Thursday, June 9, 2011

Film Quality vs. Profit: Is There Any Connection, and Does Talent Matter?

Bottom line: film studios are profit-making entities. Film quality as assessed by critics does not seem to closely correlate with profits. So do studios care about quality, and if so, why? To what extent do directors and actors affect critical evaluation and profit, and how is such an effect mediated? At times the film industry behaves inconsistently and seems to make decisions in terms of things other than profit. There are clear analogies to be made with the sports business, in terms of apparent paradoxes that can be resolved by being reminded that profit and winning games are not the same thing.

An article on Slate contains a Rotten Tomatoes-based gadget that tracks the performance, as measured by critical reception, of directors and actors over the last 25 years. (This choice of metric is important. The first question should be more obvious than it is: why should they use critical reception your yardstick? Would studios rather work with a Michael Bay, a director who reliably produces top-selling shiny shoot-em-ups, or a Terry Gilliam, who makes movies which are a tremendous joy to watch, and well-received critically - and which are tremendously expensive and run over budget and schedule? Now you see what I'm getting at. Most industries don't have the opportunity to lose focus on profit after getting confused by the artistic value of their products.) In the same way, a sports franchise with loyal fans can afford to have losing seasons, at least for a while, as long as the team can keep those fans filling seats, glued to TV sets to see commercials, and buying branded jerseys.

Reading through the Slate article about this new career-tracker gadget, you will note that John Ratzenberger (Cliff from Cheers) is the "winning" American actor. That is to say, he is the American actor who has made 10 or more films since 1986 whose films' average ratings were rated the highest by critics, at 76.1%. Compare to Chuck Norris, the worst actor, for whom the same statistic 18.4%.

"It's over, Mr. Anderson...I mean Prime." You'll get it in a second.

This might seem strange because Chuck Norris would seem to have more name recognition than John Ratzenberger, and (at a guess) I bet commands a higher quote. Also interesting is that in terms of total gross of films-appeared-in, the top actor in the United States is - wait for it - Frank Welker! You know, Frank Welker, the original voice of Megatron? In 2006 he passed Samuel L. Jackson with a career gross of US$4.9 billion. Of course in the U.S. we don't regard seiyuu as a separate career, as they do in Japan.

Why Would Studios, or Directors, or Actors Care About Ratings?

If you assume that critical ratings (i.e. quality) and profits are the same thing, then even the few statistics above present a real puzzle. Of course if commercial culture has taught is anything, it's that the just-stated assumption is a very false one, hence the existence of movies like Star Crash and Transmorphers (see point #3 here), which have little delusion about themselves as art but are safe bets as business propositions. At the very least there is likely to be a diminishing return on profits by improving critical perception of quality; a dollar you spend on a movie budget to raise it from just-okay to not bad might bring back more sales than a dollar that raises it from pretty good to critically stellar. Even if the critics care enough to spend a dollar more, the broader film-consuming public might not. As in sports, the film industry's product has a cultural value separate from its sales value, and because the cultural value is more salient to the public, film consumers confuse the two - just as sports consumers are puzzled about bowls and college ratings. But the film industry usually has its head screwed on straight and is focused on the real prize; they're (presumably) composed of materially self-interested agents and is not confused by this. Right?

Not necessarily. On its face the film industry would seem to be maximizing something besides profit, at least some of the time. Assuming Frank Welker's career-film-gross indicates a real contribution to films, and because as a voice actor you could probably get him to work for less than a big screen actor, then it would seem to be a no-brainer to keep using Welker in the Transformers franchise - as opposed to, say, Hugo Weaving, who will undoubtedly cost more and cut into the bottom line. But they still went with Weaving. (Now you get the little joke in the caption above.) What's the justification in cases like this? Did Weaving really want the part, and got his agent to call in a big favor to the studio to get him? Is the studio afraid of looking cheap by keeping the old-series voice actor, and signaling financial weakness to the rest of the industry? Did they actually project how many more tickets and rentals they would get from people who liked the Matrix, to prove that he would pay for himself? Or is it even less rational than that, and people at the studio and film crew just insist on having more prestigious people to associate with (like Weaving) and they're effectively willing to trade away profits to bask in his company? I have nothing against Weaving or his performance in Transformers, but decisions like these are curious from a financial standpoint, and they raise question about what's really being maximized.

