Michael Bay and The Way We Watch Movies

So it’s Friday night and you’re checking the Cinemark app to see what is playing at your local theater.

How do you decide what you want to watch or go see?

How do you judge what you think would appeal to you?

Do you base your decision on word of mouth, critical buzz of a film, or are there just certain types/genres of film that appeal to you above all else? Or are there some other factor that comes into play?

The answers lend some intriguing insight into how we evaluate and consume modern media. These questions are in my head particularly now because the juxtaposition between the top box office films and those that are critically well-received is jarring.

The No. 1 film of the year thus far in terms of box office receipts is director Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction with a worldwide take of $754,044,938. It made more than $100 million in its first weekend (June 27-29) and up until this past weekend it was the top film at the box office.

Now slide on over to RottenTomatoes.com, which calculates by percentage a film’s critical reception, and you’ll find that the latest “Transformers” film has an anemic 17% rating. This means that out of 163 published critical reviews, only 28 were positive.

This is not unexpected. The first three Transformers films were all box office successes and critical flops. Michael Bay has no issue with his films failing critically, saying, “I make movies for teenage boys. Oh dear, what a crime.”

For something really startling, contrast the top 10 box office films and the nine Academy Award Best Picture nominees from 2013.

Box Office Top 10 of 2013

  1. Frozen
  2. Iron Man 3
  3. Despicable Me 2
  4. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
  5. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  6. Fast & Furious 6
  7. Monsters University
  8. Gravity
  9. Man of Steel
  10. Thor: The Dark World

2013 Best Picture Nominees

  1. 12 Years a Slave
  2. American Hustle
  3. Captain Phillips
  4. Dallas Buyers Club
  5. Gravity
  6. Her
  7. Nebraska
  8. Philomena
  9. The Wolf of Wall Street

As you can see, the only film on both lists is Gravity.  Of the top 10 box office films, seven are sequels and another (Man of Steel) is a reboot of an established franchise. And every film in the box office top 10 would likely be deemed family-friendly across the board.

This indicates pretty convincingly that for a film to widespread put people in the seats some things need to happen:

  1. It needs to be a known quantity (a sequel or a franchise from some other media)
  2. It needs to be acceptable for the whole family to see
  3. It helps if a whole lot of shit gets blown up along the way, but in a family-friendly, not overly disturbing, way

Almost every film nominated for Best Picture last year fails at meeting these three requirements. For God’s sake, The Wolf of Wall Street was pretty much the most well-made porno of all time.

So why the juxtaposition? Are critics and audiences looking for two different things? To be fair, a majority of the box office top 10 were critically well-received but not on a level where a majority considered them the best films of the year.

Personally, I’m more influenced by a critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes than box office success. If a film has less than a 50% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I can almost guarantee that I won’t see it (OK if it starred Anna Kendrick, I’d probably cave and check it out). You can call it pretentious or anti-populist, but it’s been my experience that I have enjoyed more films that were critically well-received than those that are simply popular with the masses.

This is still the case when you start thinking about films historically. There are countless numbers of greatest films list. The American Film Institute put out a well-publicized list in 1997 and then again 10 years later, while the British magazine Sight & Sound also puts out a new list every 10 years that is voted on by members of the film industry. My favorite resource? Go to RogerEbert.com and click on the Great Movies tab for an archive of the late, great film critic’s reviews of classic films. For my money, there was never a better evaluator of films than Ebert.

Then there is the entertainment website IMDB’s Top 250, an ongoing poll that calculates the 250 most popular films of all-time as voted on by users. The thing about this list is that there are really no bad films on it, but the practice of ranking films (which is pointless anyway) is at its most ridiculous here. The Dark Knight, No. 4 on the list, is probably at the very least the best action film of the century thus far, but in no way is it the fourth-greatest film of all time.

These lists keep cropping up year after year not because we’re ever going to get a consensus decision. They are there to create discussion and to make more people aware of all the great work that is out there. At the end of the day, film is an art form and should be appreciated as such.

So this weekend, I’d suggest instead of lining Michael Bay’s pocket with another $12 to watch Mark Wahlberg and Optimus Prime save the world in 3-D, try and check out something a little more under the radar that has some good critical buzz. And if you’re really jonesing for an action film, take in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It’s at 91% on Rotten Tomatoes and it’s got monkeys shooting machine guns on horseback.

Best of both worlds.

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2 thoughts on “Michael Bay and The Way We Watch Movies

  1. This. Without getting into some depth, you, sir, hit the nail on the head. I agree whole-heartedly with the lot of this, and would love to hear some of your expanded thoughts regarding sequels and film franchises. Awesome piece!

  2. Thanks! Maybe get into it in another piece, but Bay’s quote kind of sums it up. In general, the business of making money in Hollywood today revolves around what would appeal to a 13-year old boy. “Jaws” and “Star Wars” came out in the mid 70s, and ever since then and still now it seems like those kinds of films have been the models for success.

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