I haven’t seen Armored, a new heist movie starring Matt Dillon and Laurence Fishburne. And, before it was released, neither did professional movie critics. Most of the time, studios screen movies early for critics so they’ll have time to write reviews. But they kept Armored under wraps.
Studios usually refuse to screen movies they think will get bad reviews. Good reviews are, of course, ideal, but it’s better to get no review than a bad one. Or so the thinking goes.
But is withholding a movie from critics really a good strategy? Yes, according to a paper presented at the recent American Economic Association meeting.
In fact, studios should probably do it more often. In the paper, “To Review or Not to Review? Limited Strategic Thinking at the Movie Box Office,” the researchers included
890 movies released from January 2000 to June 2006, examining box-office results for the first weekend after the movies were released. Of those movies, 7-percent weren’t shown to critics prior to release, and that 7-percent seemed to do better than comparable movies. From the paper:
Regressions show that cold opening appears to generate a box office premium (compared to similar-quality movies that are pre-reviewed, and including many other controls), which is consistent with the hypothesis that some consumers are overestimating quality of movies that are opened cold.
If a movie isn’t shown to critics, we should probably assume it’s terrible and therefore avoid it. But plenty of us don’t take that cue. As a whole, we either don’t care or don’t realize that a movie was withheld.
An interesting footnote to Armored: While the studio must have expected universal pans, the reviews (written after the movie was released) have been pretty solid. A.O. Scott of The New York Times called it “not bad at all” — faint praise, but still — while The Boston Globe‘s Ty Burr said it was a “lean, unpretentious B-thriller.” So while the numbers suggest that not screening your clunker for critics is a smart move, movie studios don’t always correctly anticipate critical reaction.
Personally, I’m going to wait for the DVD.
UPDATE: As commenter jgherder notes, the authors of the paper looked at movies in wide release (defined as more than 300 theaters), not “all” movies, as originally stated.