If January Makes You Shiver with Every Movie They Deliver, Then Stick with the Oscar Bait.

What do the movies Molly’s Game, The Post, Phantom Thread, and Hostiles have in common? For one thing, they all hope to receive Academy Award nominations when they are announced on January 23rd. Secondly, after going into limited release in December to qualify for 2017 movie awards, most of the world will finally get a chance to actually see these movies this January. Thirdly, these movies are the early front-runners for the 2018 Objective Top Twenty. Finally, they will be your very best bets for “really like” movies released in January.

What do the movies Molly’s GameThe PostPhantom Thread, and Hostiles have in common? For one thing, they all hope to receive Academy Award nominations when they are announced on January 23rd. Secondly, after going into limited release in December to qualify for 2017 movie awards, most of the world will finally get a chance to actually see these movies this January. Thirdly, these movies are the early front-runners for the 2018 Objective Top Twenty. Finally, they will be your very best bets for “really like” movies released in January.

Why do movie producers push some Oscar contenders into January and sometimes even into February? Are these movies artistically worthy but with limited audience appeal? Sometimes. That may be the case with Hostiles, for example. I’ve heard that the beginning of the movie is intensely violent which might turn off audiences, particularly women and older audiences. The overall IMDB rating is 7.1 but the male/female split is 7.2 and 5.3 respectively. The age demographics in IMDB reflect similar polarization. Voters under 30 give it a 7.6 so far while voters 30 and older give it a 6.5. Like the similarly violent The Revenant, which also went into wide release in January, it may have a better chance to find it’s audience away from the family dominated audiences of December.

Phantom Thread is another movie that might not appeal to wide audiences. This is a Paul Thomas Anderson directed film and, to say the least, he is an acquired taste, a taste that I have yet to acquire. The last time he collaborated with Daniel Day-Lewis was for the film There Will Be Blood, a movie I hated. Personal opinion aside, it has been reported that Phantom Thread may be the most mainstream movie that Paul Thomas Anderson has ever made. Early IMDB ratings are strong with an average rating of 8.8. Sometimes the selection of a release date is nothing more than superstition. There Will Be Blood opened on Jan 25, 2007, which is approximately the same weekend (Jan 19th) when Phantom Thread will open.

Molly’s Game, which I was fortunate to see already, is definitely not a January holdover because it lacks audience appeal. It’s IMDB rating is 7.6 and it is consistently strong across all demographic groups. This is an under-buzzed movie and sometimes the strategy is to roll out a movie slowly to build up the buzz.

The Post, on the other hand has all the buzz and star power it needs. With Spielberg, Streep and Hanks, along with a topical storyline, this movie screams Best Picture. So why slide this movie into January. It’s strategic. The producers hope that this will be the movie that everyone is talking about when Oscar voting is taking place. The strategy is to have the buzz be about The Post just as the buzz is winding down for other Best Picture contenders like The Shape of Water and Lady Bird.

So what about the rest of the January releases. Well, you might find a diamond in the rough but the odds are against you.

% with IMDB Rating 7+ Probability You Will “Really Like”
Prior Year Oscar Contender Jan. Wide Release 84.3% 75.39%
All Other January Wide Releases 51.3% 64.81%
Movies Released in All Other Months 72.0% 71.20%

The high IMDB ratings go to the prior year hold-overs and not the movies being released for the first time in January. The movies held over from the prior year are better, on average, than the movies produced over the remaining eleven months. The remaining January movies are significantly worse.

To avoid the January shivers on your next trip to the Cineplex, stick to the Oscar bait from last year, whenever it was released.

 

 

These Were My Top “Really Love” Movies of 2017

Tis the season to make year end lists. You have probably run across dozens of top ten movie lists for 2017. Why should mine be any different? I shouldn’t be but it is. Instead of limiting myself to the small pool of 2017 releases, I add all of the other movies I’ve seen this year, regardless of the year it was released. My top ten list is from the 153 movies I’ve watched this year. Three 2017 releases are on my list, along with a late 2016 release. The remaining six are movies that I first watched over fifteen years ago but took another bite of this year.

Tis the season to make year end lists. You have probably run across dozens of top ten movie lists for 2017. Why should mine be any different? It shouldn’t be but it is. Instead of limiting myself to the small pool of 2017 releases, I add all of the other movies I’ve seen this year, regardless of the year it was released. My top ten list is from the 153 movies I’ve watched this year. Three 2017 releases are on my list, along with a late 2016 release. The remaining six are movies that I first watched over fifteen years ago but took another bite of this year.

