IMDB: The Ultimate Word of Mouth

Before the internet, one of the ways people decided what movies to watch was through “word of mouth”. Family, friends, neighbors, work associates etc. would talk about a movie they had seen recently that they really liked. If enough people mentioned the same movie it became a movie that you wanted to see as well.

Today, IMDB (Internet Movie DataBase) is the ultimate “word of mouth” source of feedback on a movie.  From its 60 million registered users, ratings are generated for over 3.4 million movies, TV shows, and episodes of TV shows. (Since this is a movie selection blog I’ll stick to the website’s movie benefits.) After completing the free IMDB registration, users can vote for a movie they’ve seen on a 1 to 10 scale, with 10 being the highest.  From all of the ratings, IMDB compiles an average rating for each movie, with some controls in place to prevent ballot stuffing. So, instead of getting “word of mouth” feedback from a few family and friends, IMDB provides you with feedback from movie watchers from around the globe. If, for example, your movie choice for the evening is between Saving Private Ryan and Life is Beautiful, IMDB provides you with feedback from over 835,000 people for Saving Private Ryan and over 315,000 for Life is Beautiful. But, here is where it gets a little bit tricky. Both of these World War II related movies have an average rating of 8.6. They are both great movies. Which movie will you enjoy more? It depends on how “average” you are.

Because of the volume and diversity of IMDB viewers, the average rating for a movie may not be a demographic fit for you. While the two movies being considered have the same average rating,  the average rating for United States IMDB voters is 8.8 for Saving Private Ryan and 8.4 for Life is Beautiful. The average rating for female IMDB voters is 8.9 for Life is Beautiful and 8.1 for Saving Private Ryan.  Having this information puts a new perspective on which movie you’d prefer to watch.

One of the first of the many useful features available on IMDB that you should become familiar with is the capability to look at a demographic split of the votes that go into a specific rating for a specific movie. This feature is not available directly from the IMDB phone app. It can only be accessed on the website. But, if you go to the bottom of the page for the movie that you pulled up on the phone app, there is a link to the website page for the movie. When you access the movie on the website it will provide you with the average rating for the movie. Right next to the average rating it will show you the number of votes the rating is based on, or how much “word of mouth” feedback you’re getting on this movie. If you click on the number of votes, a page opens up with all of the demographic data behind the feedback population. It tells you how women rated the movie vs. men. It tells you how different age groups rated the movie. It splits US and non-US voters. In a nutshell, it gives you the opportunity to see how the group most like you rated the movie. It’s also a good tool to use when you are trying to select a movie for a group of people to watch.

The Shiny Penny

You pull a pocketful of change out of your pocket and two coins catch your eye. The first is a tarnished old quarter that you can hardly identify as a quarter and the second is a brand new shiny penny. You’ll probably get rid of that old tarnished quarter in the first transaction that comes along. You have an irrational fear that its not worth the same as other quarters in your pocket. As for the shiny penny,you’ll probably use up all of the older pennies in your pocket before you give up that shiny new penny.

We have a tendency to select movies to watch on the same basis. We prefer to watch a mediocre shiny new movie rather than a much better tarnished older movie. We can’t resist the allure of the unknown experience of the new. Or, we fear that the new movie will come up in conversation at a social gathering and we’ll be left out of the discussion. Whatever the reason, it’s an emotional choice and, like many emotional choices, it comes with greater risk of regret.

If your goal is to spend a couple of hours totally engaged in a magical movie experience, then you need to be more selective in what you watch and you need to broaden your pool of movies to watch. The reality is that the number of shiny pennies that are magical movie experiences is limited. In any given year, there may only be a handful of new movies that are “wow” movies. There might be a dozen or two more that you’ll “really like”. The less systematic you are in your movie selection the more unsatisfying movie experiences you’ll need to go through before you find those dozen or so shiny new movies worth watching.

