By Ioana Gheorghe

With the summer blockbusters season underway, it is time to reminisce. Last year, Barbie and Oppenheimer made a buzz with audiences and critics alike; the acclaim for both reminded people that films can be both commercial successes and award-winning masterpieces. After all, when was the last time a box office hit like the latter won an Academy Award? – 2003 with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. It seems to be that critics and audiences disagree more often than not – one side looks for quality, the other for entertainment. But these lines are not always so clearly drawn. Films are inherently subjective, so should we be concerned that critics seem to be more open-minded to films and genres that are thought to be more favourably seen by the public?

Expectations are that popcorn flicks – films whose main goal is to entertain on a weekend night – will score better with the general public than with the critics. Their job is to assess quality; they are the most likely group to sit through a 3 hour long, slow-paced drama and come out with glowing reviews. Taking this as a given state of affairs, recent years offer an interesting counterpoint; genres that have been scorned by critics are performing better than anticipated.

Animated films are rarely given the critical spotlight they deserve, as proven by the Oscars’ steadfast tradition of not nominating them for the Best Picture category. Perhaps surprisingly then, some animated films such as Turning Red and Inside Out sit better on Rotten Tomatoes with the critics than the audiences. This is echoed with action-packed blockbusters like The Mission Impossible saga, all films except the first scoring higher with critics, as did your occasional rom-coms like the new Anne Hathaway film The Idea of You (source: Rotten Tomatoes). The concept of the film critic as an intellectual figure with high standards is engrained in the popular subconscious, but who is to say that critics cannot appreciate films that have box office appeal?

Having bought their way to the top of the industry ladder, Disney has spent recent years trying to keep their profits buoyed()through its Marvel Cinematic Universe, its animated films and live action remakes, all categories that draw in huge numbers at the box office. However, viewers appear to have grown tired of the same old narrative formula that the over-a-hundred-years-old media company continues to dish out

Critics, by the same token, should suffer from a similar fatigue; instead, they appear more lenient with recent releases, or even more reverent in cases like Black Panther and Captain Marvel, and overall the gap in rating on Rotten Tomatoes is rarely that big. So could Disney have bought their way into the hearts of the critics? Technically, yes, but that is quite unlikely, as overall their newest releases still do much better with the public than with the critics.

If one can form a nebulous image of a film critic in their head, stereotypical as it may be, picturing the general public is trickier. There are the cinephiles and then there are the casual cinema-goers. If associating with the former, then the ‘For You’ pages on social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram and YouTube likely revolve around film-related content beyond the usual promotions. Yet even people in the latter category might still come across content such as behind-the-scenes, promotional interviews and the like. Many influencers, some who have nothing to do with the film industry, are now invited not only to premiers, but also to award shows as red-carpet interviewers, and thus Hollywood-related content reaches beyond its usual demographic. Promotion strategies have clearly adapted to the over-saturated market of immediate content. And while this explains the public’s love and excitement for certain films, it does not account for the critics’ increasingly lenient opinions. However, is that really a new development?

Film critics were born with the film industry itself. When Hollywood became more and more profitable, some critics, as one can imagine, were drawn to the commercial side. Some changed their attitudes towards mainstream films, while others were steadfast in their beliefs (source: BFI Screen Online). Fan magazines such as Photoplay and Motion Picture Magazine were also running in the 1920s and 30s, competing with the critics for people’s attention. These platforms were not unlike contemporary ones, such as review aggregators – Letterboxd, IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes – and they function as the equivalent of renowned publications where critics give their weekly reviews. Not much can be said to have changed: people like to talk about films. And differences in opinion will always be a part of that discussion.

Take for example the Sight and Sound poll, the critics’ film canon. Its top 10 differs from the one in Letterboxd’s top 250, the cinephiles’ list. The audience speaks too through the box office, and that top 10 is drastically different, no titles there being found on the other two lists (source: Box Office Mojo). All these platforms point towards the variety of tastes regarding film. If the critics’ canon is too elitist and the box office too shallow, film-goers transformed into Letterboxd critics may represent a middle-ground where everyone has the right to argue for what they love or hate.

Whether one is a critic, a cinephile or a casual cinema-goer, films are a subjective affair. Ratings do not conclusively determine quality, and what one group looks for in a film can vary. The fact that critics and audiences often disagree is only natural. Equally plausible is the premise that some critics may try to adapt their ratings to fit the public’s taste, while some audiences will pretend to appreciate artsy films even when their loyalties lie with the latest Marvel film. So before we blame Disney, influencers or other factors, we should remember that, at the end of the day, each difference in opinions and ratings brings new perspectives to the conversations we should have about the purpose of cinema.