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Do Reviews Predict How Movies Do at the Box Office?

Do Reviews Predict How Movies Do at the Box Office?

The supposed conspiracy against “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” notwithstanding, it’s not a critic’s job to affect box office.  Much as they’d like to steer audiences towards good movies — and, less pressingly, away from bad ones — critics are more concerned with influencing how people think about movies than whether they see them or not. (They also know that, at least for major releases, their collective power is dwarfed by the might of studio marketing budgets.) 

But according to an extensive data analysis by Metacritic, the collective judgement of critics, at least as relayed by the site’s proprietary Metascores, turns out to be a fairly reliable predictor of a movie’s success. Analyzing every major release of the last decade — which they define as any movie that opened in at least 2,000 theaters between January 1, 2006 and December 31, 2015 — they found that movies with better reviews tend to make more money. Movies with a Metascore between 91 and 100 made an average of $59.1 million over their opening weekend, while those with a Metascore of 19 or lower averaged an opening weekend gross of just $14 million. The differences grow even more pronounced over the long run: Those in the top decile dropped an average of 37.7 percent in their second weekend, while those in the lowest dropped by 52.5 percent.

Here’s a graph of those openings with the second weekend drop plotted against a movie’s Metascore:

Note the large orange dot signifying “Batman v Superman’s” even larger-than-predicted second weekend drop of 69 percent — and, just for fun, the dot in the upper left-hand corner denoting the aberrant performance of 2010’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” which jumped nearly 50 percent in its second weekend despite what Metacritic classes as “largely negative” reviews.

It seems a little too tidy to conclude, as Metacritic’s analysis does, that “the better the film, the more money it collects, on average” — for one thing, equating “better” with higher Metascores opens up a substantial can of worms. But if long-term performance, and especially the week-to-week changes that usually signify the effect of word-of-mouth, is any gauge of audience satisfaction, then it seems as if the assumed divide between audiences’ tastes and critical consensus is largely a myth. (Again, this holds only for major studio releases, and doesn’t mean that “Cemetery of Splendour” is about to burn up the box-office charts.) What part the reviews actually play in those movies’ success is still an open question, but it seems safe to say at least that if critics generally favor a movie, audiences will, too.

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