Why Critics Don’t Pan Blockbusters… At Least Not Right Away

Media Outlets Delay Negative Movie, Video Game Reviews

Sep 18, 2020
Management and Organization
As Featured In 
Strategic Management Journal

Ever wonder why the new releases of the most-hyped movies and video games always seem to be met with glowing reviews from critics? According to new research from Maryland Smith management professor David M. Waguespack, it’s not a coincidence.

Waguespack and co-author Daniel M. Olson, a Maryland Smith PhD now at the University of Washington, wanted to know whether media outlets that review movies and video games change their behaviors and opinions for the most heavily marketed new releases, based on competitive strategic reasons, or if they stick to publishing their unvarnished opinion about how good a product is or not, in the most timely way.

In the research, featured in Strategic Management Journal, they looked at more than 30,000 film reviews and nearly 33,000 video games reviews published by professional media outlets from 2011 to 2014.

“It’s not as if these reviews are wildly inaccurate – I don’t want to convey that impression to anyone – but we see two strategic behaviors,” says Waguespack.

The first is when outlets decide to disclose reviews.

“If they don’t love the movie, they’ll delay putting out the negative review,” Waguespack says.

“If a product has a lot of marketing behind it, and the review is not that positive, they delay publishing it by one to three days,” he says. For a movie, that could mean an outlet doesn’t publish its review as it normally would to coincide with the big opening-day marketing push, usually a Thursday or Friday, and instead hold it until Saturday or Sunday.

“That speaks to this tension they have between wanting to serve their customers by giving them timely information on the one hand, and on the other hand, being reliant on the organizations that they’re reviewing – the studios or game producers – for both journalistic access and advertising dollars,” he says.

The researchers heard from some movie critics that film studios do indeed pressure media outlets through access to film screenings, opportunities to interview directors and actors, and potential advertising revenue. And video game producers may show favoritism to certain media outlets,providing them with early or preferred access to games and producers.

The other strategic behavior has to do with how media outlets jockey for readers.

“Organizations want to be different. If they provide the same thing, there’s no premium they can charge, there’s no way they can justify their service or product,” says Waguespack.

“Our question there was, if you have a competitor and they offer an opinion about a movie that you’re also reviewing, do you artificially differentiate yourself? Do you change your score to make yourself look different?”

The researchers looked at pairs of reviews for the same movie or video game. They looked at all the cases where both reviews were published on the same day and compared them to cases where one was published later, where the later reviewer had access to see what the other review already said.

“In those cases where one is following the other, they lower their score. They tend to be more negative,” Waguespack says. While not terribly dramatic, it’s still a noticeable difference, he says – in the movie setting, equivalent to maybe knocking a half-star off every fifth movie. He says the effect is stronger for video game reviews, more like going negative every fourth release.

“The implication is not that the reviews are grossly inaccurate, on average, but I think as a consumer, you should probably rely on more than one reviewing outlet if you’re making a consumption decision,” says Waguespack.

So if you’re not sure how you want to spend your money, scan more reviews, he says. And look at who is reviewing the movie or video game and when.

“If your favorite media organization doesn’t review a new movie or game in a timely way, maybe that’s telling you something,” he says.

Read the full research, “Strategic Behavior by Market Intermediaries,” in Strategic Management Journal.


About the Author(s)

Dr. David M. Waguespack is Associate Professor of Management & Organization at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. Dr. Waguespack received his PhD in Political Science, focusing on environmental politics and science and technology policy. Prior to arriving at Maryland he was a project manager at the University of California Los Angeles, and an adjunct political science professor at SUNY Buffalo. Dr. Waguespack 's research focuses on non-market influences, such as social networks and political institutions, on innovation and venture performance. His ongoing work pursues these questions in the domains of film production and distribution, internet technology development, international patenting, and environmental management.

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