The almighty film critics: opinion in a diffusion network, Part 1

Posted: 15/09/2010 in ARIN6901 Network Society, Uncategorized

How does an independent movie with a limited marketing budget become a sensation as viewed by millions? Why do some big budget Hollywood extravaganzas end up being an utter flop? At the end, the answer to these questions leads to a third inquiry  : “Who do people turn to when seeking advice on what film to watch?”. In some instances it is friends or family, with whom they might share a similar taste in movies. But most of the times, they base their decision on the rating given to the film by the almighty critics and, more recently, by online concord in sites like the Internet Movie Database or Rotten Tomatoes (Part 2, to be published next week).

The way in which a film (an “innovation”) is diffused through the networks of moviegoers makes for a fascinating case study in the area of network theories. We could approach the issue through Watts’ notion of “cascades”, in that through festival buzz, good reviews and positive word-of-mouth, a film lie Little Miss Sunshine or Paranormal Activity, for instance,  can reach a threshold that takes it from the arthouse theater to the multiplex, and, most importantly, from red numbers to profirt. For years, film critics have enjoyed a powerful position in Hollywood, as they are the early adopters of any given innovation and through their position as opinion leaders are able to promote or discard (diffuse it or stop its difussion) an innovation through traditional (newspapers, television, radio) and newer media like the online portals or mobile phone applications. Critics like Roger Ebert and his “Thumbs Up” rating system are part of the American and world film pop culture and their opinion holds a strong influence in the highly heterophilious network (as identified by Rogers) of world audiences. Rogers states that there is  “a general tendency for followers to seek information and advice from opinion leaders who are perceived as more technically competent than themselves.” (2003: 137) Film critics are regarded as professional cinephiles, individuals who might not hold a degree in Film Studies, but who have an educated, monolithic opinion based on years of movie-watching.

Basuroy, Chatterjee and Ravid (2003) analyzed the effect that reviews and critics have in the box-office performance of a film,  concluding that “negative reviews hurt revenue more than positive reviews help revenue in the early weeks of a film’s release. This suggests that whereas studios favor positive reviews and dislike negative reviews, the impact is not symmetric.” (2003: 116) They offer advice to film studios In the context of a limited budget, studios should spend more to control damage than to promote positive reviews. In other words, there may be more cost effective options than spending money on advertisements that tout the positive reviews.” (Ibidem). Identifying and dissecting the main opinion leaders in each market could, moreover, help the studios design intelligent, efficient marketing and PR mechanisms to have their film reach a critical mass that benefits the return of the capital invested in the production of any given film.

Part 2 of this post will deal with how web pages like Rotten Tomatoes bring together the evaluation of different opinion leaders and, by doing so, become opinion leaders in turn.

For ARIN6901, Network Society, The University of Sydney (Master in Digital Communication and Culture).


Basuroy, Suman, Subimal Chatterjee and  S. Abraham Ravid (2003) ‘How Critical Are Critical Reviews? The Box Office Effects of Film Critics, Star Power, and Budgets’ in The Journal of Marketing, Vol. 67, No. 4 (Oct., 2003), pp. 103-117

Rogers, Everett (2003) ‘Diffusion networks’ in Cross, Rob, Andrew Parker and Lisa Sasson (2003) Networks in the knowledge economy, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 130-179.

Watts, Duncan (2003) ‘Thresholds, cascades and predictability’ in Six degrees: the science of a connected age, New York and London: W. W. Norton, pp.220-252

  1. […] Last week I wrote about how film critics are both important nodes and early adopters in the diffusion network through which a film gets introduced to potential audiences. I discussed how their opinion is still important when triggering a cascade that will lead towards profit margins and the popularity of the film. However, what we may call “the film critic model” is soon going loose (if it hasn’t happened already) its “throne”, as sites like Rotten Tomatoes call for  collaborative reviews in which critics are only a factor in the equation. Through percentages acquired by a collection of reviews and from the “like” or “dislake” of audiences, Rotten Tomatoes certifies the “freshness” of the innovation (see image below). However, it still establishes hierarchies, and isolates the “top critics” (Ebert and co.), preserving their status as opinion leaders. Therefore, Rotten Tomatoes is a bridge between traditional and new forms of film critique, as it empowers users to collaborate in the grading of a film (networked, collective knowledge) but is clear in defining that the opinion of critics is still more important in the process of reaching that critical mass that defines the financial failure or success of a film. Or is it? I believe that through the popularization of Web 3.0 applications that interpret the semantic web, the cloud, to define tendencies such as moviegoing preferences, the status of film critics will be diminished (their number of occasional and frequent readers -weak and strong ties- will subside), and the industry will be wholly ruled by the ever-present buzz surrounding pop culture artifacts and events. […]

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