Netflix explains why a movie like “Bright” can bomb with critics and kill with audiences

Netflix explains why a movie like “Bright” can bomb with critics and kill with audiences
Image: Netflix/Scott Garfield
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Netflix’s Bright has been watched more than most other Netflix originals, movies, or series, the company said this week, in spite of being mercilessly panned by critics and scoring positive reviews from only 26% on Rotten Tomatoes.

That just shows how out of touch movie critics are with global audiences, Netflix executives said on a conference call with investors Monday.

“Critics are an important part of the artistic process, but are… pretty disconnected from the commercial prospects of a film,” said chief content officer Ted Sarandos. They speak to specific audiences who care about quality, or how objectively good or bad a movie is—not the masses who are critical for determining whether a film makes money, he said. ”The critics are pretty disconnected from the mass appeal,” added CEO Reed Hastings.

Netflix knows quality isn’t the only factor that attracts viewers—otherwise, Adam Sandler wouldn’t be as popular as he is on the service. Netflix nixed its old star-rating system last year because people used it to rate the quality of the titles, like critics do, rather than how much they enjoyed them. For example, people usually gave movies high ratings, but watched sitcoms more often, Netflix said at the time.

Google Trends is a better metric for gauging the commercial appeal of Netflix films, Hastings said. Indeed, Bright holds its own compared to other popular movies from late 2017.

The disconnect between what people say and watch is apparent in the divide between the scores on Rotten Tomatoes’s Tomatometer, which measures the share of critics who reviewed the movie positively, and its audience scores. Eighty-six percent of people who watched Bright said they liked it, in stark contrast to the 26% of critics who reviewed it positively. Other movies like Warcraft and Star Wars: The Last Jedi also deeply divided critics and viewers (though there was some nefarious activity around the latter.)

In the US, bad critics scores on Rotten Tomatoes dragged down movies like Baywatch, The Mummy remake, and the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers films last year, while good scores propped up smaller films like Get Out and Baby Driver that both critics and audiences agreed on. Eight of the top 10 highest-grossing films in the US last year were all “certified fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes, meaning they earned positive reviews from 75% of critics or more.

The picture was different abroad. Movies with mediocre reviews like The Fate of the Furious and Pirates crept into the top 10 by earning most of their returns overseas. Hollywood has found over the past few years that action flicks and movies with good special effects travel well outside of the US, especially with big stars attached who have international appeal like Will Smith or Dwayne Johnson, and intellectual property that resonates globally. The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise, earned 80% of its box-office returns overseas, as did Kong: Skull Island. Tastes vary, but there’s something about crazy car chases, epic shoot outs, and overblown special effects that bridges cultural divides. Nearly anyone can understand them, no matter the artistic caliber.

Many movie reviews, including those on sites like Rotten Tomatoes, are geared toward US and English-speaking audiences, which makes them less relevant abroad, Netflix noted. “Most of those critical reviews you read are English language and usually just US,” said Hastings.

Nielsen previously estimated that an average of 11 million people in the US were watching Bright during any given minute over its debut weekend in December. The streaming service has started work on a sequel.