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Are Critics Too Lenient On Early Summer Movies?

Are Critics Too Lenient On Early Summer Movies?

A few weeks ago, Badass Digest‘s Devin Faraci posited an intriguing theory on Twitter:

“MoS at 59% on RT. STID at 87%. My theory is that critics gets less forgiving as the summer goes on. Only way those numbers make sense.”

I agreed with Devin that those particular numbers (taken from Rotten Tomatoes) felt a bit too low and a bit too high, respectively (I’d rank the two about equal at a B/B-). But a wider critical phenomenon? We talked about it more on Twitter. “I see it every summer,” Devin added. “Early movies out the gate feel like they get passes (unless they’re horrible/obvious targets).”

I wasn’t sure he was right, but I was curious enough to investigate. With Devin’s permission, I spent a few hours yesterday afternoon browsing reviews of summer movies on Rotten Tomatoes, trying to ascertain whether what we might call The Early Summer Critical Leniency Theory held any kind of water. My findings:

It actually might.

(Sort of.)

The first and most difficult part of this task was deciding what movies to consider as part of this little experiment. I asked Devin if he thought the theory should apply to all Hollywood movies or just franchises flicks. What about animated kids film? Or comedies? He felt it best applied “to dumb ones, mostly.” I interpreted that to mean anything that qualifies as a mid-to-large budgeted blockbuster.

So here’s what I did. I went to Box Office Mojo, and pulled the title of every film released between April and August of the last five years, 2008 through 2012, with a budget that exceeded $50 million. It’s hard to know just what qualifies as “early” summer at this point; that used to be Memorial Day, but these days “summer movie season” is already in full-swing by early May, and sometimes even late April (“The Avengers” opened on May 4th; “Fast Five” on April 29th). And since we were specifically trying to consider how movies fared with critics early in the summer, it seemed important to keep April on the table.

Next, I went back to Rotten Tomatoes, and got each title’s Tomatometer rating. Then I averaged those scores to get a combined average for each individual month. Then I averaged out those averages for each month, April through August, for all five years. Here were my findings:

Average “Summer Blockbusters”‘ Rotten Tomatoes Score, By Month (2008-2012)

April Movies’ Average Score: 50.634
May Movies’ Average Score: 53.85
June Movies’ Average Score: 47.645
July Movies’ Average Score: 53.924
August Movies’ Average Score: 51.534

Over the last five years, big summer movies released in June have received noticeably lower grades than movies released in April and May. But big summer movies released in June have also received noticeably lower grades than movies released in July and August. So if my math is right (and I’m at least 35% sure it’s not), it’s not that movies do better earlier in the summer. It’s that, for some reason, movies seem to do better in May and July — and even to some extent in April and August — than they do in June. Curiously, critics haven’t been very kind to June movies lately.

The best guess I can hazard as to why has to do with targeting of certain release dates by movie studios. The first week of May and Memorial Day, and then early through middle July seem to be the most valuable real estate on the summer calendar. So the studios tend to stack those dates with their best and biggest movies — like “The Avengers,” “Iron Man,” “The Dark Knight,” and “Inception.” Or maybe Marvel and Christopher Nolan just own those times of year and deliver solid entertainments year in and year out. 

June is another story. Here are all the movies that qualified (by my rules) as “summer blockbusters” from June 2009: “Land of the Lost,” “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” “Imagine That,” “Year One,” and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” Average Rotten Tomatoes rating of those five films: a shockingly low 30%. May and July of 2009, on the other hand, featured “Star Trek,” “Up,” “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” “Public Enemies,” and “Funny People.”

This could be a weird fluke of timing for the last five years, but June’s movies are consistently crummier than May and July’s throughout this entire five year period. Other June titles from the last five years: “The Love Guru,” “Get Smart,” “The A-Team,” “Killers,” “Marmaduke,” “Knight & Day,” “Grown Ups,” “Green Lantern,” and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” The only consistent exception to the rule is Pixar, which releases most of its movies in June. Without “Toy Story 3,” “WALL-E,” and “Brave,” the June average would be even lower than it already is (then again, the score for “Cars 2” didn’t help matters any).

The only additional quirk in Devin’s Early Summer Critical Leniency Theory: despite “Man of Steel”‘s mediocre reviews, with one weekend left to go, June 2013 is actually the highest rated June of the last six years. Thanks to solid reviews for “Monsters University” and “World War Z,” June 2013’s summer blockbusters sport an average Rotten Tomatoes rating of 58.5%, a full ten points higher than the previous five-year average. And I’m guessing this week’s releases — the Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy buddy cop movie “The Heat” and the ‘Die Hard’-ish “White House Down” — won’t do much to change that.

Again, this could all be a massive short-term coincidence. But looking over the movies and the Rotten Tomatoes scores, my reaction isn’t that critics are too lenient at this time of year — it’s that the movies in June just aren’t very good. Things start strong in May, and rev back up in July. I don’t think the critics get less forgiving in between; I think the movies get more painful.

What do you think about the Early Summer Critical Leniency Theory? Is Devin on to something here? Do the numbers support his theory? Or is it just a coincidence? Tell me what you think in the comments section below.

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