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A Critical Look at Movies

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Several weekends ago, my family suggested that we go to the local theater and watch a movie. As most any parent of a teenager knows, finding a movie that everyone can agree on is no small task. My wife and I have found online movie review sites, such as “Rotten Tomatoes,” helpful when deciding what to watch.

My thirteen-year-old daughter suggested that we go see Mom’s Night Out, a comedy that explores the many things that can go wrong when dads are left in charge of the kids. When my wife and I looked up the movie on “Rotten Tomatoes,” we found the low ratings by critics somewhat disconcerting (see the analysis at http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/moms_night_out/).  

Of the 35 professional critics who viewed the movie, only 5 identified the movie as entertaining (for a 14% “fresh” rating). On the other hand, approximately 86% of registered “Rotten Tomatoes” users who rated the movie gave it 3.5 stars or higher (out of 4 stars).

When we showed our daughter the low rating and expressed our concerns, she was dismissive. “What do critics know anyway? They never like popular movies! They’re a bunch of snobs!”

As a teacher of mathematics, I found her comments intriguing. Her perceptions about critics were not wholly unfounded. Bloggers and movie critics, such as Vic Holtreman who owns Screen Rant, discuss the tendency of professional movie watchers to pan popular offerings (see http://screenrant.com/transformers-2-vs-critics-vic-14735/ for details). I wondered if these perceptions of critics were true. In particular, I wondered if data gleaned from the “Rotten Tomatoes” website would support (or refute) the contention that critics rate popular movies lower than the general public rates them.

The Data 

To explore this question in more detail, I gathered a list of the 200 highest grossing movies of all time from “The Numbers” website (http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/records/worldwide.php). With the list in hand, my daughter and I looked up each movie on the “Rotten Tomatoes” website and recorded critics’ and audience “freshness” ratings in an online spreadsheet (readers are encouraged to explore our dataset at http://bit.ly/movie-dataset). An exploration of such data is well aligned with the Common Core’s Standards for Mathematical Practice, in particular, SMP 3: Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.

Some Initial Findings 

After the data were compiled, my daughter used the spreadsheet’s built-in AVERAGE function to determine the average critic and audience ratings for the top 200 movies, noting that the critics’ average was 4 percentage points lower (namely, 71% to 75%). “See, critics rate popular movies lower, Dad!”

“Not so fast!” I retorted. Calculating the difference between freshness ratings for each movie, I used the spreadsheet’s built-in IF function to highlight instances in which critics’ ratings were higher than audience ratings (these instances were recorded as “1,” with noninstances recorded as “0”).

Figure 1 - Entries for 5 highest grossing movies 

Fig. 1 Entries for 5 highest grossing movies. Note that column H uses the spreadsheet’s built-in IF function to determine if the critic rating is higher than the audience rating for each movie.

Summing the critics’ higher column (i.e., column H in fig. 1), I determined that critics gave higher ratings than audience members for 112 of the 200 highest grossing movies of all time. In other words, critics gave higher ratings 56% of the time. “Ha! Critics aren’t snobs! They are less critical than the rest of us!” These two initial analyses seemed at odds with each other. Who was right?

What Do You and Your Students Think?  

Are critics snobs? Do critics rate popular movies lower than the general public rates them? You be the judge. Provide evidence supporting your contention. Graphs can be helpful for analyzing large amounts of information.


Michael Todd EdwardsMichael Todd Edwards is an associate professor of mathematics education at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is the coeditor of Contemporary Issues in Technology and Mathematics Teacher Education, executive editor of the North American GeoGebra Journal, and codirector of the GeoGebra Institute of Ohio. His research interests focus on the teaching and learning of school mathematics with technology (specifically, dynamic mathematics software), ethical issues surrounding the use of free software and the free software movement, and writing as a vehicle to learn mathematics at all levels of instruction.


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