Nothing sends a shiver down one’s spine, quite like the words “review embargo.” Conventional wisdom says studios will release reviews for a film far before release if they think the notices will be good. This gives them a talking point to use in the campaign down the home stretch.
Case in point, TOP GUN: MAVERICK. The trades published their reviews two weeks before the movie opened. It remains the best-reviewed title of the year, which Paramount certainly leaned into in the run-up to the film’s release. MAVERICK may end up being the highest grossing film of the year. Coincidence?
Conversely, reviews published in the 11th hour are meant to limit access to a would-be low, Rotten Tomatoes score. The less time audiences have to read the reviews, the less time there is for bad buzz to take hold. Sony embargoed the reviews for MORBIUS until the day before it opened. We all know how that ended.
But is that true? Does the length of the embargo correlate to good or bad reviews?
NOPE, one of the most highly anticipated films of 2022, is two days away from release, and reviews have yet to come out. Is that a bad sign?
To answer that, we looked at the 40 films that have had theater-only, wide releases this year. For each film, we pulled two metrics. First, we used Rotten Tomato scores (RTS) to see if movies with late reviews earned poorer scores. Taking that a step further, next, we wanted to see if bad reviews resulted in poor word-of-mouth. We used the % drop in week 2 to measure that.
For the conventional wisdom to be proven, we’d expect longer embargoes to lead to poor reviews, resulting in shorter playability at the box office.
We started by looking at the date of the first trade review (Variety or The Hollywood Reporter) for each of the 40 films. We used the trades as our trigger since these are the publications that are first out with reviews. We then looked at how far the review date was from opening day.
As you can see below, nine films released reviews more than two weeks before opening (dark red), another seven were more than a week out (medium red), while the other 24 were within the last four days (pink), with the sweet spot being three to four days out. NOPE is now two days out.
The last two columns show the average RTS and the percentage of films that are certified fresh for each group. For example, 100% of the movie with a trailer released at least two weeks before release were certified fresh. The average RTS for those films is 83.
You can see that scores drop as the window between trailer and film release shrinks. Only half the films with reviews released in the final week were certified fresh.
So, we can see that the longer a studio waits, the greater the risk for poor reviews. But how does that translate at the box office? To answer that, we looked at how much the film dropped in week two. We chose that as our metric because a bad movie often results in bad word-of-mouth. And bad word-of-mouth usually results in significant drop-offs after opening weekend.
It turns out that there is NOT a very strong correlation between reviews and a film’s ability to hold in week two. Among the films with reviews more than two weeks out, the average drop at the box office was 48%. That’s a pretty good hold.
When we look at the next group – the films with reviews more than a week out – the average week two drop is 61%. So far, the pattern holds. Early reviews lead to better holds.
But, when we look at the last group with reviews released within days of the film’s opening, they average a 56% drop in week two. In other words, the movies in the pink group held better than those in the light red group. ‘
What does this all mean? The data shows that the longer a studio waits to release the reviews, the greater the chance for bad reviews. At the same time, those low reviews do NOT necessarily mean the film will see large drops at the box office after its opening weekend.