The Influence of Online Film Reviews

Influence of Film Reviews

Just how popular are film reviews and how influential are they?

From theatre and book publishing to music and art, online reviews play a major role in predicting consumers’ tastes and influencing purchase behaviour. Within the movie industry, online reviews and word-of-mouth is strongly believed to be critical to film’s box office success. But just how popular are film reviews and how influential are they? Frankly, My Dear investigates with a little help from our readers…

The Power of Word-of-Mouth

Consumer word-of-mouth (WOM) is frequently cited as the single most important factor in determining the long-term success of a motion picture. The box office success of several “sleeper” movies (such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding) has been attributed to the WOM that these movies generated. One example of this is the success of The Blair Witch Project (1999). Initially seen as a teenage fright flick with a “tiny” production budget of $60,000, The Blair Witch Project became a huge box office success, grossing $248 million worldwide. Its success is largely attributed to the WOM and online discussions surrounding its release. In contrast, Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal (2004) – a film with a $75 million production budget, a $35 million marketing budget and a star cast including Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones – tanked in cinemas, grossing a total of just $77 million, far less than pre-release predictions had suggested. Once again, word-of-mouth (in this case, unfavourable word-of-mouth) was cited as the main culprit.

But do film reviews really affect a film’s success? Film industry experts certainly appear to think so. In the movie industry, hundreds of new films are released every year by Hollywood and independent filmmakers. Although successful movies can generate huge box office revenue and profits, the industry is also known for high risks. Of any ten major films produced, six to seven are unprofitable. No surprise then almost every studio and film distributor has utilised the Web as a discussion forum for their movies, strategically managing the review process by excerpting positive reviews in their advertising and even delaying or forgoing advance screenings if they anticipate bad reviews. But how exactly do these online reviews influence film fans?

The Persuasion Effect

Over the past few years, many empirical studies have examined the relationship between critical reviews and box office performance. While research shows WOM is most active during a movie’s pre-release and opening week (online movie reviews are often available in large numbers within hours of a new movie’s theatrical release), others suggest that the impact of pre-release WOM is minimal. A study by Duan et al. in 2008 found that online user reviews had no significant impact on movies’ box office revenues, indicating that reviews have little persuasive effect on consumer purchase decisions. We decided to put this theory to the test and asked our Twitter followers if they read online film reviews and if they influenced their decision to see a movie. The feedback we received was interesting.

Our reader Chris told us that if he wanted to see a film, an online review (positive or negative) would not influence him either way. On the other hand, Chris also admitted that a review has swayed him to see a movie that he might not otherwise had seen, demonstrating the power of its influence.

User Reviews vs Critic Reviews

One area that has received extensive research is the influence of online user reviews versus critic reviews. Research shows that reviews from other moviegoers are perceived as more trustworthy than advertising and critical reviews. Blogging has introduced a new wave of amateur film critics, giving amateur and professional movie reviewers an equal platform to express their opinions and comment on each other’s work.

Yet while user reviews are perceived to be more trustworthy, critic reviews are still a major factor in a film’s box office success. As movie critics are mostly independent from the studios, Austin (1983) suggests that critic reviews help the public make a film choice, understand the film content, reinforce previously held opinions of the film, and communicate in social settings. In America, more than one-third of cinemagoers actively seek the advice of film critics and approximately one of every three filmgoers say they choose films because of favourable reviews. Despite this, it is still not clear whether the views of critics go hand in hand with audience behaviour. A study by Eliashberg and Shugan showed that while movie critics’ ratings are predictors of movie performance, they do not necessarily influence movie performance.

Influence of Star Rating

While online reviews and WOM is most active during a film’s pre-release, the influence of a film review continues long after the film has left the cinema. Our readers told us that they continue to read film reviews when selecting movies to watch via an online streaming service such as Netflix, Amazon Prime or Now TV, citing the overall score as the key influencer.

Websites such as Rotten Tomatoes, IMDb and Metacritic, seek to improve the usefulness of film reviews by assigning a score to each movie to gauge a general reception. Many of these sites allow users to rate films on a 0 to 10 scale (or 0–5 scale). Votes are then culled into an overall rating and ranking for any particular film. As we discovered from our readers, many film fans use star rating to determine whether to watch or rent a film. This reinforces the findings of Litman (1983) in which star ratings (five stars represent a “masterpiece” and one star represents a “poor” film) has a significant, positive impact on the film rentals.

Advertising and Star Power

While reviews are seen as critical to a film’s success, it is important to note that they aren’t only thing that impact box office revenue. Budget, advertising and theatre availability are all seen to significantly influence box office performance. The presence of well-known stars has also been shown to influence motion picture revenues. Although star power may not be needed if a film receives good reviews, it can significantly lessen the impact of negative reviews.

Whether you read film reviews or not, online film reviews are undoubtedly popular. Here at Frankly My Dear, we write film reviews because we simply love movies – and we want you to love them too. Whether you choose to listen to our opinion, well that’s completely up to you…

Tell us what you think

Do you read film reviews? Do they influence your decision to watch a film? Tell us your opinions in the comments section below and let us know of your favourite film blogs or film critics.