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Film Critics, Reviews, Ratings and the Digital Takeover


Before the Internet, we only had newspapers, magazines, television and word of mouth for our steady supply of pop culture intrigue and information. Unfortunately, these channels didn't have the speed of delivery, sheer volume of information or the value of consensus that search engines like Google offered at the digital takeover. Having information at your fingertips is empowering and it's how consumers are making their choices these days. Why wouldn't you do a quick search or reference a website before making a decision?

Getting the nitty gritty details and best price is what makes the marketplace more competitive these days. Whether you're shopping for a smart TV or deciding which movie to watch, being able to quickly reference a trusted review authority, user reviews or get finer details about what to expect can make all the difference.

film critics reviews ratings and digital takeover

The same goes for film reviews and movie critics. There was a time when readers would only have a few voices when it came to picking the right film for movie night. While a subjective process, readers would be able to decipher or learn to trust certain voices. Figuring out the critic's special interests, favourite genre, general disposition and even their rating allocation would help make them relevant to people even if they didn't necessarily agree with their ratings. In South Africa, there are two prolific and influential film critics with long track records who have managed to appear across all forms of broadcast and print.

Barry Ronge

The most prolific film critic must surely be Barry Ronge, who was widely broadcast across TV and radio, able to disseminate his opinion on up to 5 films a week. While his tastes varied, one quickly realised that arthouse films tended to land better reviews. An iconic reviewer, he was quite daring with reviews often led by emotion.

Using an /10 system that inspired the SPL!NG-O-METER, he'd use an adjective to describe each of his ratings. This meant he could offer some spectrum to each number however limiting the alliteration was to certain ratings. Adding a bit of his flair, he'd be able to rate something a "saucy 6" or "noteworthy 9" giving each /10 rating its own sub-rating descriptor.

Leon van Nierop

An author, screenwriter, lecturer and film critic, Leon van Nierop's movie reviews were more considered and serious - a respected reviewer and now luminary for the Afrikaans film-going public. His catchphrase "dis die een" still echoes in his film reviews today whether he's reviewing on his RSG radio show Monitor or in local newspapers or magazines. As an active screenwriter, he penned Wolwedans in die Skemer based on his long-running radio show and produced Ballade vir 'n Enkeling, both of which made a splash at the local box office. Leon van Nierop's televised film review featured on GMSA (Good Morning South Africa). Having been in the entertainment industry for over 4 decades, he's an established and award-winning author and journalist.

Now that the floodgates have opened, you can get opinions on film from the well-respected RogerEbert.com right through to your buddy's latest "kiff or kak" Facebook status. Film critics are now pontificating across the spectrum of media from YouTube channels and blogs through to more traditional print media and established online publications. The main reference points are IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, website repositories that offer up-to-date film information and more importantly ratings. Movie goers now feel armed with the power of IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes who can and do guide them to better movies based on their ranking systems.

IMDb's /10 Rating

IMDb's rating system provides an /10 score based on general ratings and links to critic reviews. Giving viewers a semblance of what to expect in terms of thousands of opinions boiled down to a number, it seems like a safe bet. However, it's important to know how the system works. The Independent Movie Database (IMDb) is primarily male-orientated, which is reflected in the site's Top 250 films through voting demographics and even film choice. Respected by industry professionals and movie lovers, it's widely referenced often ranking high in Google searches. However, it's not the be all and end all, often skewed by the loyal user base's tastes and preferences. In an ideal world, the rating system would be used in a way to best represent a viewer's take... but it's subject to abuse.

Besides voting syndicates using the platform to skew public opinion about certain films, there's a dedicated bunch who try their best to protect their hallowed selection of films from being downgraded in stature. Just click through one of the /10 ratings on IMDb to see the voting allocation. Almost every film has a scattered allocation of ratings with a glut of 10/10 and 1/10 ratings. There's also no way to verify a film has been watched by a user and being based on an honesty system, there's no real way to confirm raters have even seen the movie they're trashing. Influenced by public perception, boosting a film's rating just to sell more tickets or trashing it to thwart its success makes it a flawed system that somehow ends up representing a film's overall standing.

Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer

Rotten Tomatoes is strict when it comes to accepting film critics into the fold, which makes their system seem more robust. While it's easier to get an idea of what the general critic's position is based on consensus and capsule reviews, there are some issues. For starters, most people don't understand the Tomatometer percentage score that is often referenced as the standalone component when deciding on a movie. This is the percentage of critics who gave fresh reviews of a film. It's not a sliding scale comparable with an /10 rating. You can ostensibly get a 6/10 movie that has a 100% fresh score, meaning every critic who reviewed the film thought that it was fresh but otherwise just better than average.

Another issue is determining a mean score from the film critics since each of them is working on a different rating system or none at all. How do you credit a positive review with a weighting or how do you determine a score based on an /4 rating system versus an /10 one? These discrepancies can alter ratings quite substantially when pulling from a selection of less than 100 reviews. While Rotten Tomatoes have moved away from aggregating critic scores, there does seem to be a need to anchor the Tomatometer to another element for context.

User reviews have also come into play on the website, allowing ordinary film goers to flex their film critic muscle by chiming in with a review and rating. This is more quantifiable and useful to see how the audience score matches up against the overall movie critic percentage. Submitting their opinion via the same channel makes it possible for Rotten Tomatoes to offer a considered consensus, which has more credibility when linked to a user account. Taking the time to string a few sentences together also means it's easier to sift the have-seens from the haven-not-seens. Perhaps they should really be looking into forcing critics to adopt a similar type of submission scheme.

As it stands, there isn't a perfect system since each of the consensus ratings are done on an unverifiable review or rating. While Rotten Tomatoes distinguishes super reviewers and has its certified movie critics, it seems that it's coming full circle. Since social media and faceless publications have proven to be fallible often with ulterior motives, the need for experts who have become trusted authorities on fields is on the rise again. While the power of consensus and trust has become a currency through apps with link backs to Facebook profiles for credibility, these avatar-based systems can only take one so far. What entertainment journalism and news reporting in general requires is time-honoured integrity and the transparency to win people's trust without a shadow of suspicion.