How I Grade
a great movie
I loved it. A must-see. A perfect or almost perfect movie. These are the movies I recommend to everyone. A hard rating to earn.
a good movie
I really liked it. Unless you hate the genre or star, 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.
an okay movie
I liked it. I wouldn’t recommend it, but I wouldn’t recommend against it either. Most movies fall into this category.
a bad movie
I didn’t like it. Unless you have a deep-seated love for the genre or star, avoid it. It wasn’t awful, but if I paid money, I felt burned.
an awful movie
I hated it. Everyone involved should apologize. Another a hard rating to earn. I can forgive a movie many things. Bad acting? It happens. Specious plotting? Maybe it’s atmosphere. Gratuitous nudity? Sure. But I can’t forgive boring. When reading a 1-star review, remember: I watch them so you don’t have to.
Let’s start with a binary scale. Gene Siskel argued a person yearns to know: “Should I watch this movie?”1
A pragmatic approach, but one that doesn’t differentiate between movies one should see and movies one must see. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight both deserve a “Thumbs up” but they are not equal.
Enter the star scale. I’ve encountered scales from three stars to ten, sometimes with half-stars.
But not all star-systems prove equal.
Roger Ebert hated the four-star scale his paper enforced because it presented no middle ground.2 Awful, bad, good, or great. No room for okay. Thus, we can rule out the four-star system.
Next, let’s consider the IMDb. It proffers a ten-star system. That’s a lot of stars. Perhaps too many. In 2009 the median movie score hit 6.6, implying users skew toward the upper bounds. Ergo, if you hate a 1-star and love a 10-star, what does a 3-star mean?
So if a four-star scale proves too small and ten-star scale too large, what’s ideal?
I like a five-star system. Ebert liked it too.1 It offers a middle ground (3-stars) while proffering discreet rating definitions.
And what about letter grade systems?3 I like them. Under-the-covers, they translate to five-star systems. A’s equate to 5-stars, B’s to 4-stars, and so on. I employ letter grades 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’ equates to an “okay” movie, to others it screams burn. A 3-star out of 5 display indicates a middle-of-the-road rating.
Grading systems are hard. I think a 5-star system works, but I’m not married to the idea. Some of my favorite reviewers eschew grades, preferring you read the review. Fair enough, but I bet they rate them behind the scenes.
- Ebert, Roger, “You Give Out Too Many Stars”, Roger Ebert , last modified September 14, 2008↩
- 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.↩
- The Onion A.V. Club makes great use of letter grades.↩