The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

My thoughts on movie ratings

with 17 comments

How come that we give out grades on movies in the form of a number, but not on books, theatre performances or art?

This question was raised by my local newspaper six months ago, and set the beginning for an interesting experience. Taking the consequences of the development, where the boundaries between “arts” and “entertainment” are dissolving, they decided to give the same treatment to all kinds of cultural performances, regardless of genre and popularity.

For one month they put grades on every single review published on a 1-5 scale. Books, art expositions, concerts with the local choirs – every review was summarised by a number. When the testing period was over they reversed it and removed the grades from everything, including their film reviews.

Governed by traditions
What I realized during those experiments was how much we’re governed by traditions. It felt just weird to see grades on paintings, and I missed the grades on movies, feeling lost as I tried to figure out what movie they really recommended me to pick. While you previously only had to throw a glance at the overview of “what’s on the movies this week” to see what was supposed to be masterpieces and what you really should avoid, there was no way to easily tell now what the reviewers really thought about the movies. It was just a mess and felt like a bit of a cop-out. I was used to get some guidance.

And I wasn’t the only one to react this way. After a thorough evaluation, including a couple of panel discussions with readers, they decided to go back to the old ways, at least for the time being. Arbitrary or not, this is how we want it. But you could read between the lines that the editor wasn’t entirely satisfied. And if I would believe her, we can expect the grading to be phased out over the next ten years, as the media landscape is changing and it becomes less and less clear exactly what constitutes a “novel” or a “movie” or a “record. This will change the way we write and review it, and eventually those numbers will feel obsolete. And maybe she’s right, even though I think ten years sounds as a fairly short time for it to happen.

Pros and cons of rating
The practice of rating is constantly up for discussions among people like me, who like to think and write about movies.

Some argue that it’s just a distraction that takes away the focus from the nuanced discussion that a thorough review can provide. It over-simplifies, it dumbs down and it also risks alienating potential readers. “How dare he give that brilliant movie such a low grade, he must be an idiot that is not worth reading.”

Others again think it’s helpful since it clarifies how the writer feels about the movie. Is it a good one or not? Sometimes this isn’t easy to tell from the article. Many of us – this goes for me too – have a tendency to write extensively about details that we don’t particularly like, even in cases when we actually love the movie as a whole.

And then there’s the issue of what rating scale you should use. I’ve seen everything from four steps to ten. Some writers use numbers, while others prefer set descriptive words ranging from “crap” to “masterpiece”.

My standpoint
So, where do I stand? Well, as someone might have noticed, I do rate the movies I write about, and I use a traditional 1-5, since I’m used to it every since I was a school girl.  However, I agree on that it’s a tad clumsy, lacking nuances, so sometimes I cheat, using 0,5 steps in between, as a way to mark that this grade is far up on the scale and that it almost made it to the next one.

Why do I bother? Why don’t I listen to the pretty good arguments I’ve heard against it?  I would say it’s mostly a matter of habit.

I don’t have any ambition to help potential readers with some kind of  “consumer information”. The posts I’ve put in the category “reviews” aren’t really reviews the way I think about them, but rather some kind of personal reflections which use the latest movie I’ve seen as a starting point, but could go in any direction.

I think the rating hast o do with the way I process and digest a movie. Somehow the fact that I have to make up my mind about a grade and take a decision about it forces me to clarify my thoughts and feelings about a movie. I have to take a standpoint and justify it.

I wouldn’t rule out that there will be a point in the future, when I too will behold the light and realize that grades are of the evil and skip them altogether. But for now being I’ve decided to use them.

Written by Jessica

August 1, 2011 at 12:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

17 Responses

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  1. I was a little surprised to hear that your local paper only grades movies. Here it has become a lot more common the last 10 years or so I guess. Several papers use grades for books and music at the very least (in addition to movies). Not 100% sure about where they draw the line, I don’t think I’ve seen any grading of opera, while ordinary theatre might get it. I will try to pay attention and register where they actually grade what.

    Usually a scale from 1-6 is used here, and it is often referred to (also visually) as throwing dice. Which is strangely apt, it is both factual (covering what the reviewer actually meant) and kind of coincidental (another person might think different). Personally I mostly look at them for movies. For me, a 3 on a 1-6 scale is maybe the least likely to make me want to see a movie – I like to be told if it is just bland, or truly bad (the latter I sometimes find entertaining).


    August 1, 2011 at 12:54 am

    • They grade records, but not concerts. Some national papers grade concerts as well, but only as long as it’s rock/pop… There’s really no consistency in it, is there?

      In my case I don’t really pick my movies from the ratings of my local newspaper. I tend to disagree quite a bit with the people who write their reviews, and recently I’ve found myself disagreeing more and more. I can still find it interesting to read what they say, but I don’t take it as advice.


      August 7, 2011 at 8:46 pm

  2. Rating systems I don’t feel particularly hurt, as long as they are preceded by the thought processes that led up to the rating. The rating system sits essentially as a nice, clear summary of the sum of the author’s opinions. When it’s just a rating system, or a rather poor article preceding it, it can still be used this way, just harder to guess where it falls, Personally when rating games I’ve picked up the Yogscast System of “Arbitrary Yogstars” that work on a 1-15 scale. I was taught in one of my few writing classes, that you should always end with a summary of everything you’ve discussed up to that point, and the rating system is universally applicable, easily recognized, and I do think understood to be completely arbitrary and subjective.