Here we go starting at the top:

  1. Casablanca (1943). I watched this with my son on Christmas night. It is one of those rare studio movies that still connects with a younger generation. I think Roger Ebert, in his Great Movie review of the film, states it well. “Seeing the film over and over again, year after year, I find it never grows over-familiar. It plays like a favorite musical album; the more I know it, the more I like it. The black-and-white cinematography has not aged as color would. The dialogue is so spare and cynical it has not grown old-fashioned. ” I wouldn’t presume to say it better than Roger. Here’s looking at you kid.
  2. Lady Bird (2017). Saoirse Ronan communicates more with her eyes than most actors communicate with their speech. At the age of 23 she is one of the great actors of our day. Combine that acting talent with Greta Gerwig’s genuine and fresh vision of the “coming of age” story and you end up with one of the best reviewed movies in the history of Rotten Tomatoes. Like Casablanca, Lady Bird tells its story in less than one hour and forty five minutes. Both are good examples of how sometimes less is more.
  3. Beauty and the Beast (2017). Although The Last Jedi is likely to become the number one worldwide Box Office champion for 2017, as of today, that distinction goes to Beauty and the Beast. Despite that success, I didn’t find much love for the film in the year end top ten lists. For me, it is the most fun I’ve had at the movie theatre in 2017. I also believe that Emma Watson provided us with one of the most under-appreciated acting performances of the year.
  4. A Beautiful Mind (2002). This is one of my not seen in fifteen year movies. When I wait fifteen years for a movie that I’m seeing for just the second time, it feels like the first time. A Beautiful Mind was better the second time around than the first. I don’t believe that I appreciated the first time how effectively Ron Howard tells a story on the screen that takes place most of the time in the mind of John Nash.
  5. Molly’s Game (2017). This movie has been getting second tier awards buzz. In other words, not Best Picture worthy, but a contender for supporting awards. I went to see it in the theatre because Aaron Sorkin is my favorite screenwriter. This movie blew me away with how good it was. Jessica Chastain chews up Sorkin’s screenplay and provides a performance for the ages. Idris Elba is Oscar-worthy in a Supporting Role. Molly’s Game did not get a Golden Globe nomination for Best Drama. With the exception of Dunkirk, I haven’t seen the other four nominees. They will be hard pressed to be better than Molly’s Game.
  6. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002). In my opinion, this is the greatest movie trilogy of all time. Like Tolkien’s three books, you can’t separate one of the three movies from the whole. They are one long form story. Similar to the Star Wars trilogies, the second movie sets up the premise that it is always darkest before the dawn.
  7. The Deer Hunter (1979). This is a three hour movie that doesn’t feel like three hours. I watched it for the third time this year and it doesn’t lose its powerful anti-war message in the retelling. Meryl Streep is likely to earn her twenty first Oscar nomination this year. Her supporting role in The Deer Hunter produced her first nomination.
  8. Black Hawk Down (2002). Another fifteen year movie that surprised me the second time around. This is a movie about mission creep and the chaos of modern warfare. I felt like I understood this movie better the second time around. Maybe the War on Terror that has filled the intervening fifteen years has made me more attuned to what is going on in this film. For whatever reason, this movie communicates the chaos that can arise in the fog of war better now than it did fifteen years ago.
  9. Cool Hand Luke  (1967). Some actors have a charismatic presence that is bigger than the films they appear in. The movies become a “Jack Nicholson” movie or a “John Wayne” movie. Cool Hand Luke is a “Paul Newman” movie at the height of his charisma. In the first half of his career he was a star. In the second half of his career many would argue he became an actor. This is probably the fourth time I’ve seen this movie. Newman dominates the film and he never fails to communicate that he is a star.
  10. Hacksaw Ridge (2016). This is the fourth war movie on my list, if you consider Casablanca a war movie, which I do. It is the only one of the four that is about unadulterated heroism. What makes this movie unique is that it isn’t the heroism of a John Wayne war movie and its theme of righteous killing. It is the true story of a conscientious objector, Desmond Doss, who earns the Medal of Honor without firing a single shot at an enemy. It is a compelling story with an Oscar nominated performance from Andrew Garfield.

Of the 153 movies I saw in 2017, all but 11 were at least “really like” movies. These ten movies just happen to be the best. Starting next Monday we begin compiling a new list of “really love” movies.

 

“Really Like” Movie Recommendations Are Even Better When You Exercise a Little Judgement

Last Saturday night my wife Pam and I watched 20th Century Woman for our weekend movie night. If you’ve been following the Objective Top Twenty all year, you’ll note that this movie has been on the list for most of the year. We were pretty excited to see it. In the end, though it kind of left us feeling a little flat.

