The Long View: Rigging the Ratings – How IMDB has become another ‘culture war’ battleground

The Long View is a monthly essay series looking at issues to do with film and the film industry as relevant to our GCPH programmes and audiences. We are happy to receive essay ideas or drafts from anyone wishing to contribute to the website. If you wish to contribute to the series please contact Ewan or Rohan at film@grassmarket.org with any essay proposals or roughs.

Over the last couple of seasons at the GCPH we have endeavoured to screen as wide a selection of films as possible. When programming we take very seriously our role as a community cinema. We try to programme content that is both reflective and representative of the diverse and varied needs of our audience and the wider society we are situated within. Some of the recent titles we have screened include films that seek to challenge the complacent, male-dominated and overwhelmingly white cinematic perspectives of Hollywood and mainstream British and European cinema. Among those titles would be films like Harriet (2019), a biopic of the Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman directed by Kasi Lemmons, The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) by the wonderful Marielle Heller, Freedom Fields (2018), Naziha Arebi’s intimate portrait of post-revolution Libya as seen through the prism of an all-female football team, and most recently the James Bond spin-off spy thriller The Rhythm Section (2020) directed by Reed Morano. All of these films were warmly received by audiences at the GCPH, yet when we look at the general public perception of these films then we can begin to see the first hints that all is not fair and equal in one of the most important places for film information on the internet. 

Freedom Fields (2018) Dir: Naziha Arebi

The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) came into being in the early 1990s, initially as an ad hoc listing service initiated by the British film fan and computer programmer Col Needham. It sought to pull together basic information about film in the form of ‘actor’, ‘actress’ and ‘director’ lists. Over the course of the 1990s the service expanded to take in whole film titles, with progressively more detailed cast & crew listings, that were easily cross-referential. The website also became a significant aggregator for film journalism and on implementing it’s 1 to 10 star-rating system, became an online replacement for long-time print film bibles like Halliwell’s and Maltin’s. This central placement as the main reference point for the on-line film fan and cinephile, became much more problematic when then fledgling online book retailer Amazon.com acquired the company as a subsidiary known as IMDB.com, Inc. After Amazon became involved in the sale of online DVDs and Blu-rays, and later still, streaming and digital rental services, the role IMDB ratings played in influencing audience trends would more frequently be called into question.  

Any registered user of the IMDB service has the capacity to cast a vote from 1 to 10 stars on any given title in the database. Each of these votes are then collated and an average rating (with decimal point) is then given for each film. Furthermore, IMDB began to publish a Top 250 films list, with a published algorithm that takes into account the number of votes cast on a given film to help place a title in a broader, popular context. The long-time and present No. 1 film on IMDB’s Top 250 is The Shawshank Redemption from 1994. That title has an IMDB rating of 9.2. The highest ranked film of the 21st century is The Dark Knight (2008) at No. 4, with an IMDB rating of 9.0. The oldest film in the Top 250 is one of a handful of Chaplin comedies in the chart, 1921’s The Kid at No. 101, with a rating of 8.2. At No. 19 we have the highest non-English language film in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), with a rating of 8.6. The lowest ranked film in the Top 250 is the final feature of Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski, the 1994 trilogy closing Three Colours: Red, with a rating of 8.0.

Three Colours: Red (1994) Dir: Krzysztof Kieslowski (Rated 250 in the IMDB All-Time Top 250 films, as of 01/03/2021)

All of the titles in the Top 250 have to, by the nature of the algorithm, have a sizable popular appeal, making it unlikely that more obscure titles that populate cinephile best-of lists will be present. What is more many large franchise features with built-in mass audiences will be given greater prominence as a result of the high ratings that fans are likely to give such titles. This article isn’t really about IMDB’s Top 250, however reflective it may in fact be of a different kind of ‘culture war’ that of ‘fandom’ vs ‘cinephilia’. No, what is of interest to this article is how certain film titles trend toward far lower average ratings than the film’s themselves seem to justify or warrant. Usually a solidly watchable, if uninspired title, will tend toward a 7.0 IMDB average rating. Films that are considered to be average to below average tend to be found in the 5.0 to 6.5 rating bracket, rather than say a 4.0 to 6.0 average rating, as you might expect. This can in part be explained by the reluctance to give the lowest star ratings to all but the very worst of films. If 6 is the real average, then a 7 is reflective of something quite good, while 9 and 10 are really reserved for ‘best’ or ‘favourite’ films.

Looking at a quick sample of popular box office titles in recent years we can find the following IMDB ratings:

Avengers: Endgame (2019)                            Rating: 8.4       814,000 votes cast

Toy Story 4 (2019)                                         Rating: 7.8       204,000 votes cast

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! (2018)       Rating: 6.6       81,000 votes cast

Black Panther (2018)                                    Rating: 7.3       627,000 votes cast

Beauty and the Beast (2017)                         Rating: 7.1       275,000 votes cast

This is a very small sample size, but just looking at these titles a few things may already be discernible. Popular franchise films tend to rate well and have a larger voter base. That said, think of those vote numbers. One of the highest ranked films of recent years has less than one million unique user ratings. This tells you how many people actually actively contribute to the IMDB service, of which a good proportion are likely to be UK or US based and therefore already come with a certain set of likely biases when it comes to films they actively engage with. Intriguingly, despite being one of the most watched films of 2018 in the UK and the US, Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! Has less than 100,000 unique user ratings. I am going to argue that this might also reveal an underlying gender bias among those people who actively and regularly contribute ratings to the website. 

