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:
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.