    August 1, 2011 at 6:41 am

    • A 1-15 scale! Wow, that sounds… scary! Maybe I should check it out though. I have such a trouble to make up my mind on a 1-5 scale. On the other hand I’m sort of cheating with adding ,5, so in the end it might not be such a big difference.

      The thing you taught at your writing class is not bad… sort of. It depends on what kind of reviews you right. If you’re just a happy blogger like me you can enjoy the freedom to be more arbitrary in your form and let your thoughts wander as they like and disregard of all sorts of rules of how-to-write.


      August 7, 2011 at 9:59 pm

  3. 3,5

    Per -- Flawlless

    August 1, 2011 at 10:15 am

  4. I tend to like the ratings, as a quick measure of the reviewers opinion.

    For example, I can look at your reviews over the history of this blog, and it gives me an idea of which movies you liked better than others. I am not sure I am making my thoughts clear, but I guess, I am saying, once you get an idea of whether you agree with a reviewers opinions *usually*, the numbers help. Before that, the numbers are really just someone putting what appears to be an objective rating on a subjective review. But since no 2 reviewers have the same scale, you have to know the reviewer to understand the rating.

    Anyway, I like to see the number, for movies, books, and music. I am not sure how I would feel about rating paintings and the like.


    August 1, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    • Yeah, I agree about that. I think seeing the ratings a certain reviewer puts is a quick way to “get to know” his or her taste for movies. But I don’t only read and enjoy people who put the same grades as I do. I actually love to hear takes that are in a completely different direction.


      August 7, 2011 at 10:01 pm

  5. “I was taught in one of my few writing classes, that you should always end with a summary of everything you’ve discussed up to that point, […]”

    I’ve read and heard that in various places, too, and I’ve often wondered why it’s the case. My initial reaction is that it’s a way for lazy people to read an article without actually reading it, but I suspect there’s more to it than that. Certainly for an article discussing a very complicated subject, it could definitely help clarify, in both the author’s and reader’s minds, the author’s views on the subject, but otherwise is it really necessary?

    Perhaps I’m being naive in thinking people will actually read all of an article and not just skim it; after all, it seems so common that readers probably *expect* there to be a summary at the end, and are left feeling frustrated or confused when there isn’t.


    August 1, 2011 at 3:41 pm

    • “Start by saying what you will say. Say it. Say what you have said.” is how they taught me.

      As for the reason? Simple: you remind things a lot better by repeating. It’s how for example the news work. They start with the headlines. Go over them. And stop by repeating the headlines. You might not remember the details after the bulletin but you will know the headlines.


      August 1, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    • Well… hm… if you’re writing professionally the sad truth is that people read very little of the articles. I was taught at my journalist school that an ideal article should be written like a fish. First a hook to catch the reader. Then the head that will give the basics. Actually you’ll lose a lot of readers after it. That’s life! And this is followed by a huge body for those who are really into it. And… in the end… it’s very elegant if you can wrap it up with a nice tail. If you somehow can connect it to the hook/head part of the fish, the better. It makes the work feel… complete. Back to where we started, but a bit wiser hopefully.
      So I often write like that I figure. Still… you need to be aware of that most readers never get to the body.


      August 7, 2011 at 10:06 pm

      • I guess in that sense, “tl;dr” has just made the idea explicit 🙂


        August 7, 2011 at 10:09 pm

  6. Over here we use ratings for books, cd’s, games, movies, theater performances,… in most newspapers & magazines. But whatever rating system you use it basically boils down to Eberts thumbs up or down: do you advise me to see the movie or not?

    And I personally love these ratings as quick way to shift through movies, does it have a rating of >=3/4? As such I’ll usually only look at the ratings when deciding if I want to see a movie. After I’ve seen the movie I’ll go and read Eberts review. I prefer it this way as it never gives any spoilers (I want to know *nothing* of a movie when I go into it except if it’s any good) and often gives a new view and ideas on the same movie.


    August 1, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    • Yeah, I also love to read other people’s takings on movies AFTER I’ve seen them. Sometimes I read pro-reviews, but actually I often get just as much – or more – out of the reviews that fellow bloggers and Filmspotting people write. They’re an awesome bunch of people, just telling you! 🙂


      August 7, 2011 at 10:08 pm

  7. “Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not…”

    To be sure if you’ll like movie or not, you need to watch it.
    Text review give you some hint if you may like it.
    Rating give shorter and simpler hint. It’s fast to check and easy to write.
    Once you get to the numbers, you can combine them and make conclusions it’s hard or slow to make from text reviews:
    Take 100 movies rated by 2 different people and you can see how close there taste is.
    Take 1000 people and you can find there a person with a taste close to yours.

    Books are no different.
    Theater performance might be different because there are way less of them, you can’t get large number of numbers there, but you can read about all performance in your town in reasonable time.


    August 1, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    • The problem with reviews of theatre performances is also that it’s so different from night to night. They might not even have the same setting of actors sometimes!

      I’m still not sure if art really IS measurable in numbers… They’ve struggled a LOT with this in sports where they judge performances such as figure skating, where they’re trying to make the measuring as “objective” as they can, and yet I’m not sure they’re all that successful. In movies it’s even harder. There are no “mandatory” figures that are awarded with certain set points. All you have is your gut feeling and personal taste in the end.

      I think figures without a text is pretty much useless. But in combination it MIGHT add something… perhaps. Still on the fence!


      August 7, 2011 at 10:14 pm

  8. I tried not rating movies for a bit, but it’s ultimately not me. I don’t find my rating to be the end all/be all of my opinion on a film, but I do find that they provide a nice context for my thoughts.

    Bill Thompson

    August 13, 2011 at 3:45 pm

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