Let’s assume that you’re a filmmaker of some sort, whether you’re an actor, a producer, a director, all of the above, or whatever else. Your project has finally made it to the combat zone that is the land of critical scrutiny. What do you think is the single worst thing that I or any other critic could possibly say about your project?
If you’re like most people, your gut reaction was to say “It sucked.” If that’s the case, you’re wrong.
Perhaps you took it a step further and went with something on the order of “That’s the worst crap I’ve ever seen.” If that’s the case, not only are you wrong, but you’re even more wrong than the first guy was.
I’ve been doing this for over a decade now, and I’ve picked up on a few secrets of audience psychology, though really, there’s nothing secret about them; it’s just a matter of remembering how to think like everyone else, which is a skill that many people – both critics and creators – lose the moment that they enter into their chosen arena. So what, then, is the single worst thing that I or any other critic can say about your project?
Even the actual words “disaster” and “doom” don’t convey the reality of disaster and doom to a project as swiftly as the phrase “it’s okay.” There’s just no creative death sentence as sure as being chucked into the pile of dispassionate mediocrity.
Here’s the full equation:
Best Ever > Excellent|Great|Good = Worst Ever > Bad > Okay
Here it is broken down:
Best Ever. Whether we’re writers or actors or directors or plumbers, it’s the accolade we all strive for, and why not? It’s really kind of a no-brainer, isn’t it? The best is the best. As long as an audience has respect for – or, perhaps even more to the point, no active disrespect for – the critic making the determination, then an accolade like “Best Ever” or even “Among the Best” will grab attention, and it will have an impact.
Excellent|Great|Good. While these words represent a sliding scale by definition and in the minds of most critics, as well, most audiences when looking at a review tend to lump these and similar words into the same judgmental pile. An actor, of course, is likely to and should catch the difference in degrees when seeing his or her own performance described, but being honest, the audience at large is far less likely to make that distinction. It’s a curse of overuse, but on the plus side, all of those words still translate into “go see my movie or watch my show,” so if the audience misses the nuance, it’s still a positive result.
Worst Ever. You’re either nodding and smiling with understanding or you’re very confused. Yes, folks, I’m telling you that “Worst Ever” or “Among the Worst” is just as good as and sometimes even better than “Good.” Why? There are a few bits of psychology at work here.
First, there is a massive contingent of people out there who are magnetically drawn to crap. They take phrases like “the worst ever” and “steaming pile of animal waste” as personal challenges. I know these people well, for I am one of them, and we are legion. Gaining a reputation as an ultimate stinker in a genre (especially one that doesn’t get a lot of popular respect to begin with) can actually lead to greater success for a film than being called “decent.” For example, does anyone really think that the Dino version of Flash Gordon is beloved by fans even thirty years later because it’s good? Hell, no! People love it because it’s so horrible that it’s come out the other side! That is the power of “the worst ever.”
Hell, I’ve even had a filmmaker or three thank me for laying that kind of label on their project. One said “it proves you’re honest” (and hey, that proves that the guy was real about his own stuff), and another said that if a few more people said the same thing, it could easily triple the rentals.
This is also where an audience’s disrespect for a critic can come into play. I knew a guy in university who always wanted to know what Leonard Maltin thought of any given movie. It’s not because he liked Maltin, though; it’s because he couldn’t stand him, and so he was automatically suspicious of anything Maltin liked, and almost certain to go see anything Maltin called out as garbage.
Bad. All of the above applies to a lesser degree to this category. Much like “Best” is to “Good,” the superlative value of “Worst” has got steroid-ridden muscle.
Again, though, “bad” is far from being a death sentence. Just ask Kristen Stewart and everyone else associated with Twilight, or the Wayans brothers.
Okay. Now that you’ve had time to give it some thought, it should be obvious that there’s nothing in the critical universe worse than “okay.”
It often means “your project was so uninteresting that I couldn’t even get pissed off about it.” At least when a critic hates something, you know that your project was able to stir some kind of emotion in someone. But when a critic – who is more likely as a matter of course to be trying to find the emotion in something that he or she is watching – can’t be stirred at all, even to complain? Uh-oh. After all, isn’t that what we’re supposed to love to do?
Looking at it from another angle, imagine some other aspect of your life, like lunch. When a friend asks how your boring, unexciting meal is, what are you likely to say? “It’s okay.” But you don’t mean it. Two days later you’re probably not even going to remember what it was. Now flash forward again and replace that lunch with the project you’ve worked so hard on as a creative professional. Do you really want someone to find it so uninteresting that they call it “okay,” the kiss of “I’ll forget it before next week”? I suspect you’d rather they were pissed enough to remember it instead. At least then you know you reached the person.
At least then, too, you’d have a shot of appealing to the “bad” instincts noted above, whereas “meh/mediocre” is a pretty universal “I’ll pass, thanks.”
So the next time you read a review that says “this movie sucks” or “that was the worst performance ever,” remember: it could be worse. The critic could have spoken in vague generalities and then said “it’s okay,” thereby telling everyone that he or she actually couldn’t give a shit less one way or another.