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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