Last Saturday night my wife Pam and I watched 20th Century Woman for our weekend movie night. If you’ve been following the Objective Top Twenty, you’ll note that this movie has been on the list for most of the year. We were pretty excited to see it. In the end, though, it wasn’t the movie we expected.

20th Century Woman is a semi-autobiographical movie directed and written by Mike Mills and reminisces about his teenage years in Santa Barbara, CA, He is raised by a single mother, played by Annette Bening, with the assistance of two other women in his social circle.

It is an intriguing movie with interesting characters. I wasn’t bored by it but the movie didn’t quite connect with me. As an aside, I found it interesting that Greta Gerwig, who co-stars as one of the other female influences in the story, turned around after this movie and drew on her own teenage experience in Sacramento, CA.  Gerwig wrote and directed a similar movie, the recently released and highly acclaimed Lady Bird. While Mills made the focus of his movie about the mother, Gerwig centered her movie on Lady Bird, the teenager. Perhaps 20th Century Woman would have more effectively connected with me if it were focused on the teenager, Jamie. Punk Rock also has a prominent place in 20th Century Woman, a music genre that passed me by without hardly an acknowledgement of its existence.

I ended up rating this movie as a “like” but not a “really like” movie. The “really like” algorithm estimated that there was a 67% probability that I would “really like” 20th Century Woman. Is this a case of the movie simply representing the 33% probability that I wouldn’t “really like” it. Sure, but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t warning signs that it might end up in the 33%.

Without getting into the mathematical weeds of the algorithm, let it suffice to say that the probability that I will “really like” a movie is the blend of the objective data that goes into the Objective Top Twenty and subjective data from Netflix, Movielens, and Criticker which are based on my personal taste in movies. If the data from the subjective sites is limited, my “really like” probability is weighted closely to the objective data. On the other hand, if the subjective data is plentiful, then its recommendation is very reliable and my “really like” probability is close to the subjective recommendation.

You might find this illustration helpful. The Credibility Quintile organizes the movies into five groups based on how reliable the subjective data is. Quintile 5 is very reliable data and Quintile 1 is not very reliable. The five movies listed all have close to the same probability that I will “really like” them but are in different quintiles.

Movie Credibility Quintile Objective “Really Like” Probability % Subjective “Really Like” Probability % Probability I Will “Really Like” This Movie
Men of Honor 5 63.4% 69.0% 67.2%
Far and Away 4 61.6% 69.6% 66.6%
Nebraska 3 69.1% 63.4% 66.3%
Fabulous Baker Boys, The 2 65.3% 69.9% 67.0%
20th Century Women 1 68.3% 51.2% 67.0%

While all five movies have relatively the same overall probability, they aren’t equally reliable. Men of Honor is clearly a movie that, according to the highly reliable Quintile 1 data, I will like more than the rest of the world and the algorithm reflects that. The same could be said for Far and Away. The movie Nebraska, on the other hand, seems to be a movie that I would like less than the general public. Note as a Quintile 3 movie my probability is halfway between the objective and the subjective probabilities.

It’s the last two movies that illustrate the point I want to make. The probability that I will “really like” The Fabulous Baker Boys is identical to 20th Century Woman. Both movies are in below average credibility quintiles. That is where the similarities end. When you look at the subjective probabilities for both movies, The Fabulous Baker Boys has a strong trend towards being a movie I will “really like”. Even without reliable data it might be a movie worth taking a chance on. 20th Century Woman is headed in the opposite direction towards being a movie I probably wouldn’t “really like”. I should have caught that before watching the movie. It doesn’t mean I would have given up on the movie. It just means that I should have waited another cycle or two for more data to more reliably predict whether I would “really like” it or not.

Algorithms are tools to help you analyze data. Using algorithms to make decisions requires the exercise of a little judgement.

 

 

Add a Year Here. Tweak a Formula There. And, the Objective Top Twenty Looks Very Different.

I was able to add 1998 to the Objective Database last weekend. The extra data allowed me to factor in Oscar wins to the algorithm. But, it was one little tweak to the Oscar performance factor that dramatically altered the Objective Top Twenty this week.

I was able to add 1998 to the Objective Database last weekend. The extra data allowed me to factor in Oscar wins to the algorithm. But, it was one little tweak to the Oscar performance factor that dramatically altered the 2017 Objective Top Twenty this week.

