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Why Critics Don’t Pan Blockbusters … At Least Not Right Away

Researchers Uncover Strategic Behaviors Behind Movie and Video Game Reviews

By Carrie Handwerker

Collage of hands showing thumbs up and down, popcorn, a reel of film, movie tickets and a clapperboard

Images by iStock; collage by Stephanie S. Cordle

When it comes to blockbuster movies and videogames, you can't always take reviews at face value, according to University of Maryland management research that uncovered strategic maneuvering on the part of publications.

The unbroken chorus of praise that often meets the debuts of heavily hyped movies and video games isn’t just in your imagination—and it may not be a measure of the unalloyed brilliance of the releases, according to recent University of Maryland research. 

Management Professor David M. Waguespack and co-author Daniel M. Olson Ph.D. ’18, an assistant professor of management at the University of Washington, wanted to know whether media outlets that review movies and video games change their behaviors and opinions for the most heavily marketed new releases, based on competitive strategic reasons, or if they stick to publishing their unvarnished opinions in a timely way.

For the study published in Strategic Management Journal, they looked at more than 30,000 film reviews and nearly 33,000 video game reviews published by professional media outlets from 2011 to 2014, and found that they can’t always be taken at face value.

“It’s not as if these reviews are wildly inaccurate—I don’t want to convey that impression to anyone—but we see two strategic behaviors,” said Waguespack.

The first relates to when outlets decide to disclose reviews.

“If they don’t love the movie, they’ll delay putting out the negative review,” Waguespack said, delaying publication from one to three days. For a movie, that could mean an outlet doesn’t publish its review as it normally would to coincide with the big opening-day marketing push, usually a Thursday or Friday, and instead holds it until Saturday or Sunday.

“That speaks to this tension they have between wanting to serve their customers by giving them timely information on the one hand, and on the other hand, being reliant on the organizations that they’re reviewing—the studios or game producers—for both journalistic access and advertising dollars,” he said.

The researchers heard from some movie critics that film studios pressure media outlets through access to film screenings, opportunities to interview directors and actors, and with potential advertising purchases. Video game producers, meanwhile, may show favoritism to certain media outlets by providing them with early or preferred access to games and to interviews with game creators.

The other strategic behavior has to do with how media outlets jockey for readers.

“Organizations want to be different. If they provide the same thing, there’s no premium they can charge—there’s no way they can justify their service or product,” said Waguespack.

So the researchers tried to determine if reviewers and organizations intentionally went against the grain with ratings simply to appear different. To determine this, they looked at pairs of reviews for the same movie or video game. They looked at all the cases where both reviews were published on the same day and compared them to cases where one was published later—in which cases the later reviewer had access to the earlier review.

“In those cases where one is following the other, they lower their score. They tend to be more negative,” Waguespack said. While not terribly dramatic, it’s still a noticeable difference, he said—equivalent to maybe knocking a half-star off every fifth movie, or going negative every fourth game release.

“The implication is not that the reviews are grossly inaccurate, on average, but I think as a consumer, you should probably rely on more than one reviewing outlet if you’re making a consumption decision,” said Waguespack.

So if you’re not sure how you want to spend your money, scan more reviews, he says. And look at who is reviewing the movie or video game and when.

“If your favorite media organization doesn’t review a new movie or game in a timely way, maybe that’s telling you something,” he said.



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