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July 8: Film Critics Can Wield Considerable Influence On Box Office Performance, Finds Carnegie Mellon Researcher

Deb Magness    

Individual Film Critics Can Wield Considerable Influence
On Box Office Performance, Finds Carnegie Mellon Researcher

Tepper School Study Isolates True Impact of Critical Opinion, Identifies Most Influential Critics

Peter Boatwright PITTSBURGH—Despite the current trend of eliminating film critics at many news organizations, new research from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University identifies the considerable influence that critics can have on the box office performance of films, especially early adoption of a limited release film by the public. The study offers a much better understanding of the role of critical opinion on such "experience" goods, with implications well beyond the movie industry.

For the study, Tepper School Marketing Professor Peter Boatwright compiled data that included weekly revenue and number of screens for a sample of 466 films released between December 1997 and March 2001, and correlated it with the reviews of 46 individual and widely accessible film critics (as determined by publication circulation or audience reach). He also set controls for several other factors that have impact on box office performance, such as a film's overall budget or advertising expenditures, the presence of a superstar, Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating or total number of screens.

While other studies have concentrated on the aggregate impact of critics as a group, Boatwright's study focused on measuring the extent to which unique contributions of individual critics impacted box office sales, above and beyond the average view of critics. The results show that many critics who critically acclaim a film can considerably accelerate early viewership of lesser-known, limited release films. As for wider-release, blockbuster films, kudos from critics mainly serve to slow the natural decline in box office sales. None of the critics in the study individually increased total box office sales; rather, they influenced the timing of those sales. Critics from the time period analyzed identified as having the most influence on the timing of movie viewership included Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly; Manohla Dargis, then of The Los Angeles Times; Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune; and Lawrence Van Gelder of The New York Times.  

The study's findings clarify and sharpen the role of film critics as analyzed in prior research, according to Boatwright. "Most other studies have analyzed the impact of critics at the aggregate level, which can be misleading because it is confounded by the underlying appeal of a film," he said. "This new methodology truly isolates the critics from other factors that account for market performance."

Boatwright notes that the implications of his research are not limited to the film industry but have application to any "experience" goods market, such as music, restaurants, wines, video games, or books, where consumers seek the opinion of experts and companies use critical acclaim as a promotion tool. "This study makes it clear that critics covering a wide range of products can serve as market gatekeepers and have different types of impact on product performance, and these markets likely wouldn't be the same without them," he said.

The study - "Reviewing the Reviewers: The Impact of Individual Film Critics on Box Office Performance" - was co-authored by Suman Basuroy of Florida Atlantic University and Wagner Kamakura of Duke University. It appeared in the December 2007 edition of Quantitative Marketing and Economics.
Pictured above is Peter Boatwright.