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Countdown to Oscars

Monday, December 31, 2012
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Can CinemaScore And Rotten Tomatoes Help In Predicting Oscars?

By Joey Magidson
Film Contributor

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As an Oscar prognosticator, I look to try and find any advantageous information or tools that I can muster. When one is in the business of making professional educated guesses, that’s kind of a no-brainer, but with Oscar predictions it’s even more important to use any and all sources at your disposal.

Two such resources are the websites CinemaScore and Rotten Tomatoes. The former is a service that measures the appeal of a movie among paying audiences. The site claims to have been polling moviegoers at major new releases on opening night to gather demographic information and calculate a CinemaScore grade (A+ all the way to F) for over 34 years.

The latter is the more well known site and functions as many things but mainly as a film review aggregator. All films are labeled either “Fresh” or “Rotten” depending on how major critics scored the movies. The score is from 100 percent all the way down to 0 (a film with a score of 75 percent or higher is labeled “Certified Fresh”). Unlike CinemaScore, which looks at what the general public thought of a flick, Rotten Tomatoes is used mostly to see what critics thought.

When it comes to the Oscars, and notably Best Picture, most nominees tend to have both high CinemaScore marks and a strong Rotten Tomatoes rating. There have been some notable exceptions, but the winning formula for the Academy Awards is to have as broad an appeal as possible.

The rare film with poor reviews can score a Best Picture nom, and sometimes even a movie that’s divisive with audiences can do the same, but neither can win the Oscar with that sort of combination. Over the past 25 years, there have only been a handful of nominees like this, but you have to look far and wide to find a winner that didn’t have a strong combination of audience love and critical acclaim.

If we’re looking at previous Best Picture winners that weren’t universally acclaimed, the lowest of the past quarter-decade is Forrest Gump, which only had a 71 percent positive mark on Rotten Tomatoes. The site doesn’t have as many reviews handy for films released before the late 1990s, but it’s still a solid aggregate of what my colleagues thought back then.

Also coming in lower than most but still winning, we have Crash at 76 percent, Dances with Wolves and Gladiator at 78 percent, and Driving Miss Daisy rounding out the bottom five with 79 percent. It’s hard to win Best Picture when less than 80 percent of critics embrace your movie, but these flicks were able to manage that feat.

On the other side of the equation, there have been no shortage of Oscar winners that had nearly perfect Rotten Tomatoes scores. During the last 25 years, the Best Picture honoree with the highest RT score was actually The Artist last year at 98 percent. Close behind we had The Hurt Locker, Schindler’s List and Unforgiven at 97 percent, with The Silence of the Lambs coming in fifth place with 96 percent.

As you’ve noticed, I don’t have too much to say about CinemaScore. They’re a subscription-based service, so I wasn’t able to view anything other than their very recent scores. Also factoring into my decision was that sometimes their scores just make you shake your head.

For example, this year they gave an F score (which happens pretty rarely) to the very good, if divisive, film Killing Them Softly at the same time they gave an A score to the roundly panned and honestly atrocious flick Alex Cross. Obviously one film satisfied audiences and one didn’t, but there’s really no universe where Killing Them Softly is an inferior movie to Alex Cross — the site’s impact in determining quality and thus Oscar prospects is clearly limited.

When it comes to the Oscars, you want to look to Rotten Tomatoes a bit more. We all know that critics don’t vote for the Academy Awards, but often a critically acclaimed film will get a boost headed into Oscar voting, which helps buoy its chances. A movie like The Hurt Locker rode critical acclaim and critics awards to Best Picture victory, and looking at its Rotten Tomatoes score, that’s easy to believe.

This year, among the five major Best Picture contenders, four of them boast high Rotten Tomatoes scores, while all those with CinemaScore marks are all A’s (or in the case of one, an A+). When someone wonders why they’re the likeliest winners of the top prize this year, this is a huge reason why.

Argo is the Oscar hopeful with that top grade, and the RT score was a hefty 96 percent. Lincoln is not far behind with 91 percent and an A CS score, while Silver Linings Playbook has the same 91 percent but no CS score yet. Also without a CS score but a high RT percentage is Zero Dark Thirty, which has 93 percent while still in limited release.

Les Miserables is the outlier this year, as it has an A from CinemaScore, but Rotten Tomatoes has it down low with only 72 percent of reviews being positive. If this film were to win Best Picture, it would be the second lowest scored winner of the last 25 years. When I’m asked to name a reason why it’s not my current frontrunner (Right now, I have it behind all the aforementioned top contenders except Silver Linings Playbook), I retort that it would have to defy history in order to win.

When Chicago won Best Picture, it did so with an 87 percent positive Rotten Tomatoes score. That’s not great by Oscar standards, but it’s 15 percentage points better than Les Miserables, which is clearly an audience favorite but not a critical one. I’d hardly say it’s incapable of winning, but perhaps it’s not nearly as likely as many of us once thought.

So, what kind of help do you get in Oscar predictions from CinemaScore and/or Rotten Tomatoes? With CinemaScore, almost nothing, though Rotten Tomatoes isn’t a bad barometer at all. You certainly need to use more than these sites when determining your nominees and winners, but you can’t discount them, either.

My advice to the budding Oscar prognosticators out there is to use whatever you have at your disposal but mainly to keep history in the back of your mind. It’s important to see where the tide is going, but past references can never hurt. It’s still just an educated guess, so be sure to take everything with a grain of salt.

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  • Jessie

    I never knew a lot of this!

  • vinnie

    Actually, films with 60% and more are already certified fresh.