Cover Story: Critical Care

Box office receipts and critics' ratings didn't jive in 2002

Dec 19, 2002 at 2:06 pm
Nia Vardalos and John Corbett play the happy couple in the surprise hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Put away your grading system, Steve. Put those stars in your pocket, Margaret. Sit on your thumbs, Ebert. Film critics just don't matter.

Either no one is listening, which is bad, or they ignore you once they do read you, which might be worse. Need examples? There are plenty to choose from in 2002.

The Adam Sandler-Paul Thomas Anderson drama, Punch Drunk Love, was critically hailed as "amazing" and "lovely." Even Sandler was lauded for his performance. That sucking sound you heard this fall was the sound of it nose-diving at the box office.

It has managed about $18 million so far, well short of its reported $25 million budget.

Critics hailed the Michelle Pfeifer melodrama, White Oleander, for its performances and faithfulness to the hit book. It opened on 1,500 screens and managed only $6 million on its opening weekend.

Contrast that with the tale of Men in Black II. It was said to be one of the most disappointing films of the year. The Philadelphia Inquirer called it "a sequel that has no compelling reason to exist." The Atlanta Journal-Constitution critic dismissed it as "a parade of stale jokes."

Men in Black II is currently the seventh highest grossing film this year.

There are exceptions when critics and moviegoers agree. In a rare display of affection for a comic book adventure, top critics almost unanimously praised 2002's top grosser Spider-Man. On the flip side, many critics hated Treasure Planet and audiences have agreed.

It just proves there are exceptions to any rule. But the common trend seen throughout this year — and many others in recent past —is that a critical snub doesn't mean lower box-office grosses. In fact, it usually means more.

What keeps box-office pundits guessing is what I call the "curiosity" factor. So often, a film's financial success hinges on its first weekend gross. In the case of a film like the live-action cartoon Scooby-Doo, people showed up in droves, earning the film $54 million in its first three days. Critics universally dumped on the film, but curiosity kept audiences coming. Granted, everyone left the theater disappointed and told friends not to see it. But by then, the studio already had a chunk of money. The audience's boos were as irrelevant as the critics'.

It's no newsflash that the year's top grossing films were also the most advertised. It doesn't hurt films like Spider-Man and Star Wars to have a buzz so loud before they launch that the critics' opinions are rendered mute. You can look at any big-budget film — the kind that opens in July but whose marketing campaign begins during the Super Bowl — to see that these films are completely immune to critical panning. Remember that even The Wild, Wild West, a forgettable adaptation of a forgettable TV Western, made stacks of money.

Even when a critics' darling like the M. Night Shyamalan's spooker Signs performs well, I'm reluctant to credit the reviews. Signs earned over $225 million, but its box-office business probably had more to do with Mel Gibson's bankability and a ubiquitous television advertising campaign than any great feedback about the actual film.

That's why a film like My Big Fat Greek Wedding is an absolute aberration. It started with good critical buzz in its limited release and, as it opened in more theaters, its good buzz followed. The result is this year's sleeper smash hit, the kind of trailblazing success story that forces distributors to look for next year's My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Indeed the title has already entered industry lexicon as synonymous with "the little film that could."

But its critical hug can't be credited with My Big Fat Greek Wedding's success. The early raves don't seem conducive so many months after the film's initial release. Word-of-mouth must be the driving force behind the Greek juggernaut, making film criticism even more irrelevant.

And yet the film industry seems genuinely to care what critics think. If they didn't, why would advertising continue to include critical blurbs — in five words or less — in almost every film's advertising campaign? If they didn't, why would Sony's imaginary critic David Manning have been invented in the first place?

The late Pauline Kael, famed New Yorker critic, may have summed up the uselessness of her job best in this quote from 1980 and it's still relevant today.

"The movies have been so rank the last couple of years," wrote Kael, "that when I see people lining up to buy tickets I sometimes think that the movies aren't drawing an audience, they're inheriting an audience. People just want to go to a movie. They're stung repeatedly, yet their desire for a good movie, any movie, is so strong that all over the country they keep lining up." ©