Netflix’s New Old Rating System and the End of Movie Criticism

NetflixYou may or may not have noticed that, last week, Netflix made a decision to change its rating system from a numerical, five star one to a simple thumbs up or thumbs down. The reasoning behind this, according to Netflix Vice President of Product Todd Yellin, “Five stars feels very yesterday now.”

The thumbs up or thumbs down, however, is a much more timely method of critique, obviously. I mean, what’s fresher than a method brought to the mainstream by the late duo of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert over four decades ago?

There are a few things wrong with this move, the most obvious being that the company spending billions of dollars on content is getting lazy about how it wants its viewers to respond to it. That, and it’s promoting said users to get involved in the easiest, stupidest way possible. Why put any thought into how you’re going to react to what you just saw on the streaming site, when you can just impulsively click on an icon saying whether or not you liked it? Why bring any nuance or context into the mix? Who even needs those things, anyway?

It ties in, actually, to the growing trend of ignoring the singular critical voice in favor of the collective one. If you doubt it, look no further than Rotten Tomatoes, a site that is intended to help people decide whether or not they want to see a movie or a TV show, but is, in fact, single-handedly killing film critique.

Doubt it? There is someone to whom I am very close, and with whom I enjoy seeing movies, but who won’t go to see anything unless it has an RT rating of at least 80. This drives me to distraction, especially when we end up seeing something like Hail, Caesar!, which scored an 86, but which we both loathed.

Siskel and Ebert 5Today

And that’s the whole problem: Forget whether or not a single critic whose work one might admire, and whose opinion one might share more often than not, enjoys a cinematic outing. If the masses don’t unite in liking something, then it clearly isn’t worth seeing. Or vice versa.

Which, of course, is poppycock.

Look, I’m not a critic, but I know a fair amount of about critique, and film theory, and whether or not a movie is good, or might not be good but is enjoyable nonetheless, or is out and out awful but still a guilty pleasure. So to say that a simple yay or nay is not damaging, to not offer the above-mentioned context and nuance, is to completely oversimplify the process.

When I was growing up, you didn’t read a bunch of reviews, you read one or two. In fact, watching Siskel and Ebert every weekend, I found myself agreeing with Siskel’s opinion far more than Ebert’s, though Ebert was known to be a better writer. Ironically, while the binary Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down method of review that Ebert co-invented started us down the road to where we are now, he was the first film critic to ever win a Pulitzer for his work, so it’s not like he wasn’t a brilliantly talented guy.

Point is, generally speaking, if Gene Siskel liked a movie, I knew I’d probably like it, too. There were a couple others to go along with him as well, such as the late Vincent Canby of the New York Times. There were individual voices to whom I, and millions of others, would listen so as to know what we should see and why.

Now, there’s just a mass groupthink entity that assigns a numerical score to a movie and you’re just supposed to believe this is true, even though a lot of the people writing these reviews know less about film than you do. True story. Look into it some time, and you’ll see. Many of them — but not all, of course – are feature writers, or former editors, or simply failed screenwriters, who slipped into the role due to a sudden opening, or budget cuts, or any number of other reasons, and yet theirs are the opinions that suddenly matter just as much as, say, someone who was trained in the art and has been doing it for decades.

Canby 2Getty Images

That, in fact, is part of the problem in these collective scoring situations, that every voice counts exactly the same, which is also absurd. Some blogger for a site you’ve never heard of, but is counted by the Rotten Tomatoes scoring system, is as relevant as, say, Wesley Morris, who won a Pulitzer for his own film criticism work five years ago.

Like I said, absurd. But don’t let that stop you.

There’s another disturbing aspect to this Netflix ratings decision, that being the fact that it will only make it harder for smaller, indie films and documentaries to be discovered. In the same announcement in which Yellin made the comment attributed to him above, he said, “What’s more powerful: you telling me you would give five stars to the documentary about unrest in the Ukraine; that you’d give three stars to the latest Adam Sandler movie; or that you’d watch the Adam Sandler movie ten times more frequently?” It seems that the number of ratings is more important to the company than the broadness in scale of how the films are rated, which I suppose maybe helps Netflix, but doesn’t do much for that Ukrainian documentary everyone who has seen it simply adores.

No, let’s instead reward the Adam Sandlers of the world, who also, it should be pointed out, have a rather expensive production deal with the very same streaming service.

Sandler 2Netflix

There is something incredibly cynical and self-defeating about this decision, too. Remember, Netflix is making an enormous push into the feature film world (like with the four picture deal it made with Sandler), and part of that involves financing dozens of smaller, indie pictures. Without the ratings system and the algorithm that goes along with it, how does the company expect those movies to be discovered, seen, appreciated, and discussed by the millions of subscribers it’s hoping to reach? To use Yellin’s own words, why would anyone do the work of searching for that little gem when they can watch The Ridiculous 6 for the 37th time?

I’m not saying the ratings system is perfect. Far from it. If you doubt that, just go to IMDB, and look at the database’s highest rated movies of all time. Now, I think The Shawshank Redemption is a perfectly fine film, very entertaining and worthy of enormous praise, but it currently occupies the top spot among users. Yes, it’s rated Number One.

Shawshank the greatest film ever made? Please. It’s worth noting, by the way, that other films in the Top 10 include The Dark Knight, 12 Angry Men, Pulp Fiction, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Fight Club. Excellent movies, all, but among the best ever made? Really?

There are plenty of like issues with the outgoing system on Netflix, too, since those who vote tend towards the fan boyish (and if you doubt that, please notice that the boxing movie Hands of Stone currently sits at five stars, whereas Amy Schumer’s most recent stand up special is at one), but at least it leaves room for interpretation, rather than a cursory glance and a knee jerk decision.

But who needs that, when we can just give a simple thumbs up or thumbs down? Why bother putting any kind of thought into it? That’s far too complicated, and these days, we all clearly have too many other things to worry about.

Neil Turitz 2 is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades working in and writing about Hollywood. Feel free to send him a tweet at @neilturitz. He’ll more than likely respond.

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One Response to Netflix’s New Old Rating System and the End of Movie Criticism

  1. I agree with every word of this. Rotten Tomatoes has absolutely poisoned the public conversation about film. Important individual critics (Sarris, Kael, Ebert, etc.) have historically been instrumental in elevating non-mainstream voices and thus broadening public taste; it’s hard to imagine a Roger Ebert (whose influence on filmmakers of my generation is nearly impossible to overstate) having that kind of importance today.

    In fact, the most influential writers about film aren’t even film writers anymore– they’re social commenters who can speak intelligently about, say, diversity and the male gaze, but who have little to offer when it comes to discussing narrative and visual technique. As a result, an entire generation has grown up believing that films are simply pleasure-delivery devices, with the “quality” ones distinguished from the pack by the diversity of their casts (or of their creative teams).

    This, to me, is bewildering and tragic. (I’m not saying, of course, that diversity in film isn’t an important sociological consideration– but it is, on its face, irrelevant to a film’s aesthetic value. I guess my point is, the very concept of aesthetic discussion or analysis is very much on the wane, a disaster to which I think aggregator sites are major contributors.)

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