a great movie
I loved it. A must-see. A perfect or nearly perfect movie. These are the movies I recommend to everyone. This is a hard rating to earn.
a good movie
I really liked it. Unless you hate the genre or star, you should watch it. These are the movies I recommend to most folks. They may not resonate like the 5-star selections, but they don’t disappoint either.
an okay movie
I liked it. I wouldn’t recommend it, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend against it either. Many a summer blockbuster falls into this category.
a bad movie
I didn’t like it. Unless you have a deep-seeded love for the genre or star, avoid it. It wasn’t completely awful, but if I paid money to see it, I felt burned.
an awful movie
I hated it. Everyone involved should apologize. Also a hard rating to earn. When reading a 1-star review, remember: I watch them so you don’t have to.
Let’s start with a binary scale. A yes or no. Gene Siskel’s argument for the famous ‘Thumbs up/Thumbs down’ system was that a person just wants to know: “Should I see this movie?”1
It’s a pragmatic approach, but one that fails to differentiate between movies one should see and movies one must see. Put another way, Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008) both deserve a “Thumbs up” but they are not equal.
Enter the star scale. I’ve seen scales from three stars to ten, sometimes with half-stars between.
But not all star-systems are equal.
Roger Ebert hated the four-star scale his paper used because it offered no middle ground.2 A movie was either awful, bad, good, or great. Most movies are just okay. Thus, we can rule out the four-star system.
Next, let’s consider the iMDb. It uses a ten-star system. That’s a lot of stars. Perhaps too many. In 2009 the median movie score was a 6.6, implying users are skewing toward the upper bounds. Also, consider what a given rating means on such a scale. If 1-star means you hated it, and 10-stars means you loved it, what does 3-stars mean?
So if a four-star scale is too small and ten-star scale is too large, what’s ideal?
I like a five-star system. Ebert liked it too.1 It offers a middle ground (3-stars) while remaining small enough to allow for discreet rating definitions.
And what about letter grade systems?3 I quite like them. They’re essentially a five-star system with an ‘A’ as 5-stars, a ‘B’ as 4-stars and so on. I use a letter grade system behind the scenes because it’s how my brain works.
So why display them as stars? Well, for one, grade definitions aren’t universal. To me, a ’C’ grade means an “okay” movie, to others it means a bad movie. A 3-star out of 5 display makes it clear it’s a middle-of-the-road rating.
The other reason is Netflix. With the service’s rise in popularity, synchronizing my grades with their rating system made sense. Thus, if you’ve rated movies on Netflix, my definitions will be familiar.
Grading systems are harder than one would think. It’s all about nuance. I think a 5-star system works, but I’m not married to the idea. Some of my favorite reviewers don’t use grades at all. They’d rather you read the review. Fair enough, but I bet they rate titles on Netflix.
Ebert also argues that readers dislike scales with a middle ground, but I disagree. We know what it means for a movie to be “okay.” Sometimes, instead of “Should I see this movie?” readers want to know “Will I hate this movie?” A middle ground answers that question. ↩