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Pop Culture

Cinema, Public Discourse, and the Dangerous Seduction of Statistics

The persuasive power of numbers is a hot-button topic in Hollywood. As public attention spans dwindle, long-form criticism and analysis has been usurped by easy-to-digest numbers (“3 out of 5 stars”, 76%, 2 thumbs up!). But can the appraisal of a complex artwork really be captured on a simple numerical scale? What nuance is lost in the process? Have movie-goers placed too much trust in these numbers, often given by faceless critics?

As is so often the case, this on-going conversation in pop-culture is a microcosm of a larger trend dominating current public discourse. We live in a statistically-driven culture. Poll numbers are regularly featured on the news and phrases like “according to statistics,” or “the numbers say…” are liberally sprinkled into much public talk and debate. Everyone wants numbers as their ally. But as Uncle Ben once told a young Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Statistics, when properly used, are a powerful tool. However, we must not become blind devotees to the almighty numbers. Below are three ways that the debate over film ratings and statistics in Hollywood gives us a greater understanding of the dangerous seduction of numbers.

1. Numbers Lack Nuance

The popular website Rotten Tomatoes has been at the epicenter of much recent controversy. The site aggregates film reviews from across the country, declares a movie as either fresh or rotten, and assigns a percentage grade. For many people, these grades have become the official standard of a movie’s quality and a determining factor of going to see a movie or not.

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Yet, the numbers don’t tell the full story, and many who rely on Rotten Tomatoes don’t understand how the site actually works. The rating assigned to a movie indicates the percentage of critics that gave the film a “fresh” review (a ‘6 out of 10’ or higher). For example, if Movie A receives ten mediocre 6/10 reviews, it will rate as 100%. On the other hand, if Movie B is given nine glowing 10/10 reviews, but also one outlier 5/10 review, the film will rate as 90%. So, which movie did critics like more? Is Movie A the “better movie”? Complex and nuanced opinions cannot be captured in a simple number. We should be cautious not to blindly accept every number thrown at us, without careful consideration of the other variables and nuances involved. Statistics and numbers are like book covers—they give an idea of what to expect inside, but you must still read the pages to grasp the full story.

2. Numbers Are Selective

Anyone with access to Google and enough persistence can likely find a statistic or a survey result to back up their already held point-of-view. Often, these numbers are then lobbed like devastating grenades into a debate without a second thought. A notable example, which not too long ago caused a great disturbance in the Force among film fans, was apparent schism between the “critic” and “fan” opinions on Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

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The above image was passed around the internet faster than the flu in a church nursery. Many fans unhappy with the film used these numbers as irrefutable proof that they were not alone in their vexation. Even major trades such as Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Rolling Stone ran wild with this statistic, releasing numerous articles about the widespread and overwhelming backlash against the movie. Yet, at the same time, several other numbers failed to garner equal fanfare. Take for example, the audience-grade from the prominent survey company CinemaScore:

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Or, the audience-rating on the massively popular film website IMDb:

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In other words, people have a tendency to select whatever data supports their opinion while discarding anything that doesn’t fit into their narrative. The statistics need not even be the best or most reputable, only the most agreeable. Of the three rating-systems above, the most trustworthy is arguably CinemaScore, which polls moviegoers as they leave the theater. Neither of the other two systems vets that a voter has actually seen the movie or limits the number of votes a person can submit, theoretically making them more susceptible to being hijacked by an enflamed, agenda-driven minority.

Did fans love or hate Star Wars? Both. Depends on which statistic you choose. Only by considering all the available data does the true picture become clear. Unfortunately, we live in a culture that has become increasingly lazy and dishonest with how we argue for our point-of-view. Let’s be better.

3. Numbers Don’t Always Matter

Children are the most unprejudiced film-critics in the world. They don’t give two hoots about what other people think. Set them in front of a TV, turn on Paw Patrol, and they’ll make up their own mind. Is it funny? Is it colorful? Are there enough poop-jokes?

KIDS WATCHING TV

At some point, we lose this blissful innocence and start asking what “the experts” or general population thinks. Perhaps this speaks to our deep desire to have our opinion validated and affirmed by the crowd. But, as they often do, maybe the kids have it right. Exhibit A: I love shark movies. All shark movies. The good (Jaws is greatest movie ever made), the bad (pretty much every other shark movie), and the downright awful (give a teenager an outdated iPhone camera, have them make shark flick in their backyard pool, and you better believe I’ll grab a bowl of popcorn and enjoy the living daylights out of it). It’s what I love. No critic rating or fan-poll will ever change that—and that’s okay. The validity of an opinion—whether on shark B-movies, political policy, religion, or other social issues—is not determined by majority or expert approval.

The Bottom Line

Numbers are a helpful tool to make informed decisions and ground our opinions. But they are not the only tool. There was a time in American history when the majority thought Disco was a great idea. Don’t trust the majority. Do your homework, examine all the available data, but make up your own mind. Don’t let a number dictate it for you. This is true for movies and this is true for life.

What do YOU think? How have you seen statistics used either properly or dishonestly? How heavily do you rely on public opinion and numbers when making personal decisions? Let me know below!

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