For the Oscar performance part of my algorithm I created five groupings of movies based on their highest Academy Award achievement. If a movie won in a major category it went in the first group. If it was nominated for a major but didn’t win, it went in the second group. If it wasn’t nominated for a major but won in a minor category, it went into the third group. If it was only nominated in a minor category but didn’t win, it went into the fourth group. Finally, if it wasn’t nominated in any Oscar category, it went into the fifth group.

In terms of what percentage of the movies in each group that had an average IMDB rating of 7 or better, here are the results:

Best Oscar Performance: %  7+ IMDB Avg. Rating
Major Win 90.3%
Major Nomination 87.7%
Minor Win 79.7%
Minor Nomination 71.7%
No Nominations 59.8%

Wins seem to matter, particularly for the minor categories. Major nominations clearly are better “really like” indicators than minor nominations. It’s the no nominations grouping that’s most revealing. If a movie doesn’t get at least one nomination, the odds of it being a “really like” movie are dramatically reduced. This led to my discovery of some faulty thinking on my part.

If movies like DunkirkLady Bird, and Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, all movies headed towards major Oscar nominations in January, are treated in my algorithm as if they failed to earn a single Oscar nomination, those movies are being unfairly penalized. It was this flaw in my system that needed fixing. Now, those movies that haven’t gone through the Oscar nominating process are designated as Not Applicable. No Oscar performance test is applied to them. Without the weight of the No Nomination designation, many of the movies that didn’t get their first release until 2017 have risen significantly in the 2017 Objective Top Twenty rankings.

***

Get ready for a Thanksgiving treat. Now that 1998 has been added to the Objective Database, we can reveal the Objective Top Seven Movies from the years 1992-1998. Adding Academy Award Wins to the mix will shake up those rankings as well. Check in next Thursday after you’ve taken your post-turkey dinner nap.

***

The wide releases this weekend are Justice LeagueThe Star, and Wonder, but it’s the limited release, Mudbound, that I’ll be watching closely . This movie, set in the post-WII rural American South, is being mentioned as a Best Picture contender. Here’s the thing though. Most people won’t see it in the movie theater since it opens simultaneously on Friday on Netflix streaming. Can a movie that is more widely viewed at home than in the theater gain Academy Award traction? Stay tuned.

 

What Does the Best Picture Oscar Race Look Like Today.

This time of year I follow AwardsCircuit.com to follow the latest thinking in the Oscar race. AwardsCircuit updated their projected nominees this past Monday and with nine weekends left in the year eight of the ten Best Picture projections have not gone into wide release yet. Does this mean that the best is yet to come? It could. But, it could also mean that they are still hyped for Best Picture because their exposure to critics and audiences has been limited.

I was away most of the week and so I wasn’t able to update my databases, my lists, or come up with new interesting studies. But, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about “really like” movies.

This time of year I follow AwardsCircuit.com to follow the latest thinking in the Oscar race. AwardsCircuit updated their projected nominees this past Monday and with nine weekends left in the year eight of the ten Best Picture projections have not gone into wide release yet. Does this mean that the best is yet to come? It could. But, it could also mean that they are still hyped for Best Picture because their exposure to critics and audiences has been limited.

There were other movies that have already been released that were expected to be Best Picture contenders. Of these only Dunkirk and Blade Runner 2049 have met their pre-release expectations and are still considered Best Picture caliber movies. Other Best Picture hyped movies, like Battle of the Sexes, Marshall, Suburbicon, and Mother, have either wilted or flopped when exposed to critics and audiences. The same could happen to the eight pre-release movies still projected for Best Picture nominations.

If Dunkirk and Blade Runner 2049 have survived the scrutiny of critics and audiences to remain Best Picture contenders, how do the remaining eight projected contenders measure up to those movies so far. All eight have been seen at film festivals to a limited degree by critics and audiences and so there is some feedback to see how these movies are trending. Using average ratings from IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes % Fresh ratings, we can get some early feedback on how those eight movies are faring so far. I’ve converted the Rotten Tomatoes % Fresh to a ten point scale to get an apples to apples comparison with IMDB. I’ve also included the four movies mentioned above that haven’t lived up to the hype so far. The eight pre-release contenders are in bold on the list.

