In what was the worst Memorial Day box office weekend since 1999, the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie—the one that everyone kept forgetting was coming out—got lost somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle, despite riding in on an ostentatious $230 million ship. While certainly not chump change, its $78 million gross is hardly the treasure haul the Johnny Depp franchise, which at its height opened to twice that amount, is used to.
And the relentlessly promoted new, raunchy Baywatch comedy starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Zac Efron similarly arrived at the box office like a rotting beached whale. It earned just $28 million over the weekend when pundits had been tracking a debut of $50 million.
The connection between both box office bombs—beyond their susceptibility to water puns—was that they both had also been decimated by a tidal wave of horrendous reviews from critics.
And in the wake of the dual box office shipwreck, industry publication Deadline reported that insiders close to the movies are not happy with critics for warning people off these sinking ships. (Puns are over, I swear.)
The Deadline piece cited the rancid Rotten Tomatoes scores for the films—32 percent for Pirates; 19 percent for Baywatch—and argued that the aggregation site, which runs its scores on movie ticket purchaser Fandango, is to blame for the bad box office returns. Not, you know, the fact that the films were bad themselves.
It’s the chicken or the egg argument, only in actuality these movies are definitely the chickens and they’ve laid rotten eggs, so critics are saying “hey, these eggs are rotten!” and it turns out most people just don’t enjoy rotten eggs.
“The critic aggregation site increasingly is slowing down the potential business of popcorn movies,” the piece says. “Pirates 5 and Baywatch aren’t built for critics but rather general audiences, and once upon a time these types of films—a family adventure and a raunchy R-rated comedy—were critic-proof.”
To translate: industry insiders are distressed over the fact that reviewers are telling moviegoers that a movie is not worth seeing, and the moviegoers are listening. They yearn for the good ol’ days, when people didn’t find out that a movie was terrible until it was too late.
Understandably, this condescending argument lit Twitter on fire and sparked heated conversations among industry professionals and journalists—once they had finished rolling their eyes.
There are nuances, of course, flaring up everywhere here.
Rotten Tomatoes is an admittedly flawed system, with questions about how it tabulates scores, concerns over the diversity (or lack thereof) of the reviewers, and even just debate over the value of using aggregation as a way to measure art. But, hey, for decades our movie habits were dictated by how many thumbs a pair of white guys held up. Rotten Tomatoes, if imperfect, works just fine.
But to the concern that the ready availability of these scores and reviews plummets the returns for movies that were tracking to do well before the bad notices hit, some industry insiders, at least according to Deadline, wonder whether the business would be better off delaying screenings for critics until after the film opens—or even canceling them altogether. (Never gonna happen.)
Perhaps most interesting here is the argument that a movie version of Baywatch in which Zac Efron fondles the scrotum of a corpse and another goddamn Pirates of the Caribbean movie released in the midst of Johnny Depp’s ongoing meltdown would have done measurably better if critics hadn’t savaged them.
“The reviews really hurt the film, which scored great in test screenings. We were all surprised,” Megan Colligan, Paramount's president of worldwide marketing and distribution, told The Hollywood Reporter. “It is a brand that maybe relied on a positive critical reaction more than we recognized. The cast could not have done more work in aggressively promoting Baywatch. Dwayne gave this 150 percent.”
It echoes the kind of patronizing idea that the mindless plebeians out in real America will be entertained by the most base-level kind of filmmaking, and bad reviews robbed these tasteless drones of the joy they’d otherwise have experienced watching Johnny Depp in one of the worst blockbusters ever made.
It also suggests that critics aren’t discerning enough to recognize a film for the genre and audience it was intended, and consider its quality under those parameters.
Mostly, though, it makes the argument that reviews matter a hell of a lot more than they might.
It’s a classic case of twisting a fact or opinion to better make the point of whichever side of the argument is most convenient at the moment.
As New York magazine writer Matt Zoller Seitz tweeted amidst all this brouhaha, “Never forget: if critics mostly hate a movie & it makes money it means critics have no power. But if the movie tanks, the critics killed it.”
Is there such thing as a “critic-proof” movie? Sure. Look at the success of the Transformers films, or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, or Suicide Squad, or—hey—most of the other gratuitous Pirates of the Caribbean movies for proof of that.
And the reverse of Zoller Seitz’s argument is also true. When a film like Get Out or Hidden Figures skyrockets to surprise box office success on the fuel of critics’ raves, it’s a credit to the value of positive reviews. But if a well-reviewed film is a box office bomb, then it’s used to argue that they don’t matter.
What’s interesting, though, is how often critics and general audiences’ tastes align—essentially nullifying the argument that this weekend’s blockbusters would’ve done better were it not for the stench of bad reviews.
We wrote about this anecdotally at the end of 2015, marveling over the fact that so many of the year’s top earners—The Force Awakens, Mad Max: Fury Road, Inside Out, Creed, The Martian, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, Straight Outta Compton, Spy, Trainwreck—weren’t merely “good for blockbusters,” but legitimately excellent, transformative, cinematically and creatively ambitious films. In other words, they earned a lot of money and had great reviews.
Slate made the argument more mathematically in a 2008 piece that sought to dispel the myth that critics are elitist and moviegoers are populist—basically the exact argument insiders are making in that Deadline piece—by comparing the year’s top-grossing movies with their Rotten Tomato scores.
The writer, Erik Lundegaard, calculated the per-screen average of the year’s films and found that movies scored “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes reliably (and often markedly) out-performed those that scored “rotten.” And that was true when comparing both arthouse films and the huge blockbusters that are supposedly immune to reviews.
“Far from being elitist, movie critics are actually a pretty good barometer of popular taste,” Lundegaard concluded.
It’s not a perfect correlation. But it an easy and, dare I say it, obvious concept to digest. Certainly more so than this idea that two piece-of-trash, creatively lazy movies bombed at the box office and it is the fault of critics not understanding that audiences like piece-of-trash, creatively lazy movies and, you know, not the fact that the movies were lazy trash in the first place.