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Spotting the differences between critically acclaimed movie reviews and audience panned films

By Yvette Stimson, Account Manager

Have you ever noticed how some films get praised in movie reviews written by critics – but then when they get released, the general public take a completely different view, and it ends up being a box office flop? I have, so I wanted to investigate some of the linguistic differences in these polarising reviews.

To understand why some films are so divisive, I turned to text analysis. I decided to analyse and compare reviews for The Witch, It Comes At Night, and Hail, Caesar!, which are all films that received a high critical scores but low audience ratings. I gathered review data from Rotten Tomatoes and uploaded this to Relative Insight, I was then able to run my comparison between reviews from film critics, to reviews from a general audiences to try and unravel the mystery.

The Witch (2015)

This horror film, set in puritanical New England, has a certified fresh critical score of 90%. But audiences only gave the film a 53% rating.

Critics were 5.7x more likely to describe the film as sad, mentioning the misfortune, despair and grief the family goes through. Critics were also 4x more likely to talk about the film as a family drama rather than just a horror film. They enjoyed that some of the terror from the film came from the family’s paranoia about other members of the household.

In comparison, general audiences found the film slow paced and boring. They were 9.4x more likely to talk about the film being slow, and the word “boring” only appeared in the audience language set. They were also more likely to comment on the film’s ending, calling it confusing or disappointing. But despite their complaints, audiences were 4.9x more likely than the critics to praise the actors’ performances.

It Comes At Night (2017)

Another divisive horror, this film scored 87% with critics but only received an audience score of 44%. The film focuses on a family hunkered down in an isolated cabin whilst a mystery illness has infected most of the planet (very topical!).

To critics, the movie was more than just a horror. Similar to The Witch, critics were 5.7x more likely to discuss the film as a family drama. One critic described the film as being about “family bonds” and the “forces trying to shake them”. They were also 10.9x more likely to comment on the film’s lighting, praising how it was used to create a claustrophobic and frightening atmosphere.

Audience reviews, on the other hand, described the film as boring and frustrating. They questioned what exactly was supposed to come at night, feeling that nothing really happened in the plot. They were also 8.7x more likely to discuss the ending of the film. This wasn’t always in a negative way, with some viewers thinking the ending was the film’s saving grace and others finding it ruined their viewing experience.

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

This star-studded comedy from the Cohen brothers received a critical score of 85% and an audience score of just 44%. It focuses on a movie industry fixer working across a huge, big-budget production.

Critics viewed this film as an homage to old Hollywood. Words like “nostalgic” only appeared in the film critics’ language set. They were also 5.3x more likely to praise the film’s musical scenes.

However, audience reviews often questioned why critics enjoyed the film – with one reviewer even asking “what do critics know???”. Full of questions, the audience also wondered why the film was marketed as a comedy.

The use of text analysis as method for understanding different demographics and audience types can be applied to a range of industries and sectors. Relative Insight analyses any data set that contains words, whether that’s online or offline and including reviews, social media, forums and so much more.

See how it works for you