Bad reviews, great box office: how to make a critic-proof movie

Some films become hits, even if reviewers hate them. Radio Times film editor Andrew Collins traces the slow creep of the critic-proof movie

The Greatest Showman

Are you a fan of The Greatest Showman? Then you’re on the right side of history.

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The PT Barnum musical, starring Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams (and Zac Efron and Zendaya for the benefit of younger viewers) was given the thumbs-down by critics last year. It was written off as “an awful mess” (by the San Francisco Chronicle), with “no substance” (Hollywood Reporter) and “a shrill blast of nothing” (Rolling Stone).

Here, Robbie Collin in the Telegraph went further: “It misreads the mood like a man following a funeral cortège in a Bernie Clifton ostrich suit.”

With all the appearance of a ready-made dud, The Greatest Showman turned out to be Teflon, taking $422.2 million at the box office. It was the kind of word-of-mouth grower that stoically slips from fourth to fifth in the top ten, then goes back up again the following week. Its soundtrack album, from the same lyricists who worked on La La Land, spent 11 weeks at number one in the UK, matching the staying power of Adele’s 21. For the record, RT reviewer Alan Jones awarded the film four stars (“a visually resplendent spectacle”), but now that everyone’s a critic, the traditional curatorial barrier to commercial success is irrelevant.

The film thus enters the same hall of fame as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Sex and the City 2, Star Wars Episode I: the Phantom Menace, The Da Vinci Code, the entire Twilight series and various Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers extensions that proved too big to fail. It applies, too, to the original Mamma Mia! (whose sequel is ringing tills as we speak). The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane described that as “a useful contribution to the debate about the legal definition of torture”, while the BBC’s Mark Kermode summed it up as “drunken karaoke”. Inconveniently, it grossed $615 million.

I hesitate to reduce movies to their mean average rating on metadata sites Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic – film is a creative art form that cannot be weighed – but the vast chasm between, say, the original Lara Croft: Tomb Raider’s 20% Rotten Tomatoes approval rating (“loud, banal, empty, plasticised”) and its healthy $274 million gross hinted at a disconnect, even in 2001.

Take The Kissing Booth, a sun-kissed, high-school romantic comedy from indie company Komixx Entertainment that premiered in May on Netflix (and carries a 13% Rotten Tomatoes rating). It’s based on a debut novel digitally self-published seven years ago by a Welsh 15-year-old called Beth Reekles. The film has been reviewed on Rotten Tomatoes by just eight websites; in contrast, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’s 51% Rotten Tomatoes score has been calculated from more than 300 reviews.

Although Netflix guards its viewing figures, the subscription giant’s Ted Sarandos declared The Kissing Booth “one of the most watched movies in the world right now”. It is forensically aimed at a hormonal demographic that aspires to pool parties, popularity and plastic cups of weak beer, and click-polling by fans launched its relatively unknown stars Joey King and Jacob Elordi to top spots in influential website IMDb’s rankings. Critics appear surplus to requirements in an age of social media algorithms.

It’s been a slow creep. In 2004, distinguished New York Times film critic Janet Maslin was succeeded by Antony Oliver (AO) Scott. The Harvard-educated professor of film criticism was, like all paid arbiters working in the digital age, subsequently required to file an article in defence of his profession in an epoch of declining sales and ad revenues. “I am a critic,” he announced, like an addict in 12-step rehab. “A scold. A snob. A hack intent on punishing artists and spoiling the fun for the public.”

The job’s self-esteem started to shrink in 2007, when Twitter passed its tipping point and grew from 400,000 tweets posted per quarter to 100 million. At the point of no return, ordinary consumers tweeting instant reactions in under 140 characters vaulted the centuries-old compact between lofty curator and grateful proletariat.

Big studios traditionally pinned a new blockbuster’s hopes on the opening weekend’s box office. Now the window of opportunity slams shut during first house on a Friday, with patrons sharing verdicts – or worse, hitting “like or dislike” – from the stalls. The power once wielded by the omniscient theatre critic who could close a Broadway show with a barbed opening-night notice, now rests with the wi-fi-enabled punter.

A screening of The Greatest Showman at Hampton Court Palace
A screening of The Greatest Showman at Hampton Court Palace

Of all social commentators, Bruce Willis saw it coming. Back in 1997, Luc Besson’s sci-fi thriller The Fifth Element opened Cannes with an opulent $1 million party, a “futuristic ballet”, fashion show and a free watch for each guest. First-look reviewers called the film a “hodgepodge” (Variety) and a “giant Gallic turd” (Slate). Star of the film Willis summed up with this infamous assessment: “No one up here pays attention to reviews… Frankly, reviews are mostly for people who still read.”

A chilling dystopian vision of an illiterate future, maybe, but the power to make or break has never been more democratic. In dismantling the traditional infrastructure between creator and audience, Facebook and other platforms have empowered a wave of aspiring critics and authors. It should be a good thing that self-published e-books can become hit movies: think Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James or The Martian by Andy Weir. In both cases it was the downloading public, not literary agents or booksellers, who converted them into bestsellers – ironically landing these online scribes traditional book deals.

In a panicky industry still doggedly counting bums on seats and numbers of silver discs sold, film companies are increasingly taking new releases straight to multiplex, forsaking the gentlemanly handshake of press screenings for critics, a group increasingly regarded as too old or cynical to be trusted with a commercially driven product, whether it’s The Kissing Booth, The Greatest Showman or Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, which some critics had to pay to view like everyone else. Now movie posters are emblazoned with quotes not from professional tastemakers but genuine patrons canvassed on their way out of the cinema.

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In a post-critic world, Netflix, Hulu and Amazon – soon to be joined by Apple and a longthreatened British broadcasting consortium – now own not just the means of production, but origination, distribution, marketing and, thanks to a willing army of thumbs, critique. It seems you, the movie viewer, have the power. Use it wisely.