Maryland Smith Research / February 14, 2024

Viewer Discretion Advised: How Gender Enters the Picture When Audiences Rate Movies

Study: Gender Bias Skews Movie Ratings, Impacting Box Office Success
Moviegoers react differently to films with female leads, as revealed by new research on gender bias in audience ratings. Understanding these dynamics is essential for filmmakers and audiences alike.

Trying to decide which movie to watch? Take care if using the average ratings from other viewers on sites like IMDB, Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes, especially if the movie has a woman starring in the lead role, says management professor David Waguespack of the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. In new research, he finds that movie viewers disagree more on the quality of films with female leads when compared to those with male leads.

Not everyone likes every film the same, and gender plays a part in how people rate movies, on average, Waguespack says.

“The key message here is that the average rating isn’t telling you everything,” he says. “In fact, it can conceal a lot. And when the movie stars a woman, look a little deeper.”

Waguespack and co-author Bryan Stroube, PhD ’15, now at London Business School, look at more than 390 million consumer ratings for 4,000 films in their paper in Strategic Management Journal.

They find that male audiences, compared to female audiences, rate films with a woman in the lead role lower than male-led films, and they disagree more on their quality. Waguespack and Stroube confirm their results with an experiment using ChapGPT-generated movie plots that randomly assign female and male lead roles.

The results are depicted with a bell curve graph, and the center of the curve shifts based on the average rating from everyone in the sample. But the averages don’t always reveal the full picture, Waguespack says.

“You should take the averages with a grain of salt, because they are not telling you if any given person likes a movie a little bit less.”

If you have a large sample of viewers and ask their opinion on a movie that stars a man versus one that stars a woman, the average penalty shows how the center of the curve is shifting, he says.

“If 90% of people are totally indifferent between the two, but 10% of men hate the movie with a female lead, that average rating is going to go down a lot. But it’s not telling you what a typical person who’s not ideologically motivated would like.”

A big spike in the number of people who hate a movie can really skew the average audience ratings. To illustrate, Waguespack looks at the 2023 blockbusters “Barbie,” led by Margot Robbie, and “Oppenheimer,” with Cillian Murphy in the lead role.

“If you look at the way the ratings for ‘Barbie’ break down on IMDB, there is a big spike at the lowest rating. You don’t see that with ‘Oppenheimer,’” he says. “This is an example of negative skew for sure. Typically it’s not quite that extreme.”

Even without skewed extremes, gender-typing can play out at the box office, says Waguespack, because movie-goers often turn to ratings from others before deciding to see a movie. He and Stroube find that mainstream studios see a dip in revenue for female-led movies compared to male-led movies.

But appealing to every viewer doesn’t have to be the only strategy for movies, says Waguespack.

The research shows that independent studios yield better box office revenues for movies with women in the top roles.

“If you’re trying to appeal to a broad audience, you care a lot about what the average viewer rates your film. But if it’s more niche, it doesn’t really matter who hates it and exactly where that average falls. It’s about who loves it. So even if you think casting a woman is going to drive the average down, but it increases the number of people who love it, that could be a good strategy.”

The research, “Status and Consensus: Heterogeneity in Audience Evaluations of Female- versus Male-Lead Films,” is forthcoming in Strategic Management Journal.

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