Mama Mia: Here We Go Again! (2018) Dir: Ol Parker

When looking at the impact that can be disproportionately felt by certain types of film, I would now like to draw attention to some of the titles I mentioned at the beginning. The most obviously mainstream of these would likely be The Rhythm Section. 13,000 people have voted on it, to give it an IMDB rating of 5.3. Compare this with the blandest of the Pierce Brosnan Bond films Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), That had 182,000 votes and an IMDB rating of 6.5. Is The Rhythm Section duller than Tomorrow Never Dies? Does it have less action, less thrills, less drama, less tension? Does it feature inferior performances? Does it have poorer quality stunts and special effects? Is it less innovative in both form and narrative? Personally (and remaining well aware of how subjective all of this is), I would say it wins out on all of these fronts, and I think our audience for the film at the GCPH agreed. Let us then consider some other obvious differences between the films. The Rhythm Section is directed by a woman and features a central female protagonist. It also features a subplot that effortlessly places a passionate sexual relationship between the white protagonist and a black male supporting character at the centre of the film’s drama. Now could it be possible that the reason why we are seeing a rather low rating for an otherwise pretty good spy thriller, is less to do with the flaws in the film, than to do with these identity angles within its content and production? 

Now I accept it could also be reflective of a different, more naturally critical, proportion of IMDB users rating The Rhythm Section rather than Tomorrow Never Dies. Critical consensus on the film within mainstream media was also decidedly mixed, yet if we look for similar kinds of projects a trend does become apparent. Harriet pulled a 6.6 IMDB rating from 20,000 votes, The Diary of a Teenage Girl got 6.9 from 30,000 votes, Freedom Fields got 6.5 from just 69 votes. Looking at rough equivalents, a film like Glory (1989) about a similar period in US history and covering the issue of race during the Civil War, has a rating of 7.8 from 123,000 votes. It’s directed and produced by white Hollywood filmmakers and featured a coterie of popular white actors of the time in the lead roles – hence Denzel Washington’s victory at the Oscars in the Best Supporting Actor category, rather than Best Actor. It also sticks rather solidly to an archetype of the historical period drama, something that Harriet very consciously moves away from in its embrace of a more genre-oriented approach to action. Most obviously of all Glory is about men and war, men and history, men and destiny. By comparison Harriet has the temerity to give us history from a female perspective with a strong female protagonist. 

“I would argue, with few exceptions, if there is a moderately high-profile film helmed by a female director, then you will find a rather tepid average rating on IMDB.” 

The gender bias follows through in subtle little ways as well. If we consider the difference in rating between The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Eighth Grade (2018). Both films are coming-of-age comedy-dramas focused upon teenage and adolescent girls. The former is directed by a woman, Marielle Heller, the latter directed by a man, Bo Burnham. Again, personally, I think both of these films are wonderful interrogations of girlhood. Yet the more wholesome vision of contemporary teenage life wins out with a higher IMDB rating of 7.4 from 63,000 votes. Marielle Heller’s film is darker, it’s a period piece, it has a far more complex and complicated central protagonist, all of these things could work against it in the glorified popularity contest that is IMDB’s ratings system. Yet, jump back a few decades and consider Clueless (1995) and Election (1999). Two highly subversive takes on the American high school experience, one directed by Amy Heckerling, the other director by Alexander Payne. Have a guess which one has the better IMDB score? Despite being a much more popular film of its time, Clueless pulls 6.5 from 185,000 whereas Election is a 7.2 from 90,000 votes. 

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) Dir: Marielle Heller

I would argue, with few exceptions, if there is a moderately high-profile film helmed by a female director, then you will find a rather tepid average rating on IMDB. If that film also has a prominent female lead character, and / or a racially diverse central cast, then IMDB will more often than not consign such a title to the mid-range sub-7.0 rating. Even where a male director is involved with a project, if that project deviates from the bro-y ‘masculine’ identity of a beloved franchise as Star Wars did, then the IMDB rating seems curiously out-of-synch with the rest of the franchise – The Last Jedi being the obvious example of this with a 7.0 from 566,000 votes. Even in the ridiculously low-stakes criticism of the action blockbuster, it is striking that an all-female box office smash like Charlie’s Angels (2000) receives a 5.5 from 176,000 votes, while the 80s macho action-star pension plan that is The Expendables has a much healthier 6.5 from 326,000 votes. 

Ghostbusters (2016) Dir: Paul Feig

All of this is to say that IMDB ratings may not necessarily be rigged, but there very definitely seems to be a gender imbalance between those people who choose to offer a film rating as part of their interactions with the website. This would be of negligible concern if it wasn’t for the fact that IMDB’s rating system, unlike a Halliwell’s or Maltin’s rating, has the veneer of the democratic about it. This isn’t a single, powerful male critical voice, but rather that more nebulous notion of ‘the people’ or ‘the audience’. As a result the IMDB rating is given a little more legitimacy than it otherwise should have, which then becomes truly problematic when we consider that the owners of the website now actively create / produce their own film & television content. So in the future it is maybe worth considering some of the above variables when taking that IMDB rating as some rule of thumb on the quality of a given film. Hidden behind that number are a raft of biases, pulled from a remarkably small overall sample size. Furthermore, that number is all too manipulatable when the social media fuelled pile-on might begin on a given title, particularly one that fits into the crosshairs of whatever divisive notions of society and culture are being contested in the given moment. One last thought, it is worth considering the IMDB journey that the recent Ghostbusters (2016) remake went on. Initially, after the first raft of votes the film had an IMDB rating of 3.6 from 40,000 votes. Gradually, as the film was placed at the centre of this ‘culture war’ discourse, the rating crept back up and now sits at 6.5 from 205,000 votes, most likely around about where it should have been located in the first place. 

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