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Why does the critically acclaimed not sell?


#1

It’s the time of year where we get top ten lists in pretty much everything. It’s a way to get web clicks and a way for reviewers, critics and internet warriors to sort out their experiences of the year. I’ve been reading through the cbr top 100 books, which has a big range of diverse titles. And I’ve been reading the opinions here in threads for for movies, comic books and TV.

And a question struck me, one that I think is more complicated than it first appears.** Why does the best of stuff never also appear on the bestselling list?**

At first glance it’s easy to say the masses have no taste, or just to shrug, or to say that each critic has their own taste so it’s hard to get consensus. But I think none of those answer the question. Let’s take the approximate top consumed product in each category:

Movie - Jurassic World
Comic - Star Wars
TV - The Big Bang Theory

and here’s mostly top critically acclaimed works of 2015:

Movie - Mad Max
Comic - The Vision
TV - Hannibal

Sometimes you get something that hits both lists. The Force Awakens, Secret Wars and Game of Thrones being examples. My question is why isn’t it more consistent? Why does the ‘good’ stuff not sell? Or do we look down on the real ‘good’ stuff that does sell simply because it doesn’t offer the freshness or originality of the critically acclaimed items? And in that case are best of lists, or awards and so on really representing something different from the best, but rather the new/different/challenging? And does that mean that only the noisy internet and the critics want that kind of fare whereas 90% of the actual market want The Big Bang Theory instead?


#2

This is the question! I think there are many factors, and I can give some examples from personal experience. I think a lot of it has to do with how we want to spend our free time and what we want from our entertainment. As i’ve gotten older, i’ve taken on better jobs with more responsibilities and started a family. At the end of the day and on weekends, i’m just tired. I need to recharge and have a bit of fun. So as much as I want to see that Academy Award nominated film or read the Eisner nominated book, i’ll put it off because it also looks like a challenge or maybe a bit depressing or emotionally draining. I’ll pick up something a bit more…“fun” just because its what I need.

I think the masses are coming from a similar place. Looking at the stuff you listed, all of those share commonalities. Big fun, high concept escapism. Sometimes you need a lot of energy and mental space to fully process great art and as our world gets more complicated, and our work days get longer, we’re running out of head space to do much thinking when we’re having fun in our free time.

Edit: I also firmly believe that the voice of the critic is much less important than it used to be. It’s all about peer review, social media and rotten tomatoes type of scoring. We as a society want to know a verdict that fits in a tweet more than the nuanced analysis.


#3

As someone who works in marketing, I would say the answer to nearly every question about contemporary society is marketing. But with stuff like this definitely. Kind of a boring answer.


#4

hmmm well that doesn’t explain epic box office flops with $100 million marketing campaigns behind them? Quality still does matter and we’re always eager to find the next big thing that came from nowhere. The feel good story as it were.


#5

Don’t blame ME!
I loved Mad Max!


#6

And Hannibal was my favorite tv show in years!


#7

Well, quality matters with marketing too, and these days marketing is so much more than buying ads in newspapers and on TV.

Something like Fantastic Four had a ton of ads but the messaging was really inconsistent and didn’t seem very confident in the product they’re trying to sell. Audiences can smell that. (Dawn of Justice and Deadpool are both looking the same, unfortunately).


#8

that’s true, but that brings me back to something i wrote above about the rotten tomatoes thing. I think people pay attention to chatter. I really didn’t see much of the marketing for Fantastic Four, and If i did i just tuned it out. But i heard SOOOOO much buzz on social media about how bad it was rumored to be, and then you hear the rotten tomatoes stuff and all of a sudden, its opening night and I know that movie is a terrible flop to avoid. Likewise for Mad Max, all i heard was praise for it. Everyone in my networks was just going on about how awesome it was. Buzz can work both ways i guess, but its amazing how powerful and fast spreading it can be.


#9

I’m afraid I think Robert is right here, marketing is the most predominant factor.

My partner doesn’t have any inclination to go search out great works of fiction, she just wants whatever she’s sure will stop her from being bored for a few hours and usually that means whatever is placed directly in front of her at the time.

Most people are like this. It doesn’t mean they’re not smart or that they don’t get the intricacies of life, it just means they have a different set of stuff other than fiction that they hunt down and devour. In her case she’d go hunting for real-crime documentaries or acoustic covers of songs or videos of pugs. In my dad’s case he learns lyrics of country songs and hassles me to download more episodes of The Curse of Oak Island. Neither really care too much about Mad Max, if at all.


#10

In 2015, social media, peer reviews, rotten tomatoes = marketing. That’s what I meant went I said it’s more than buying advertisements.


#11

ah yeah. But that kinda stuff can’t be controlled really. How are marketers working in pop culture spaces handling this stuff? Sure there’s the official social content, but If enough influencers decide to love or hate something, then that’s it. “Game over, man”. Crazy times!


