For years, The Dissolve’s Scott Tobias has been half-seriously talking about hosting a film series devoted to movies rated “F” by CinemaScore, which functions something like an exit poll for multiplexes. Now he’s brought that idea one step closer to fruition with an article on what he’s dubbed “The CinemaScore Film F-estival,” honoring the movies that audiences have dubbed the worst of the worst.
In CinemaScore’s 34-year history, only eight movies have earned a perfect goose egg: Killing Them Softly, Bug, Wolf Creek, Darkness, The Box, The Devil Inside, Silent House and Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris remake. What distinguishes them, Tobias argues, is not their quality or lack thereof, but how they defy audiences’ expectations.
To me, what these cases reveal about CinemaScore is that it isn’t a metric of merit, but a barometer of comfort, with satisfaction on one end and estrangement on the other. But estranging qualities are qualities nonetheless, even if they break from expectation. The romantic comedies of Gerard Butler may be dull, deplorable, or some combination of the two, but they aren’t going to alienate people who unaccountably enjoy the romantic comedies of Gerard Butler. But when Killing Them Softly, a crime thriller starring Brad Pitt, forgoes action in favor of commentary on the 2008 financial crisis and election-year politics, it’s roundly rejected for the crime of cutting against the grain.
In at least two of those cases — and the case of The Counselor, which received a less impressive CinemaScore D — that expectation was colored in large part by the film’s marketing campaigns. Look at this trailer for Soderbergh’s Solaris, which casts the film as a love story in space rather than a lyrical meditation on grief and loss.
It’s likely Solaris would have bombed at the box office regardless, and perhaps from a financial point of view selling it to Clooney’s romance-hungry core demo was a viable strategy, even knowing that misleading the audience would cause some serious post-screening blowback. (The dropoff between its opening Friday and the following Saturday was something to see; in the comments to Tobias’ article, one reader recalls “I didn’t care for Solaris, but I thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle of watching 2/3 of a packed theater nearly trample each other trying to escape the movie as if the auditorium was on fire.”) Ditto Killing Them Softly, sold as a Brad Pitt crime thriller that turned out to be a deliberately abrasive critique of American capitalism whose bluntness even some critics recoiled from. Wolf Creek unsparingly depicts the violence visits on Australian youngsters by a vicious serial killer with none of the usual genre remove, and Silent House climaxes its single-take ghost story with a abrupt twist ending that left a bad taste in many viewers’ mouths.
Not a few of the F-estival’s films bombed with critics as well, which undercuts the notion that CinemaScore lays bare the distinction between critics and “real people.” As Tobias notes, “Critics are, in fact, real people. This ranks with ‘You live in your parents’ basement’ and ‘You’re just a failed filmmaker’ near the top of facile movie-critic insults.” You’d have a tough time finding a critic who remembers Darkness, let alone one willing to defend it.
The Hollywood Reporter recent ran an article suggesting that CinemaScore itself is getting less-than-stellar marks from some of the movie studios: While CinemaScore polls viewers at only five theaters nationwide, new challenger PostTrak covers 20, and also asks subjects how they ended up at the theater in the first place. But when it comes to finding a movie that’s going to get your attention — in either a good or a bad way — a CinemaScore F is as good a place to start as any.