So, how do you improve your chances of picking movies you’ll “really like”? First, create a watchlist. Identify the movies you want to watch before you sit down on the couch and start scrolling through the list of movies available on Netflix, Amazon Prime, or On Demand. Second, set some criteria for the movies you’ll put on your watchlist. It can be as simple as targeting movies that sound interesting to you and are Certified Fresh by Rotten Tomatoes or it can be as complex as the Bayesian probability approach that I use (more on my approach in a later post). Third, don’t limit yourself to recent movies, Cast a wider net. Movie-making has been going on for over 100 years. If you really don’t like old movies, check out movies released since 2000, for example. Finally, include great movies that you’ve seen before in the pool of movies available for your watchlist.

If you click the link on the sidebar of this page titled My Top Ten Movies to Watch, you can see my current watchlist. These are movies that I either haven’t seen before or haven’t seen in the last 15 years. These are the movies with the highest probability that I will “really like”. The list includes newer movies that I’ve never seen before and older movies that I have seen before.

Every month I remove movies from my database that I haven’t watched in fifteen years. Those that meet my selection criteria, I’ll watch again. If it’s a movie that I’ve seen only once before, it will often feel like I’m watching it for the first time. And, if it’s one of those magical movies, I’m grateful that I valued that old tarnished quarter instead of the shiny new penny.

Will I “Really Like” this Blog?

I love baseball, movies and analyzing data. Since analyzing baseball data is a well-traveled path and analyzing data from baseball movies is too narrow a path, I am left with the intersection of movies and data analysis. Specifically, I analyze data generated by five Movie Ratings websites: IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes, Netflix-DVD, Movielens, and Criticker. There are other sites I could include and maybe will include in the future. For example, Metacritic is a fairly well known website but, for now, I’ve chosen not to use Metacritic because it is similar to Rotten Tomatoes with a less robust volume of movie ratings. I focused on these five sites because they are a good cross section of the methodologies I’ve come across that are used to rate movies.

Over the past few years I have built and maintained a database of all of the movies I have watched in the last 15 years. As of January 31, 2016, my database contains 1,957 movies. For each movie, I have entered the ratings provided by IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, as well as the personalized ratings generated by Netflix-DVD, Movielens, and Criticker. If you are unfamiliar with these sites, the links at the top of the page will get you to the home page for each site. IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes don’t require any work on your part to see ratings. Criticker and Movielens base their ratings off of the ratings you provide for the movies you’ve seen. Their value as movie guides requires some effort on your part. Netflix-DVD is also based off of your ratings but has the additional requirement that you be a subscriber to their DVD service.

At about this point you are probably asking, “Why is he doing this?”  Initially, I wanted to test which website was the best at leading me to movies that I’d “really like”. Instead, I ended up with an algorithm, using all five websites, that provides me with the probability that I will “really like” a particular movie.  For example, the two Oscar nominated movies for Best Picture this year that I haven’t seen are Bridge of Spies and The Revenant. Based on my algorithm, there is a 98.1% chance that I will “really like” Bridge of Spies while there is only a 49.5% chance that I will “really like” The Revenant. I will watch both movies but it will be with the recognition that Bridge of Spies is close to a sure thing while The Revenant is a 50/50 proposition. Where these probabilities come from is a topic for another day.

 I’ve been using some form of this algorithm to select the movies to watch over the last two years. A comparison of the last two years with the first two years used in my study would suggest I’ve been pretty successful. I watched 165 movies during the 1999 & 2000 calendar year and “really liked” 72 of them. Over the last two years, 2014 & 2015, I watched 182 movies and “really liked” 163.  I’ve gone from “really liking” 44% of my movies in the first years of my study to 90% over the last two years.                                                      

I have a friend of mine who, on occasion, will ask me what I thought of a particular movie. Mostly, I’ll tell him I “really liked” it. He then dismisses my recommendation by saying “but you like everything.” He’s right! I’ve reached the point where 9 out of 10 movies I watch I “really like”. It’s not, however, because I like everything. It’s because I’m able to identify those movies that I probably will “really like” and avoid watching those that I probably won’t like.

As to the question posed in today’s title, “Will I ‘Really Like’ this Blog?” I’ll say this. If you frequently watch movies that you wish you hadn’t, you will “really like” this blog. You won’t have to build your own personal movie selection algorithm. You will, though, gain a better understanding of various movie websites and how they can help you pick a movie to watch that you will “really like”.