Summer Blockbusters: Why Do We Insist on Watching Really Bad Movies?

Consider for a moment the social function of movie reviews.

At the most basic level, they serve as a guideline for what to see immediately, what to place on your Netflix queue and what to avoid at all costs. The decision you make is based, on one hand, on the number of critics who have given the film a positive or negative review. Film marketers are always happy to underscore that their film made it onto multiple end-of-the-year top 10 lists. On the other hand, the decision to see or not to see is based on the judgment of a particular critic whose tastes overlap with your own.

Reviewing films is a difficult art, and sometimes we reach for a film review, before and after a viewing, to help us understand the levels at which a particular film operates. Often, good film critics are able to articulate what we cannot and help us see what we ignore or miss.

But then there are also those occasions when we ignore what critics say and see a movie because we really want to see it, despite how bad it may be. We engage in a certain filmic leap of faith.

Evidently, thousands and thousands of people followed this last bit of logic last weekend when they flocked to see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. In the first five days after its opening, the film made more than $200 million domestically.

The Web site has a "tomato meter" where it compiles the ratings of various reviewers. From nearly 200 critics, the average rating of the Transformers was a ghastly 3.9 out of 10. In contrast, Pixar's Up had an average rating of 8.6 among the 200 or so reviews of the film. And yet, Transformers has reached the $200 million mark much faster than Up.

The correlation between reviews and box-office success is a complicated issue, but a recent Dutch study provides some ways of understanding why Transformers got such rotten reviews but was still a hit among audiences.

In research published in the Journal of Cultural Economics, Gerda Gemser, Martine Van Oostrum, and Mark A.A.M. Leenders distinguish between art house and mainstream films.

"In this study, we have started from the premise that the nature, the number and the size of film reviews would influence the demand of art house movies, whereas these three factors would only produce a prediction effect in the case of mainstream movies. ... As we hypothesized, our regression results show that with respect to mainstream movies, film reviews only have a prediction effect on demand. In the case of art house movies, film critics act as influencers. In particular, the number and size of the film reviews seem to be important variables that influence the early box office revenue of these movies. Since art house movies often have poor signaling properties at their disposal, such as a lack of star power (no popular stars and directors) and a relatively low marketing budget, 'selling' the movie to the public can be hard. Getting media coverage by means of film reviews, irrespective of their nature, seems however to play a pivotal role in generating the consumers' interest in art house movies."

In the case of Transformers, the reviews, in fact, didn't predict the film's runaway success. The distinction made by the study, however, points to the unique nature of large, summer blockbusters in American theaters.

Allow me a loose analogy.

Moviegoers treat summer blockbusters in the way they approach a summer fling. Despite all the signs (and the reviews) that suggest you should stay far away, you fall intensely anyway. There is just something in the air that compels you to move forward. But by the time fall arrives, you have come to your senses, and both the audience and the people who nominate films for such things as Oscars and Golden Globes forget the film. All you are left with is a faint memory of a good time.

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