Stars, Thumbs, and Veggies

January 22, 2018
A thought by James Berardinelli

“Jim, if I had it to do over again, I’m not sure I’d use stars.” Roger Ebert spoke those words to me as we strolled down Walnut Street in Philadelphia following one of his “Democracy in the Dark” presentations during the 1998 Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema. Roger had come to Philadelphia to speak at the festival and I was serving as his driver. During his weekend in Philadelphia, we spent quite a bit of time together, walking around the city (walking was one of his passions), stopping by old bookstores (another of his favorite activities), and attending dinners. We also jointly got kicked out of a “sneak preview screening” because Miramax didn’t want any critics to see the film “so early.” I don’t think the movie ever got released.

Roger had mixed feelings about the process of assigning stars to movies. From an artistic perspective, he didn’t like it. From a commercial perspective, he understood its necessity. Having started doing it, however, he wasn’t about to stop. But he knew that filmmakers, having presented their babies to the world, waited with trepidation for the star baptism. Roger offered no advice whether I should continue assigning ratings and, in an increasingly internet-fueled climate where that was becoming more important, he knew it was inevitable that I do so. In my early years, I toyed with what rating system to use. When I started, it was a letter-based one (A, B, C, D, F). That quickly turned to a 0-100 scale (actually 0-10.0, but I used one digit to the right of the decimal place). Then it became 0-10 with 0.5 increments. Finally, I scrapped the numerical approach and adopted the four-star system, which I have maintained for 20 years.

I suffer from some of the same unease that plagued Roger about assigning stars. At heart, I’m a softie and I don’t like “slamming” films. I was better at it when I was younger but, the more I have learned about how much blood, sweat, and tears goes into making a movie, the more despondent I have become about ripping someone’s labor of love to shreds. Oh, there’s plenty of soulless commercial garbage out there – products resulting from corporate greed using a director-for-hire. It’s easy to give those a star (or lower) but there are bad indies, too. Those are the difficult ones to strike down.

What do my star ratings mean, at least to me?

A movie has to be very special to earn either zero stars or four stars. I don’t give out many four-star citations and almost never use the zero-star rating. A four-star movie is an immediate contender for best film of the year and could end up as one of the 100 best films I have ever seen. One litmus test: for me to give a picture four stars, I have to be certain about the four-star rating when exiting the theater. No equivocation. On the other hand, a zero-star movie is not only really bad but must contain something offensive. I don’t walk out of movies. I never have. A zero-star movie requires an extreme act of will to keep the streak intact. It reaches a level that’s beyond merely “bad.”

Half-star and one-star movies are almost indistinguishable in their badness. It’s just a matter of degree. One and one-half star movies might have a few notable qualities but, for the most part, their existences are unfortunate. Consider anything less than two stars to be in the “avoid” category unless you have time to burn.

A two-star rating represents the first level at which I could give the most qualified of recommendations. These films are usually mediocre and fail more often than they succeed. I wouldn’t advise spending money for them but, if you’re lying on the couch late at night and can’t sleep and channel-surfing brings you to one of these…well, there are worse ways to kill time. A two-star review isn’t completely negative, just predominantly so.

Two-and-one half stars: the most difficult to assign and the most difficult to write the review for. These are right in the middle where the thumb wavers between “up” and “down.” If you have some interest in the subject matter, genre, or an actor, there’s enough quality in the film to make it bearable.

Three stars is intended to be a solid recommendation. No quibbles or qualifications. Worth seeing. I liked it. Thumbs up. All of those things. Probably not an end-of-the-year Top 10 contender but worth spending full price on. Three and one-half stars ups the enthusiasm of the recommendation. This is one I heartily recommend. Shouldn’t be missed. Could be one of the best of the year. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

There you have it – what I think the stars mean. Next question: what does Rotten Tomatoes think they mean?

First, let’s take a step back. “Thumbs up” and “Thumbs down” are trademarked by Siskel & Ebert so RT couldn’t use those designations. But everyone knows a “Rotten” designation equates to “thumbs down” and a “Fresh” designation equates to “thumbs up.”

In that same 1998 conversation with Roger, Ebert talked about his feelings regarding the thumbs-up/thumbs-down approach to movie reviewing. He was more comfortable with that than with the stars. It didn’t require him to determine how good or bad a film was – just whether it was worth recommending. It was a quick way to answer the question he most often got: “Should I see it, Mr. Ebert?” There would always be “bubble” films but 90% of what he saw fell into one category or another.

Others didn’t agree.  Many “serious” critics claimed that Siskel & Ebert had dumbed-down film criticism to a point where it was virtually worthless. Others claimed that, because the “two thumbs up” citation was such a valuable advertising tool, they had become pawns of the distributors. Although some of the claims may have had some merit, most seemed born more of jealousy than a true desire to defend film criticism as an art.

