maybe that’s true, but maybe it’s just that the smaller , smart, stranger films are being sent to those who want to see them and now they can.

    The internet baby, it’s amazing and I would have never seen Kill List, Bronson, Pieta, I Saw the Devil, My Sassy Girl, High Tension, War Witch, The Devil’s Backbone, Alien Boy, Pan’s Labarynth or Biutiful. I owe that to VOD and the internet options I have at my disposal not major release movies, not theaters…..

    ….And I love it.

  4. This is a refreshing way to look at it, though I will have to say that Lord of the Rings is revered by many groups now.

  5. Very good write-up. I definitely love this site. Thanks!

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