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Are IMDb Ratings and MetaCritic Scores Useful at All?

When I was younger (and not a critic yet), I used IMDb ratings to decide what to watch, for both movies and TV shows. My rule was: don't watch anything that scores below 7.

When I was younger (and not a critic yet), I used IMDb ratings to decide what to watch, for both movies and TV shows. My rule was: don’t watch anything that scores below 7. Yeah, that was pretty steep. It’s convenient to use the scores, though: it limits the choices you have, and let’s be honest, there’s too much to choose from out there anyway. You can’t watch everything.



Then that rule got decidedly hard to live by when IMDb started to list the Metacritic score, as well. All of a sudden, I would see movies with an 8 IMDb score, but a 5 Metacritic score, or the other way around. This was superbly conflicting for my brain. O_o

I honestly didn’t know which one to prioritize – were the critics more important to me, or the public? Were the ratings important at all? With the two scores, that often differed so much, I honestly was kind of lost.

This lead me to question: should you actually use those IMDb ratings, or the Metacritic score, to decide what you’re going to watch? What do these scores even represent?

Even when I did use IMDb ratings to guide my choices, I found I didn’t always agree with the general public. Sometimes, I thought a movie was decidedly less good than the rest. Sometimes, but rarely, since the ratings were 7+ already anyway, I’d find it better. But most interesting are the times I didn’t agree at all.

Essentially, the IMDb ratings are calculated from thousands and thousands of people’s ratings. It’s a very general rating. The Metacritic scores are calculated from a group of critics’ ratings, and all mashed together, they would in fact also represent a general public, except that they’re more knowledgeable on movies. Isn’t it against the purpose of a critic to mash them together? I would say it would, as no critic goes about hiding their own personal preferences in a review: a review is inherently subjective. That means that dumping them on one heap, you negate exactly what makes a review a review: the subjectivity.


Even the Metacritic score says nothing about what I would think of a movie, personally.

Low Highs and High Lows

I did some digging in my old ratings on IMDb and found a great example: Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. (2002), which I watched (and rated) years ago and cannot remember whatsoever. It’s rated with a 7.8 by the general public on IMDb, the Metacritic score is even higher, a stunning 83. But I rated it with a 4, way back when.

I can’t remember what it was about so I can’t really say why, but apparently I really didn’t agree with those ratings. But according to both the (collective of) critics and the public, it was great. So of what use were these scores to me exactly? No use whatsoever; some would even say it was a waste of my time, if they think watching movies they don’t like is a waste of time.

This can also work the other way around. A good example is Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives (2013). The IMDb rating is 5.3, the critics scored it, all put together, with a measly 37. To those standards, this should have been a horrible, horrible movie. Instead, I loved it, and rated it with an 7.5 myself (read my review here).

Finally, a great example is also the work I did on my Master thesis. I used dystopian science fiction movies to discuss developments in law enforcement and punishment. There are heaps of great movies about this topic, think of V for Vendetta (2005), A Clockwork Orange (1971), RoboCop (1987 and maybe the new one too, we’ll see), THX 1138 (1971) and even Blade Runner (1982). I wanted to make an initial selection of movies based on the Metacritic score to flush out the worst movies, but a movie that the critics scored very lowly is Equilibrium (2002), which I did find very useful for my research. Equilibrium is also a great example of a movie that is rated highly by the general public: the IMDb rating is 7.6 – that’s just confusing!

While Equilibrium may not be the best movie according to the critics, it discusses the topic of a repressive, militarized government quite interestingly, which is exactly what I was looking for. So, it also depends on what you’re looking for in a movie whether you want to let any ratings guide you.

Influenced Subconsciously

critSince I started to write about movies, I decided to pay no attention anymore to both IMDb and Metacritic ratings. In fact, if there’s a movie I want to see and write about, I avoid the IMDb page until after I saw it and wrote about it. A movie that is rated poorly, I can think is awesome and vice versa, though once I’ve seen the score, I can go into the movie expecting something bad, thus, my opinion would be clouded and prematurely shaped – unconsciously: this, my friends, is called a bias. This is also why I don’t read other critics’ reviews before I’ve seen a movie. Those who say they’re not influenced by ratings are probably in denial: the subconscious plays a huge role in this – no matter how hard you try not to be influenced, we human beings are all very susceptible to outside opinions.

These scores are utterly useless – to me – but they may be very useful to you

The moral of this story is that these scores can be utterly useless. To me, as a critic, they are. However, if you’re not a critic and you’re just looking for a good time? The scores can be a decent guide. Decide on which rating you want to use as your guide, either the IMDb rating or the Metacritic score (or both if you don’t mind being confused). You’ll see loads of good films.

If you’re more into movies than the general public, which makes up most of the IMDb raters, you’ll probably do well to ignore them, as well as the Metacritic score. If you’re trying to do movie research, or want to write about movies with an unblemished opinion, don’t look at those ratings and make up your own mind on what suits your needs, even if that means watching ALL THE MOVIES – I can sympathize as I watched over 40 movies in three weeks for my thesis to decide which were useful to me.

My argument for single reviews

I argued earlier that throwing critics’ reviews on one heap is negating the purpose of reviews (their subjectivity) : I don’t think that’s what should be done. What I would like to advise, instead of letting yourself be guided by a Metacritic score, find one critic that you agree with frequently. Apparently, this critic has the same taste in movies as you do. He or she will guide you in finding the movies you will like. And even then, you’ll sometimes disagree. Because isn’t what you like in movies is a very personal thing? In that sense, there are no “bad” or “good” movies.

[alert type=red ]Well, that became a bit of a rant, kudos for making it to the finish!

How do you usually choose what movie to watch? Do you agree with my assessment of the usefulness of ratings? [/alert]


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