Smart, i.e. rationally self-interested studios that win best picture would always auction these off, or melt them down for scrap. Imagine the rational, curmudgeonly studio exec. "Who cares if the academy liked it. I just want to make sure winning this thing doesn't hurt sales."

Going further, you wonder why a studio ever bothers at all with trying to get good critical reception. Yes, the Pixar movies that Ratzenberger is in have done well financially and tend to be highly rated by critics, but Chuck Norris's movies have been financially successful - but only financially successful. If you can sell tickets when Roger Ebert is bashing you, who cares? It's reasonable to think there's some negative impact on sales if the media hates you, but it would be interesting to see the actual relationship. How to measure? Movies are made for different amounts and intended to bring in different amounts; so perhaps compare on one hand each film's profits as a percentage of the film's budget, versus its Rotten Tomatoes average on the other. Either there will be some relationship between the two - or there will be none, or it will be too noisy to care about the correlation. If there's not a clear relationship between critical opinion and sales (or there's one that's grossly non-linear) it's worth asking what the value of the critics is, to the industry and to the public. To make sure we know what their film school wants us to like?

Frank Welker's take-earned-by-films-I've-been-in statistic raises another question. What's the average per film, and more crucially, to what degree was that Welker's influence? There's probably an 82 year-old key grip somewhere with a spreadsheet showing how his own takes are higher than Welker's. But even if you're looking at the average takes as opposed to absolute, what do you compare to? We don't know how much the movie would have made had X been in it instead of Y, and doing an average % take relative to budget wouldn't give us a comparison. That is, even if Welker has a good average %, how do we know that's higher than what the movies would have made otherwise? What counterpart would we use? (Even if we solved that, this is only correlation; the actor might just pick good-selling movies, as opposed to making them good-selling.) If there are measurable effects, do actors or directors on average have more impact on quality and/or take? Analogously, analyze NBA teams, and you'll find that on average their records from year to year are more closely related to who's coaching than who's playing; when I did this, I didn't investigate whether this is from recruiting skill or on-the-court coaching.

Finally, and I have no proposal for how to measure this, even if there are measurable effects from a certain actor appearing in the film, what mediates that? Is the public going because they think they'll get a good performance, or do they just like the actor because they're familiar with him or her? The fact that studios are willing to pay a premium for well-known actors instead of just using unknowns that can act just as well as the people who had a break (which comprise a large portion of the LA population) suggests that the studios believe familiarity is at least part of the effect.

Of course we might assume big studios investing tens or hundreds of millions in projects aren't stupid; they're businesses looking for an ROI, and they must already doing something like these analyses. Then again that assumes that their decision-making process is profit-maximizing, when the choice of actors as discussed above strongly suggests otherwise (status signaling? ego-stroking by association with celebrities vs. unknown actors? quality, among LA's artistic idealists?)

Depressed by how all description of how much the creation of art is dictated by eonomic considerations? Then move to a much less capital-intensive endeavor with smaller teams, like writing. One person risking only their solo time at a keyboard can and does usually produce more innovation.

In conclusion: I'm not the curmudgeon about the value of film quality that you might assume from this post. In fact I'm a huge Darren Aronofsky fan and I'm very much looking forward to his next film Human Nature, which will star George Clooney. But with The Fountain (easily my favorite film of the last decade) Aronofsky came perilously close to Gilliam territory in terms of his production stopping and starting again. I'm glad that he's able to keep making high-quality films but I recognize that he's no doubt compromising what would have been an even better film, all the time, for business purposes. But the mystery remains about why studios care to invest in films like his at all. Whatever un-focused fuzzy calculations distract them from profit for long enough to fund projects like this, I'm glad.

Find the Rotten Tomatoes career-tracker here.

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