A common bit of cynical wisdom is that good movies do exist, but most people are idiots and go see the bad movies instead. If one wanted to test whether that hypothesis was true, one could imagine doing something like comparing box office takes against the quality of movies. The problem with doing something like that is that there isn’t a good way to objectively measure the quality of a film. I mean, that’s why there are movie review sites in the first place. And that’s why there are particular sites like us that quite vigorously refuse to assign some number or grade to films.
But if we want to figure out if there is some validity to the idea that the shitty movies make more money and therefore get sequels ad idiotic infinitum, we need at least some rough measure of quality. There are two basic options to grading a movie’s quality: have a small number of experts individually grade the films or average out what people en masse say the grade of a film should be. The problem with the former is that film experts can be just as idiotic in their own way as the unwashed masses. Harold Ramis pointed out that when he first saw Caddyshack listed in TV Guide it only had one star, but a decade later it had two and after another decade it was up to three, aging like a fine wine. If you’d just asked people in the first place, they could have told you Caddyshack was good.
Of course the problem with just looking at what people say in general runs into the problem of just mimicking the box office returns. If most people are idiots and through the haze of their three neurons think a movie is good, then by jolly that movie is going to have a high box office take. So the least evil of the ways of grading movies would be to get a grade determined by a mass of people, but a somewhat better class of a mass. So we’re like elitist but not too elitist.
So here’s what I did. I took all the movies in Box Office Mojo’s database, and used their grading system, which runs from A to F (including pluses and minuses) like a school report card. I figure that’s a bit closer to the sort of objective grade that we want than someplace like IMDB. And by objective I mean it’s reasonably likely to be roughly agreed with by the nefarious sorts who hang out at this joint.
Then I took the domestic and foreign box office take of each movie (adjusted for inflation) and just tossed them onto the bar chart below.
Shiny. Also, it is clear that there’s something a little more complicated going on then “idiots see bad movies so they make more money.” If Box Office Mojo’s grades are relatively accurate to our tastes, it seems that audiences are actually decently sensitive to quality. As the quality goes down, so does the average box office, with the highest expected box office being up in the B+ and A- range. Interestingly, the box office drops precipitously for the very best films that have an A grade.
It’s also interesting that while the foreign box office take mirrors the domestic one fairly closely for most grades, for A-movies that pattern is broken like a sledgehammer to a piggy bank. A-ranked films average a foreign box office five times that of the American box office. There are a couple of possible explanations. It could mean that foreign audiences are just that much better judges of taste than Americans. It could also mean that very good American movies are more likely to get shipped out overseas. Or perhaps most likely, it could just be an artifact of the grading system. Which foreign films are most likely to get an American release? Those that are both highly regarded and simultaneously managed to get a decent enough box office take abroad to bother importing at all into the crowded American market.
So if forced to draw a conclusion, it looks less like idiots driving up the box office for all the lousy movies so much as the great mass of ticket sales going to the B+ and A- films, i.e. the pretty damned good but not great.
* Note: I do not claim that these findings even remotely hold up to statistical or scientific rigor. Any attempt to hold them up to such standards will be roundly ridiculed.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.