It’s possible to debate whether the thumbs up/down approach was good or bad for movie reviewing. There are valid arguments on both sides but, regardless of where on the like/dislike spectrum anyone falls, it’s impossible to deny the impact it has had over the years. Just as Star Wars changed the movie industry in ways that not even George Lucas could have imagined, so Siskel & Ebert’s TV-friendly grading changed film criticism. Neither of those men is still with us but their legacy remains.

Today, thumbs up/down can be found only at Ebert’s website (where the trademark resides), but, without any new Ebert content, the site lacks the stature it once enjoyed. The archives are a treasure trove, containing as they do every available review and article written by the film critic during his tenure as a journalist but the site is no longer distinguished by having a strong, single voice. Into the breach created by Ebert’s death has come Rotten Tomatoes. Of course, RT existed long before Ebert shuffled off his mortal coil but its importance has escalated in the last two years. It has become the go-to clearinghouse for movie reviews. More importantly, it has shown the ability to shift the public view about films.

When I started reviewing – and for a long time thereafter – it was accepted that the writings of film critics could be beneficial or damning for indies and mid-level films. One good review from a prominent critic could “make” a movie while one bad one could bury it. Art-house movies in particular were affected. But, when it came to blockbusters, the term “critic-proof” was coined. If a movie was big, it didn’t matter whether the critics universally lambasted it. Transformers is the poster-child for the “critic-proof” production.

But the times, they are-a changing…

There may no longer be such a thing as “critic-proof” and that’s because (1) Rotten Tomatoes exists and (2) many younger movie-goers (especially those in their teens and twenties – Millennials and older iGen’ers) have come to rely on RT. For studios, this is not a positive development. No longer can they hide trash and big movies that are universally panned no longer enjoy the box office immunity they once claimed. For film critics, it’s a mixed bag.

The problem with RT is that it has a tendency to misrepresent critical opinion. For most critics, the fresh/rotten dividing line is 3.0 stars (out of 4) or the equivalent. Like thumbs up/thumbs down, it’s a binary result. A RT score of 90% means that of the participating critics, 90% gave it a thumbs-up. As a stand-alone, that’s a reasonable thing to say and provides a reasonable snapshot of aggregate critical opinion. However, the only thing RT measures is thumbs up/thumbs down. There is a misperception, however, that it measures degree of quality. It doesn’t.

Consider movie A – a serviceable film that just about every critic likes but no one is especially enthused about. 3 stars across the board with little variation. Final RT rating: 95%. Appearance on 100 critics’ Top 10 lists: 0.  Then consider movie B – a thematically challenging movie that many critics adore, some like, and a few dislike because it’s not their cup of tea. Final RT rating: 80%. Appearance on 100 critics’ Top 10 lists: 25. The assumption many RT readers would make is that the 95% and 80% can be directly compared. They cannot. That’s not the function of the rotten/fresh dynamic. Yet the public believes that movie A is better than movie B because it has a higher RT score, and they would argue that this is what the critics’ say.

The problem with ratings in general, whether they’re on a 4-star scale, a 5-star scale, a binary scale, or something else is that they devalue the written review where the rationale is explained. How many people look at the rating and move on without reading the review? The number is high. Very high. On the order of 90%. Therein lies the critic’s dilemma. Clinging to “artistic purity” and rejecting RT puts you in a precarious position as a film critic.

Then there’s the blockbuster question. Once, when every blockbuster was a must-see event and audiences hadn’t become jaded, critical opinion was deemed irrelevant. Today, however, the growing sameness of blockbusters may have made viewers more selective and, with RT regarded as the clearinghouse of critical opinion, it’s reasonable to assume a link. There’s not a perfect match between RT score and box office but those numbers are more in sync today than they have ever been. In the summer of 2017, blockbusters with low RT scores have invariably underperformed and those with high RT scores have, with a few exceptions, done well.

In the era of RT, studios are suddenly afraid of critics. More films are being withheld altogether and critics’ screenings are often happening only a day or two before the movie opens (although this will change during Oscar Season). While there’s nothing the studios can do to manipulate the final RT score, they can attempt to inflate the early results – show “friendly” critics the film far in advance (we used to call these people “quote whores”), allow them to break the embargo with their wildly positive comments, and let the initial RT score reflect only those “reviews.” Time will tell whether this strategy works.

In the end, stars may be an evil but they’re a necessary evil both for the critic and his/her readers. This is what Ebert discovered when he started reviewing a half-century ago and it remains as true today as it was then.