By the Numbers

Ever since I began writing about film online, I’ve felt compelled to use some sort of visual rating system. Although never a fan of the simplistic “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” of Siskel and Ebert, I felt using a rating out of ten gave me a sort of critical framework for comparing films to each other. But lately, I’ve been questioning the value of such a system. When I see otherwise sane people deciding what film to see based solely on a numerical score (even, or maybe especially, one out of 100!) from Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes, it disappoints me. And yet, I’ve been rating films this way for years. Well, no more, at least here.

I’ve come to realize that for a variety of reasons, I’m doing a disservice to readers by slapping a number at the bottom of my reviews. For film lovers, it’s too tempting to skip to the rating and not bother to read the analysis and reasoning behind it. And for filmmakers, whose work I’m usually happy to help promote, the number can sink an otherwise well-reasoned review. Filmmakers may be reluctant to link here or even quote from one of my reviews if the number isn’t at least a 9 or a 10. Somehow, that feels unfair to everyone involved.

So, at least for the foreseeable future, the numerical ratings won’t appear here. I still rate everything I see on IMDB, but that’s more for calibrating my own internal critical sense. I don’t see it adding much value here. What do you think? Are numbers and stars and percentage scores and even thumbs useful to anyone other than the most casual of filmgoers?

Special thanks to Flickr user Jez Page for making his photo available under a Creative Commons licence.

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8 Responses to By the Numbers

  1. I’m always more interested in what the reviewer finds both good and bad about a film. What does a number tell me? They may say it’s a 9 but when I read their review they may enjoy things about the film that I know I would hate. It may be 9 to them but it’s 3 to me.

    Better to actually read what they think is done well in the film so I can decide if these are things that I also want to see in a film.

  2. M says:

    For the most part, the system is just an obvious regurgitation of what we read in the review itself. However, I find at times that some sort of ultimate number is handy when there’s a film that isn’t clear-cut. If a reviewer goes through a process of discussing the good and bad, the number allows us to know where the reviewer’s opinion ultimately arrived to directly, as a wrap-up.

  3. I don’t know. The fact is that art is an activity that takes time, which is both valuable and quantifiable. Numeric rating systems are supposed to tell you–qucikly and efficiently–whether your time will be well spent.

    There is an argument to be made that trying to optimize one’s artistic experience is pointless: art is as much interpretation as consumption, etc. But most people just want to be entertained.

    As a reviewer, and promoter of art, your primary goal should be to get better at writing. Your insights into a film should be what brings readers to your blog. It sounds like your concerned more with how marketers perceive your site, as opposed to film lovers and filmmakers.

    Compelling writing should be your one and only focus if you want to make the most of your readers’ time. Scores are beside the point.

  4. Damn it. Was it me or iOS that turned “you’re” into “your”? I hat typing on my iPad, but it’s nice and warm in bed.

  5. I’ve always looked at film reviews like video game reviews, maybe an odd comparison but it’s what I do, whether I’m reading them or writing them.

    I very rarely care if the reviewer actually enjoyed the film or not. What I want to know is what they specifically liked or disliked. Say a video game comes out where the guy complains that there seems to be an endless amount of things to collect (coins, cards, whatever) and his end grade is 2 out of 10. His number means nothing to me because collecting all that pointless crap is what I love to do.

    Same goes for film. Maybe someone doesn’t like pointless explosions and grades the film a 2 out of 10. The number is again meaningless to me because I love random explosions.

    I can see how the grade may be helpful if I agree with the review but it can still be confusing. I’ve read quite a few reviews where the person seems to love the film and it contains all the traits I’m looking for and then they give it a low score. Why?

    I’ll always skip giving films a grade because I don’t want someone to just check the rating and not read the review. On the opposite side I find a sick pleasure in watching films that get a lower than 2 rating on IMDB but that’s my own mental problem! HAHA!

  6. Thanks for the comments, all. I want to respond specifically to Brent. It’s precisely not marketers I’m concerned about. In fact, I think it’s those sort of people who enjoy numbers and thumbs and stars so much, since they’re looking for some kind of quick-sell “capsule” they can use.

    Filmmakers and film lovers are usually patient enough to read, at least if the writing is lively and insightful. Which brings me to agreement with your last point. Yes, indeed, my goal is to try to get better at writing about film, and to do that, I need to get better at thinking about film. And about what it is that is valuable to me about a film. Numbers get in the way sometimes.

  7. I have to respond to “As a reviewer, and promoter of art, your primary goal should be to get better at writing” from Brent. I think that’s pretty hefty to identify someone else’s primary goal as a reviewer, especially when it can be different for each person (and also James is a great writer to start out with).

    Personally, I write reviews to share exciting film with people and also to align films with audience who would enjoy them – and I’ve actively decided not to use a number or grade system. A huge part of that is because I think people look to it and don’t read the review. Another part of that is that not all films are equal to each audience, so reducing it fantastic slap-yer-knew comedy with a high score will not translate well to an art house crowd. I do add a targetted recommendations to help clarify who would like the film.

    It’s an interesting question James and a great discussion to boot!

  8. stan says:

    don’t mind the numeric rating system

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