The 401st Blow :: Thoughts On Media

Cinematic Grade Inflation

Posted in Data Analysis, Theory by Noah Harlan on January 4, 2010

Did films get better over the past decade or did critics just get easier?

Grade Inflation

When I was in college I was a computer science major. My school divided academics into three divisions: humanities, social sciences and science, and those of us in Division III all felt we had it the hardest when it came to grading. In science you are often graded objectively – things can be right and wrong – and when you’re wrong, your grade goes down. In social sciences and humanities the bulk of grading is subjective – the quality of your writing or your thoughts.  Our case wasn’t helped by one professor (clearly not a designer… jeeze Duane, that’s the same page you had when I graduated…) who felt that it was his personal mission to overthrow the grade inflation in academia. He graded on a bell curve and would post it on his door. A perfect semester saw him handing out as many A’s as D’s with the majority getting B’s & C’s.  It was frustrating, to say the least.  Now I work in media… go figure…

Rotten Tomatoes

Anne Thompson had a piece yesterday discussing the best reviewed films of the decade according to Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. The Rotten Tomatoes list got me thinking:

Rotten Tomatoes: Top 20 Best Reviewed Films of the Decade (minimum 100 reviews):

  1. 100% Man On Wire 141
  2. 98% Up 250
  3. 98% The Wrestler 205
  4. 98% Finding Nemo 191
  5. 98% The Hurt Locker 171
  6. 98% Let the Right One In 146
  7. 98% Spellbound 134
  8. 98% Chicken Run 134
  9. 98% Murderball 133
  10. 98% The Fog of War 133
  11. 98% Anvil! The Story of Anvil 122
  12. 98% The Band’s Visit 110
  13. 97% The Incredibles 224
  14. 97% Sideways 207
  15. 97% The Queen 177
  16. 97% Spirited Away 154
  17. 97% Once 148
  18. 97% Capturing the Friedmans 143
  19. 97% Maria Full of Grace 131
  20. 97% Winged Migration 125

In looking at the list, it felt like a lot of the titles were more recent films. Could it be that the list was unbalanced?  At first glance, no.  Ten of the films are from 2000-2004 and ten are from 2005-2009.

But when you look at it with two-year samples, instead of one-year samples, you see a slight preference for more recent films:

So, are films getting better, is there grade inflation, or is the sample set so small it’s neither.  I then took the top 100 rated films (with at least 20 ratings) for each of the last ten years and a pattern definitely emerges:

Something is up, and that something looks like the average grade.

The average rating for the top 100 films on Rotten Tomatoes has risen from 76% to 90% in the last decade.  That means ratings have risen 18%.  But let’s drop out 2000 as it may have been anomalously low. If we start in 2001 the ratings have risen from 85.7% to 90.3% or about a 5% rise.

So what’s the cause?  I see three possible solutions, enter your vote and let’s see what people think:


One Response

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  1. pangofilms said, on January 5, 2010 at 5:52 am

    This started in the early 90’s when studios started to claim that critics were too elite and disconnected from the public and started to threaten to pull advertising.

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