A Dutch study suggests that in order to influence early box-office takings, film studios and distributors of arthouse films should focus energy on persuading critics to write about their movie instead of merely adopting strategies to avoid negative criticism.

In a recently conducted study dubbed The Impact Of Film Reviews On The Box Office Performance Of Arthouse Versus Mainstream Motion Pictures, researchers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands found that it is not the nature of the film review that impacts the film choice of the arthouse- viewing public, but rather the number and actual size of the critical reviews.

The study examined the effects of film reviews on the box-office performance of 84 non-documentary Dutch films that premiered in the Netherlands between 1998 and late 2003. It worked under the hypothesis that critical reviews of arthouse films directly influence the consumer selection process, while reviews for mainstream films predicted consumer decisions - and therefore box-office success.

"While it seems obvious that film reviews should have a bigger impact on arthouse film-goers, there was no concrete evidence to back this up," says Gerda Gemser, associate professor of strategy at the University of Groningen, who led the study.

It is common to assume that when it comes to choosing an arthouse film, consumers tend to rely more on reviews, since there is less media coverage, less advertising and fewer stars.

Rethinking mainstream PR

Gemser says studios and distributors should consider adjusting their strategy to film reviews. "Previous research has demonstrated that arthouse movie-goers and film reviewers use the same evaluative criteria when judging a film, therefore, one might think that these consumers would be influenced by the nature of film reviews," Gemser says. "We found this not to be the case.

"When it comes to mainstream films, reviews do not play a role in inducing people to go and see a film. It therefore seems pointless for distributors to invest money in order to encourage reviews on mainstream films. But for arthouse films, 'visibility' is of the utmost importance. Even if the reviews are negative in character, it still helps distributors to sell the film to the public, as the arthouse consumer seems rather insensitive to the nature of the review, but does react to the presence and size of a review," adds Gemser.

The study concluded that mainstream reviews only predict the level of demand, while arthouse reviews - irrespective of nature - play a pivotal role in generating interest in arthouse movies.

Exceptions to the review rule

Mark Batey, chief executive of the UK's Film Distributors' Association, warns that a mathematical formula is not necessarily the answer to the complexities of a convoluted movie market. "Every movie is a one-off, so you have to approach it that way," he says. "And there could be as many exceptions to the rule as those that conform to the rule."

Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, for example, suffered from poor critical reviews, and went on to be a global box-office phenomenon, taking over $1bn worldwide. Batey adds that reviews ultimately do help distinguish any film, whether it is a tentpole film or one aimed at a niche market.

"Any film can be set apart from its competitors due to positive reviews," he says. "That's why distributors are quick to add these quotes to movie posters and ads."