Feb 24, 2013

Cinematters: Stars

When I started 24FPS, a little more than four years ago, I put star ratings on my reviews, just like most other film websites do, but I soon retired the stars for a variety of reasons.

I've always graded films on the 5 star scale, no halves, which is the same system used by Empire, Total Film, most newspapers and most of the other mainstream film publications in the UK, including most of the online publications, but for the last three and a half years these grades have been unpublished.  There are a few reasons that I am reintroducing grades, but I'm afraid the main one is rather self-serving.

The site has been online for quite a while now, and I've been writing criticism online for over 13 years.  I've got a relatively small audience, but a loyal one (thanks guys), but I'm always looking for ways to grow the site's profile, and one thing that I've seen happening for more and more friends, and benefiting their sites is that they have been getting quoted on posters, or rather their grades have.  Poster quotes are a double edged sword, but they would almost certainly help the site's profile, and I recognise that the way I write - long sentences, liberal sprinklings of profanity - doesn't exactly lend itself to a snappy line on a poster.  A simple star rating is much easier to excerpt, and is all but impossible to take out of context, it's something I'd be secure in getting quoted on.

This is not to say that I'm chasing quotes, or that I will be anything other than my familiar, cantankerous, hard to please self in the future.  I despise people who nakedly go out to be quoted on posters for every movie they can (does ANYONE honestly believe that, say, The Daily Star's 10/10 for A Good Day To Die Hard is anything but quote chasing?) and I promise you, I'll stop writing rather than become one of them.  BUT, if stars make it easier to promote a little movie I love (let's face it, blockbuster don't need me) and get a little publicity and credit for the site, that's fine.

The reason I initially dropped grades was that I felt they were reductive, and made it easy for people just to look at the grade instead of the whole review, which, given that typically a review takes an hour plus to write while a grade tends to be an almost instant gut reaction - though the writing process can sometimes alter the grade as I think over the film again - disappoints me as a writer.  The argument against this is really twofold: first of all I'll only putting the star graphics at the end of the review, rather than up top as some sites do, and if you're going to scroll down anyway you may as well read the review.  Secondly, I already provide a summary of each review in the last paragraph, so if you are looking to skip most of the review but still get the gist, you have always been able to.  Also, to be frank, I'm secure enough as a writer now to believe that if people are coming here, and especially if they are coming back, as most seem to, they're coming to read, it's not like I'm big on pictures.

I'm sure I'll come up against all the problems of star ratings, but I have tactics for the two big ones.

1: People who comment saying things like "You gave X 5 stars but Y 4 stars, when Y was clearly better.  Why?  Are you a moron or something?"  
There was, is now, and always will be just one answer to this READ THE REVIEW.  The review is the opinion, the review is what matters, the rating is to give you a quick indication of how the film stacks up overall, measured against films broadly like it.  This is 40, for instance, gets 1 star compared to The 40 Year Old Virgin (3 stars), not compared to The Red Shoes (5 stars).

2: Being split between two grades.
I don't use halves, first I think they're a cheat and second if I was going to I'd just grade out of 10 instead.  Grades are wide bands, and there will always be a band of quality in any grade, but if I'm torn between two grades my rule will be this: ALWAYS ROUND DOWN.  I'll never use a grade to convince myself or you that a film is 'better' than I'm sure it is.  If I want to use a half I'll have a much easier time defending a lower grade than a higher one, and this will also mean that when I do use a 5 star grade (which I'm sure will be rare) you can be sure that I mean it.

Now, for the record, here are the grades.

Catastrophic: a terrible film with few or no redeeming features.  To be avoided at all costs.

Poor: a film where the bad outweighs the good, but which has enough going for it to at least make it watchable, or a very bad film with one outstanding element.

Decent: Something of a mixed bag, or a solid but uninspired effort.  A film that has things to recommend, but never quite scales the heights.

Very Good: A film that is absolutely worth seeing and, despite having some problems, has many outstanding features.

Outstanding: A must see, and a great piece of cinema with only very minimal flaws.

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