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Rotten Tomatoes is still my favourite site for film reviews. You get a percentage score for each film, a summary of each review, and – most importantly – a link to the original reviews themselves.

But every now and then it drives me mad. It scores each movie solely on the basis of how many positive reviews it has, but it doesn’t give any weighting to each review. So if 100/100 reviewers quite like a film (and give it say 3 stars out of 5), it gets the same score – 100% – as it would if 100/100 reviewers absolutely adore the film (and give it say 5 stars out of 5). So a bland, unprovocative film that managed to mildly please most critics would get a very high score.

This is what set me off last week: I went to see Moneyball partly on the basis that it got 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. Yes, it’s a well-made and thought-provoking film; but it’s also boring, over-long, and not half as funny or intelligent as it should be. This is what the Rotten Tomatoes scoring system can do.

(Maybe I am unjustifiably taking it out on this innocent website. It still got a staggering 87% on Metacritic. Maybe, in this case, it’s the critics themselves who are almost universally wrong. How can Robbie Collin at the Daily Telegraph call it ‘an accomplished, bracingly intelligent film that scores points on all fronts…’?!)

The solution to this problem? Do what Metacritic does. Instead of just adding up the number of positive reviews a film gets, give a certain weighting to each review according to how positive the reviewer was. They also (I’ve just found out) give some reviewers greater weight – as if they trust their judgment more than others. And, it has to be said, the site is really crisp and beautiful – unlike the Rotten Tomatoes site.

Here is the explanation:

A peek behind the curtain

Creating our proprietary Metascores is a complicated process. We carefully curate a large group of the world’s most respected critics, assign scores to their reviews, and apply a weighted average to summarize the range of their opinions. The result is a single number that captures the essence of critical opinion in one Metascore. Each movie, game, television show and album featured on Metacritic gets a Metascore when we’ve collected at least four critics’ reviews.

Why the term “weighted average” matters

Metascore is a weighted average in that we assign more importance, or weight, to some critics and publications than others, based on their quality and overall stature. In addition, for music and movies, we also normalize the resulting scores (akin to “grading on a curve” in college), which prevents scores from clumping together.

How to interpret a Metascore

Metascores range from 0-100, with higher scores indicating better overall reviews. We highlight Metascores in three colors so that you can instantly compare: green scores for favorable reviews, yellow scores for mixed reviews, and red scores for unfavorable reviews.

Why do I stay with Rotten Tomatoes? Simply because the UK site gives you reviews from the UK press, which Metacritic doesn’t, and lists the films under their UK launch date – so you can see what is out this week. If there were a UK Metacritic I would switch to it immediately. And if I had time I’d set about developing one. Maybe there is some money to be made here…

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It opened yesterday. One day, when I’m film critic for a national paper (I’ll still be a priest – surely you can write a review in a couple of hours on your day off), I’ll get to the Cannes Film Festival with an expense account and a press pass. But not this year. 

Here is my festival career to date:

  • 1987, Venice. I was a student travelling round Italy and the festival happened to be in full swing when I arrived. We got tickets to an obscure and very boring film by Ermano Olmi (can anyone help with the title?). But it was such a thrill just to be there, and to see a film outside on a balmy Venetian evening.
  • 2002, Cambridge. Spellbound. One of the best documentaries I’ve seen – about spelling competitions in the States.
  • 2007, London. Sean Penn’s Into the Wild in Leicester Square.

Pretty lame really, but as I say, I’m just waiting for that call from a national paper…

Sukhdev Sandhu gives the history and describes some of the excitement:

Ever since 1946, when a casino was converted into an 850-seater movie theatre, Cannes has helped to define, reward and incubate important cinematic movements. When, at that first festival, it awarded a top prize to Roberto Rossellini for Rome, Open City, it effectively drew the world’s attention to the neo-realist aesthetic that would go on to inspire and influence the likes of Satyajit Ray, Iranian geniuses Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and much-feted contemporary American directors such as Kelly (Old Joy) Reichardt.

In the late Fifties, the reception it gave to early films by François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard made the French Nouvelle Vague internationally famous and changed the viewing habits of a generation of young filmgoers. But it didn’t just champion new talents; it honoured the work of directors Luis Buñuel and Orson Welles who had fallen out of fashion elsewhere.

A decade later, in 1968, when Truffaut, backed by many other judges, decided to protest against the government-backed dismissal of Henri Langlois as head of the French Cinémathèque and to support student demonstrations across the country, it stoked fierce debates about the relationship between art and politics.

Throughout the Seventies, Cannes jurors backed American directors such as Altman, Scorsese and Coppola who, sometimes in the face of Hollywood hostility, were trying to introduce grittier directorial visions into the studio system. Over the following decades, they also championed maverick spirits such as Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee and, in 1989, an earnest unknown called Steven Soderbergh.

In recent years, even though Cannes has played an important part in promoting cinema from the Middle East, Asia and even the Arctic Circle, it has become increasingly common to deride the festival for becoming a trade fair, a mere marketplace. Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro served as a juror in 1994 and recalls: “People would often ask me – in the elevator, in the library, at the bar – they’d say, ‘So are you selling or are you buying?’ If I said, ‘No, I’m a jury member’ their face would just go blank ”

Of course, Cannes is about business. Cinema itself is an unstable and seductive marriage of art and commerce, aesthetics and entrepreneurialism. Cannes and Hollywood, though they each claim to represent different outlooks – the former positions itself against the crass globalism of the latter, while the latter derides the elitism of the former – need each other: Hollywood gives Cannes star power and global reach; Cannes gives Hollywood class and an intellectual fillip.

There are those who argue that Cannes has become less important since the rise in the number of film festivals. Venice, Berlin, Rotterdam and Pusan are all major players. But Cannes is not only still the grandest, it upholds the same values as its rivals: a commitment to directors rather than genres, to creating a non-national platform for filmmakers, to showcasing a challenging work.

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