It’s a sentiment that has been expressed enough to seem worthy of note:
2014 perhaps wasn’t the best year for movies.
When thinking about this year in comparison to other years and in particular last year, which had both Gravity and 12 Years a Slave, should we feel shortchanged?
Well, first off, we need to distinguish two things when deciding our definition of a “good” year for film.
1. The actual quality of films released. Were there fewer good films released this year? How do the “best of the best” stack up against previous years (Oscar contention)? Was there an abundance of bad films? Was it a year of more mediocre movies?
2. The perception of the quality of films released. This takes into account the same variables above, except we need to add an element of how well publicized, distributed, and/or patronized the good movies were compared to the bad movies. Collectively, were bad movies more present than good ones? Were people simply unaware of the good films?
The Best of the Best
In our collective memory years from now, we’ll probably only remember the greats. So it’s worth exploring, independently of all the junk, the most highly-rated films of the year. This won’t tell us overall the quality of film, but it will tell us if this year produced films that will filter into our future canon.
For this analysis, I’ll be using Metacritic as a proxy for quality of film.
Why use Metacritic over Rotten Tomatoes? Basically, Metacritic answers more granularly “how good” the movie was, not just what percent of critics liked it. It also favors more established, well-regarded critics. There’s a long explanation you can check out, and you can also reference Metacritic’s own explanation of how they calculate the score. I’m not saying it’s better; it just tells you something slightly different.
Why use Metacritic instead of anything else? Well, mostly because it already exists, it broadly tracks movies, and we’ve all heard of it, so we have a common reference point.
Let’s just look at the Metacritic scores of the top 10 films by year, regardless of how widely distributed they were.
So looking at the “best of the best,” this year was actually the second highest scoring year in the last 10 years, right behind 2013. That sounds like a pretty strong year for film! 2013 was an exceptionally strong year (the average is 3.4 points higher than 2014). Coming off 2013 probably skews our perspective a little about the quality of 2014.
As a side note, Boyhood has 100 on Metacritic. Both Gravity and 12 Years a Slave were less favorably reviewed at 97.
All the Rest
While it looks like some really great films were released this year, what about everything else? Maybe these best films were drowned out by a sea of terrible cinema. Below we can see the composition of films by Metacritic score each year (best films on the bottom).
We could look at the quality of films at different thresholds. For sake of choosing one, let’s use a threshold of above 70 on Metacritic for a good film (a score of 70 puts a film in the top quartile over the past ten years).
As a side note and reference point, the variability by year isn’t that huge as you can see in the spread chart below (the middle blue section is the middle 50th percentile, the gray bars hit the top and bottom 1%):
In fact, 2014 had the most films released above that score, even more than 2013. And the highest percentage of films with >70 score was this year.
|# of Films||% of Films|
So 2014 has been the standout year for solidly reviewed films if we look at the top quartile on Metacritic.
Perception of Great Films
Another factor that may be contributing to the sense that 2014 wasn’t the best year for film is the amount of attention the good films got. There are different ways to measure this, but a simple way is to look at the number of theaters films were released in. For reference, here are some films released in 2014 and how many theaters they were released in:
|The Amazing Spider-Man 2||4,324|
|Million Dollar Arm||3,019|
|The Quiet Ones||2,027|
|The Theory of Everything||1,220|
|The Skeleton Twins||461|
|Under the Skin||176|
|Only Lovers Left Alive||95|
For broad public consumption, anything under 1,000 theaters is a fairly limited release. With close to 40,000 theaters in the U.S., it represents only 2.5% of screens. If you live in New York, Los Angeles, and other major cities, you’ll probably have access to those films, but for everyone else, you probably won’t be able to see them at the theater. (Of course, this barrier is being broken down by the advent of VOD.)
But as a rule of thumb, the wider the release, the more marketing, and hence the more public awareness. In the chart below, we can see the composition by distribution over the years for films that were reviewed above 70 on Metacritic.
Looking at the dark green bars (that’s releases over 3,000 theaters), 2014 had the highest number of wide releases of solid films (tied with 2005) — many more, in fact, than 2013. Additionally, if you look at the entire bar (>100 theaters), which admittedly includes some really small releases, it’s higher than any other year. So you’d imagine the perception would be that there were a lot of good films available.
Maybe it’s that people didn’t patronize the good movies and thus have a sense that they paid for bad movies.
What if we looked at some measure of how much people spent on good movies versus bad movies?
In a sense, we’re looking at a dollar-weighted Metacritic score by year (total % share of box office revenue x Metacritic score of film).
The chart shows that for every dollar moviegoers spent, they got a higher Metacritic score than in any other year except 2012.
In fact in 2013, per dollar spent people got a lower quality film than 2005, 2007, 2008, 2012, and 2014.
So why are people saying 2014 wasn’t a great year for film? Well, let’s review what we’ve already discovered:
- There were more top-quartile films released than any other year
- There was a higher percentage of top-quartile films released than any other year
- The average of the top 10 films was only lower than 2013
- The number of top-quartile films distributed in over 3,000 theaters was higher than in any other year
So what gives? The answer lies more in a combination of breadth of distribution and critical scores. If we look at number of films at incremental Metacritic scores, we notice something. Around the time we change the threshold to 80, this past year starts looking like not such a great year compared to others.
It also sort of explains the perception of 2013 as the standout year, which remains a standout above a threshold of 85.
So you can see that until we hit about 80 on Metacritic, 2014 looks like a pretty good year. Beyond that, it becomes just another year in film. Certainly, there were great movies that came out in 2014. And in fact, broadly there were a lot of really solid movies this year.
But perhaps we came out of the year lacking an overwhelming sense of having been given a selection of extremely high-quality films, because the great films weren’t release widely enough.
Characterizing 2014’s year in film
Aggregately, it was a very strong year, with well-reviewed films released to a wide audience.
Selctively, a small selection of really amazing films were released in limited distribution.
Broadly, not as many amazing films were distributed for enough people to see them, so as an audience, we were left feeling that we didn’t see the best of filmmaking this year.