Movie IMDB Rotten Tomatoes Total Score
Call Me By Your Name 8.3 9.8 18.1
Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri 8.3 9.8 18.1
Lady Bird 7.8 10.0 17.8
Dunkirk 8.3 9.2 17.5
Blade Runner 2049 8.5 8.8 17.3
Shape of Water, The 7.5 9.7 17.2
I, Tonya 7.4 9.1 16.5
Mudbound 6.3 9.5 15.8
Battle of the Sexes 6.9 8.5 15.4
Marshall 7.0 8.3 15.3
Mother 7.1 6.9 14.0
Last Flag Flying 6.7 6.8 13.5
Darkest Hour 5.3 7.9 13.2
Suburbicon 4.7 2.5 7.2

If the post-release feedback is consistent with the pre-release feedback, then Call Me By Your NameThree Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, and Lady Bird are the real deal. The Shape of Water, and I, Tonya also appear solid. Mudbound could be on the fence. The early audience response to Last Flag Flying and Darkest Hour may be warning signs that these movies may have been overhyped. If they falter, Battle of the Sexes could move back into contention. You could also see two movies that haven’t been seen by either critics or audiences yet, The Post and Phantom Thread, possibly emerge as contenders. You could also see a dark horse like The Florida Project (IMDB=8.1, Rotten Tomatoes=97% Fresh) sneak in. There are still many twists and turns that will present themselves before Best Picture nominations are announced in January.

The first of these eight movies to test themselves will be Lady Bird which goes into limited release this coming weekend. With fifty critic reviews registered in Rotten Tomatoes, it is still at 100% Certified Fresh. This is one that I’ll probably see in the theaters. Soairse Ronan has become one of my favorite young actresses.

Why Does CinemaScore Leave Out So Many Good Movies When Issuing Grades?

The 2017 Academy Awards will be forever remembered as the year that La La Land was awarded Best Picture for about a minute before they discovered that Moonlight was the actual winner. Those two movies have something else in common. Neither movie received a CinemaScore grade despite, arguably, being the top two movies of 2016.

The 2017 Academy Awards will be forever remembered as the year that La La Land was awarded Best Picture for about a minute before they discovered that Moonlight was the actual winner. Those two movies have something else in common. Neither movie received a CinemaScore grade despite, arguably, being the top two movies of 2016.

I’m thinking about this issue this week because three movies with Oscar buzz, StrongerBattle of the Sexes, and Victoria and Abdul,  went into limited release last weekend. None of them were graded by Cinemascore. There is a valid reason for this but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing to movie pre-screeners like myself.

For me, Cinemascore is appealing because it measures only opening night reaction. Most people who go to the opening night of a movie are there because they really want to see that movie. The pre-release buzz has grabbed their attention to such an extent that they can’t wait to see it. They walk into an opening night movie expecting to love it. When they walk out of the movie and respond to CinemaScore’s survey they are probably grading based on expectations. So, when a movie receives an “A” from Cinemascore, it tells us that the movie lives up to the hype. Anything less than that suggests that the movie experience was less than they expected.

CinemaScore gets stuck when it comes to movies that are released in a limited number of theaters prior to them being released widely in most theaters. CinemaScore samples locations throughout the U.S. and Canada to establish a credible unbiased sample. When a movie goes into limited release, it is released in some of their sample locations but not in most of their sample locations. Last weekend, Stronger was released in 573 theaters, Battle of the Sexes was released in 21 theaters, and Victoria and Abdul was released in 4 theaters. To provide some perspective, Kingsman: The Golden Circle opened in 4,003 theaters last weekend and earned a “B+” grade from CinemaScore. When Stronger and Battle of the Sexes goes into wide release tomorrow, does word of mouth reaction from moviegoers who’ve seen the movie in the last week disturb the integrity of any sample taken this weekend? When Victoria and Abdul goes into wide release on October 6, is its release into just 4 theaters last weekend sufficiently small to not taint the sample? I don’t know the answers to these questions. I’ll be looking to see if these movies get graded when they go into wide release. In Box Office Mojo’s article on last weekend’s box office performance they indicate that CinemaScore graded Stronger an “A-” even though it hasn’t been officially posted on their website. Perhaps they are waiting to post it after wide release?

I understand why grades don’t exist on CinemaScore for many limited release movies. I understand the importance of data integrity in the creation of a credible survey. I will just observe, though, that in this age of social media, using limited movie releases to build pre-wide release momentum for quality movies is an increasingly viable strategy. Just this week, A24, the studio behind the rise of Moonlight last year, decided to put their dark horse candidate this year, Lady Bird, into limited release on November 3rd after it emerged from the Telluride and Toronto film festivals with a 100% Fresh grade from Rotten Tomatoes. CinemaScore may be facing the prospect of an even broader inventory of ungraded top tier movies than it does today. It will be interesting to see how they respond to this challenge, if at all.