Critics vs. Moviegoers: How Marketing Can Trump Quality

A.O. Scott wonders whether critics are missing something when movies that are roundly panned by critics succeed at the box office. His explanation for the divergence tells us a lot about cultural consumption:

Hollywood studios . . . . spend tens of millions of dollars to persuade you that the opening of a movie is a public event, a cultural experience you will want to be part of. The campaign of persuasion starts weeks or months — or, in the case of multisequel cash cows, years — before the tickets go on sale, with the goal of making their purchase a foregone conclusion by the time the first reviews appear.

In other words, moviegoers not only care about watching a certain film, but also about watching a film that others have watched, ala classic network effects theory.

I think this is an unfortunate dynamic, because the only films able to command such high advertising budgets are themselves often expensive, lavish productions designed to have minimal linguistic content (so they can be easily marketed internationally without losing much in translation). They effectively create “expensive tastes” for cultural products that can only be met via high cost production. Wouldn’t all be better off without such expensive tastes?

(Admittedly, these sorts of network effects can work in the opposite direction; people may see art films because they want to be in on the conversation of the cultural elite. Art films may then serve as an associative good, where “there is a particularly strong tendency for customers to become stratified . . . according to their personal characteristics[;] [t]hose . . .who are most desirable as fellow [viewers] will tend to cluster at one [film]; the next most desirable at another, and so on down.” But we can usually asume that such clustering is based on some intrinsic quality of the film, and not on the mere preference to see what others have seen.)