In Defense Of The Four Star Rating
Music, books, video games, movies; The things we do to entertain ourselves, to express ourselves, to bond with one another. Humanity has always longed for connection. To share our ideals or just make each other laugh; human interaction is one of our basic needs. This is what makes the way we reach each other and the way we entertain each other so important. People however do not always share the same taste in the way they are entertained, and there is more to life than just sitting at home watching movies. Our time is precious and no one wants to waste it listening to something they won’t like, or watching a terrible movie. Often we rely on word of mouth and the opinion of others to get an idea of whether or not a movie we are interested in is worth our time. One of the biggest ways of doing this has been through ﬁlm reviews.
As long as we’ve had forms of entertainment, we’ve had critics. Music critics, theater critics, we even have food critics to tell us what restaurants are worth our dining. Film has been no diﬀerent. Coming to life in the late 19th century, ﬁlm critics soon followed. The ﬁrst paper to ever appear dedicated to the critique of ﬁlm was The Optical Lantern & Cinematograph Journal in 1908. Much of early ﬁlm criticism took the form of whether or not moving pictures could even be considered art. As ﬁlm evolved and became a lasting form of entertainment; the knowledge of ﬁlm and the technical details behind ﬁlm, became more common, and so too did ﬁlm critics evolve. Now critics could judge ﬁlm from a multi faceted angle, critiquing technique and the actual craft that went into a ﬁlm's production. The mainstream movie goer, on the other hand, cared less about the technicalities of ﬁlm, and more about the wonder and amazement they got from seeing stories told through the technique.
On July 31, 1928 The New York Daily News latest publication featured ﬁlm critic, Irene Thirer’s, latest review of The Port of Missing Girls. In her review, Irene debuted a 3 star rating scale to indicate whether she felt a movie was “mediocre,” earning 1 star, “good,” earning 2, or “excellent,” which granted the ﬁlm 3 stars. The Port of Missing Girls she rated 1 star. The 1 star rating for The Port of Missing Girls is generally accepted as the ﬁrst review to rate a ﬁlm with a star rating scale. It has also changed the way critics would critique ﬁlms, paving the way for ﬁlms to be judged for both technical and entertainment merits. Newspapers promised to continue posting ﬁlm reviews with star ratings, oﬀering movie goers a chance to see what movies may or may not be worth their time and money to watch. As the years went on, more and more critics and newspapers picked up on the star rating system until it became an industry standard in the 50’s; evolving into the traditional 4 star system.
Modern times are much diﬀerent than the birth of cinema, in fact, how we obtain news, information, and even how we access entertainment has changed signiﬁcantly just within the last 25 years. In the past when a person wanted to read the latest ﬁlm review they had to read their local newspaper. Over time, magazines dedicated solely to ﬁlm emerged. Likewise, as television became a household commodity, shows dedicated solely to ﬁlm emerged: a la “At The Movies” with Siskel and Ebert. Now we have a vast multitude of resources and personal computers in the palms of our hands to pull up any article or ﬁlm review we could possibly wish to see. With thousands of articles and websites dedicated to reviewing ﬁlm, how do you know whose opinion to trust? More importantly what weight does their ﬁlm rating hold against your own opinion and others. It's not enough to trust the source is reputable if they cannot convey their opinion well enough to tell you what should be worth your time and money.
The 4 star rating system was popular among newspaper readers because it was simple, concise, and told them what they needed to know. As critics took note of readers eagerness to learn what ﬁlm garnered what rating, critics and papers nation wide adopted the 4 star system. As technology evolved and people could be reached nationwide instead of locally; critics, newspapers, and entertainment magazines now had to compete amongst themselves for readers. Siskel and Ebert began giving ﬁlms a "thumbs up" as long as it scored 3 stars or higher, and a "thumbs down" if it scored less than 3 stars. Entertainment magazines and websites began using lettered scores giving ﬁlms a grade such as "A" or "B+". Some instead stopped using stars and gave ﬁlms numbered scores of "1" through as high as "10". Factor in that, even further, these scores could be given half values such as "1.5" or "8.5", and now a simple rating system has become extremely convoluted and even more arbitrary.
What is the diﬀerence in a movie that scores "9.5 out of 10" or one that scores "10 out of 10"? What about one that scores "4 out of 10" instead of "3.5"? Odds are that both the "9.5" and "10" rated movies are exceptional and that both the "4" and "3.5" scoring ﬁlms are poor. Similarly, how do you compare a score of a "B" to an "8 out of 10". Both would logically seem similar, but then if it scored "7" instead of an "8", would it still be worth a "B"? All a score is really telling audiences is where a ﬁlm lands on a spectrum. Is it worth seeing or not? This is why Siskel and Ebert adopted the "thumbs up" or "thumbs down", to simplify their opinion to what audiences and readers really wanted to know most; should I see this ﬁlm?
If what people really want to know most is whether or not a ﬁlm is worth their time, then why doesn’t everyone just adopt a "yes" or "no" system and why do we here at Red Moon advocate for the traditional 4 star system? After all, every rating system is arbitrary anyway; based solely on the critics opinion. How does a 4 star scale convey an opinion about a ﬁlm better than any other method? I guess we could rate a ﬁlm with a "thumbs up" or a "thumbs down", or a simple "yes see it" or "don’t see it", but this is not the only information people want. Yes, it's what they want to know most, but people have varying taste. This is why even Siskel and Ebert’s "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" method was backed by their opinion of a given movie and based on the 4 star rating they gave that movie.
A 4 star rating is more concise, but still gives enough leeway for a broad idea of the critic's opinion. If I see a ﬁlm scored "2 out of 4", I immediately know it's average, not necessarily bad, but nothing exceptional. Again, if the score was "2.5", I know it's slightly above average and garnered some merit, but nothing that will cement the ﬁlm as standing the test of time. There are less grey areas with a 4 star rating. A "2 out of 4" is already 50% of its entire possible score. Stringing a score along a wide spectrum such as "0 through 10" with half-measures in-between allows for twenty diﬀerent possible ratings. 4 stars simply gets straight to the point, indicating both whether the ﬁlm is good or not, and to a degree how good the ﬁlm is allowing for an acknowledgment of varying taste in movies. Basically the higher your rating scale is, the murkier your opinion becomes. Less is more, and either your work is good or it isn’t. A smaller scale allows for each rating to carry more weight. A 4 star rated ﬁlm carries the weight that it is or should be damn near a masterpiece, whereas anything under 2 stars is more than likely not worth your time.
By adopting the 4 star scale, Red Moon, as lovers and creators of ﬁlm, are honoring that traditional rating scale for ﬁlm. More importantly however, we hold the opinion that alongside our reviews and opinions on any particular ﬁlm, a 4 star scale most accurately displays our thoughts on a ﬁlm's quality. It best conveys our opinion of any ﬁlm to the average ﬁlm goer, who may or may not share similar views, allowing them to make their own informed opinion on what they choose to watch.