#12

I think we’re sort of on the same page here, but I don’t think the “influencers” independently decide anything.


#13

Usually though, these days that genuinely means something is crap as opposed to the Citizen Kanes or The Rite Of Springs of the past. No one really wants to get it wrong again which is why some absolute garbage sometimes ends up being praised by critics. I wouldn’t really actually blame anyone for not giving to much heed to reviewers.


#14

What is best is seldom the same as what most people consume most of. Just like what we crave most is almost never what is best for us. They’re just two different categories.


#15

I think it’s because of mass appeal. If you aim for the meaty part of the market you will - 99% of the time - sell your product. The catch is what appeals to the masses is what they already know. Most people aren’t cool with change or something new…unless someone tells them they should be (like a celebrity; not a critic). When it comes to the different or the new, there’s a niche of people who are always ready to accept and try it. For anything to be a commercial success it must make it past the early adopter stage and make it to the mainstream. The lifespan of anything new looks like a bell curve, with a minority of people jumping on it in its nascent stage and the masses following with those who are late to the party bringing up the rear.
This means that a lot of things won’t blip the radar no matter how good they are unless they reach critical mass in terms of market appeal. And that a lot of utter bollocks gains mainstream success simply due to influence and buzz.

I’m writing this purely from an advertising/marketing/media background but I think it holds true.


#16

I think there’s a lot to the mass appeal thing.

If you look at the 3 acclaimed pieces Jim mentions (I haven’t watched Hannibal but will assume based on what I have heard from fans of it here) they are outside the norm.

Mad Max dispensed with a screenplay entirely and drew a story where the lead characters says about two dozen words.
The Vision is a strange mix of family sitcom and slow creeping horror, unlike any other superhero title on the shelves.
Hannibal has a serial killing cannibal as one of the protagonists. That has happened previously with Dexter but that was again a niche appeal thing.

I think for critics that originality and any new spin on things makes the works hugely refreshing. The same for the likes of us who are frequent and savvy consumers of entertainment. For the ‘average’ viewer the safer fare of standard formulas and the familiar is more comfortable.


#17

I’m with Phr0ggi and Gar on this one. Popular things appeal to as many people as possible, and that frequently means that quality is sacrifices in favour of broadness and providing the audience comfort.

The Wire is one of the best TV shows ever, but it’s complicated, it illustrates problems while not offering solutions. The protagonists are frequently unsympathethic and when they do good, they’re frequently punished for it, especially if they buck the system. It struggled to stay on the air each year, and largely did so because HBO believed in the show’s quality and their business model being different from network TV.

By comparison CSI, or Castle or NCIS give you a story where the heroes are challenged but win out in the end - be it after 45 minutes or a multi-episode story arc. You’re guaranteed that they’re in the right, and even the abrasive or combatitive cast members are on the same side, and if a cop has to break the rules it’s only because they get results, damnit!.While these shows can be written and shot well, and the actors can give great performances, they’re still basically popcorn TV. And this subgenre of cop show is so pouplar I’ve given three examples, two of which are franchises.


#18

I agree with that. Critics like to be challenged, most audiences don’t. It’s not rocket science. But then I wouldn’t say Mad Max Fury Road “didn’t sell”. It was an R rated movie - its audience was always going to be smaller than Jurassic World.


#19

Yeah, and its rating is part of selecting away from the broadest audience possible. Horror films used to be mostly 18-rated in the 80s, and now they’re 15 because more teenagers can go to see them.


#20

See that I’m not sure about it, as it inherently suggests that most people want broad or bland, and only a select few want to be challenged, which I think is a bit rubbish. And it doesn’t explain the works that end up on both bestseller and award lists like I listed above. I think fans get dismissive of the ‘masses’ as if they’re less sophisticated or intelligent, which I don’t believe to be the case at all.

This is somewhat similar, suggesting brain popcorn is the only kind of media that can have widespread appeal, but there’s too many works that are the exception to this.

After having some time to stew on it I’m wondering if critics and those attracted to that job are inherently looking for a certain type of product, and so the source itself is skewed to the alternative or boundary pushing. I think we see this alot, where popular works are derided and the more obscure you can go with your top choice the more of a critic you look like. There’s a level of discomfort perhaps if you’re in the role of music journalist and you suggest Taylor Swift has the best album of the year

I dunno. The critic lists are the best free marketing and media any work can get, and I’m sure they cause some bump in sales (though I don’t know how much). Aiming for the critics seems to mean you limit your audience, aiming for the mass appeal seems to miss what the critics are looking for. Hitting both is tough, and I don’t know what separates one work from another in hitting both targets. That of course is the secret sauce, and I’d love to know what’s in the formula.

I’m also now curious as to how small a percentage of the marketplace is vocal on the internet. Books, movies, shows and music that get constant references and praise on the web can end up being much much smaller that items that do’t get much social media attention. Could it be that the internet active community is mostly the same types of fans, making up maybe 5%-10% of the market?