Samuel Brace on whether box office is more important than critical success…
How should we measure a film’s success?
The metric we use to determine whether or not the latest feature film has reached heights high enough to warrant being labelled successful, seems to be up for a rather heated debate.
Is a film’s worth measured on the score or rating dished out by experts (i.e. someone whose profession it is to communicate the merits of a movie to their audience or readership), or rather shall a movie be hailed a triumph due to financial success at the box office (i.e. the amount of bums in seats)?
Whenever a movie – more frequently a so-called ‘blockbuster’ – arrives at screens across the globe (the kind of movie that is anticipated by a great many and expected by industry and public alike to collect sizeable scores of cash upon release), whenever a film such as this fails in its mission to achieve one of our previously described metrics for success, said film is inevitably declared, by one camp or another, as failing in its cinematic mission.
The process has become rather partisan to say the least, and can be seen most prevalently, and some would describe most toxically, with regards to the cinematic trend of our day – that of course being the divisive superhero genre. Whenever a film that fits into the aforementioned category arrives for our viewing pleasure, and perhaps just as often for our displeasure, the argument often begins concerning its success or lack thereof.
As an example, take the most recent addition to the genre. The latest entry into what is known as the DC Extended Universe has come in the form of Justice League, a film plagued by production setbacks (some wholly tragic with regards to director Zack Snyder) and plagued evermore by its reception upon release.
The film in question landed with a thud in critical circles, perhaps without the censorious fury as its most comparable predecessor Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but still failing to encourage widespread delight in those who are paid to provide their opinion. And while this particular addition to DC’s connected universe of cinematic offerings hasn’t achieved the financial heights of BvS (at least in terms of its opening week), it’s still accumulating plenty of dollar bills across the global marketplace.
But this brings us back to our opening question. How should we measure a film’s success? Is it plaudits, awards, scores of ten? Or does money talk, like it does and almost always should in life’s various others fields and industries. Perhaps it depends on who you ask – it certainly does right now – rightly or wrongly as it may be.
The most passionate DC fan, he who follows every rumour, clicks with anticipation at the sight of every new still image and casting announcement, will of course say it’s the box office that counts. People are going to see this movie, this film is making money (the jury is out on Justice League in this regard but this has most certainly been the case with past outings). How else should we deem success if not in this way? Who cares what cranky and invidious critics and commentators have to say.
Putting to one side the veracity of such a statement, these are opinions not wholly without merit; one would have to be insensible to suggest that financial achievement isn’t important. Of course it is.
But are the words of the disparaged critic of no worth at all? Such a claim is surely no less specious in design. After all, whether the industry likes it or not, people take great stock in review aggregators such as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. The opinions of our aforementioned experts seem to carry significant weight, influencing our movie going decisions.
There is little question, however, that there is also great hypocrisy at play here. If the same film that was scathed by critics and is triumphing financially was to have received the reverse response, that is if it were to falter at the box office but garner a 94 with Metacritic, the very same fan who once decried the value of critics would be singing their praises, commenting that the masses were without their senses, that his film was simply beyond their intellectual reach.
Of course, a film that ticks both categories is one that can easily be tagged with the label of success; such movies are a rare breed but they do exist, examples can be found every year – and when it comes to monetary concerns, it is without doubt largely relative. After all, the budget of said film will alter the figure needed to be reached in order to claim box office success.
It would seem, therefore, that if success can be easily identified by looking at those that have wooed both critics and audiences alike, earning top reviews and top dollar, that the answer to our question is found in films that tick both boxes.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens: box office victory + critical applause = success. Dunkirk: box office victory relative to its budget + critical applause = success. Batman v Superman: box office victory + critical failure = disappointment.
To measure a film’s success in a manner that’s consistent, combining triumphs in both fields would seem to be necessary. But deciding whether or not the financial outweighs the critical is a little more murky, the answer slightly more nebulous.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to the lens which one views movies through. Do you see films as art or as commercial entities? If art is your answer, the box office doesn’t matter. On the other hand, if films are mere products with which to achieve financial gain, then the critics surely lose their influence.
Perhaps the question is a wholly irrelevant one, and perhaps those on both sides should refrain from asking it and worrying about the answer. Unless you are in the position of deciding which films get made and which films do not, surely what matters is something far more subjective, like whether or not you enjoyed that which you have just consumed.