Can Movie Reviews Predict Box Office Success?

Positive Reviews Signal Film Will Be A Flop; Negative Reviews — a Hit, Study Suggests

Young adults of various ethnicities watching a movie in a theater
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The author, Pantelis Loupos, is an assistant professor at the University of California, Davis, Graduate School of Management.


When we think of movie reviews, we often take them as harbingers of success or failure at the box office. Common sense dictates that positive reviews generate more revenue and vice versa.

However, what if I told you this isn't always the case?

In research recently published in Marketing Letters that analyzes critics’ pre-release commentary and opening weekend box office revenue, I partnered with three co-authors: Yvette Peng, Sute Li and Hao Hao, all UC Davis Master of Science in Business Analytics (MSBA) students at the time.

We turned this conventional wisdom about the impact of movie reviews on its head, revealing an unexpected harbinger of failure phenomenon in the movie industry. 

Rotten reviews = box office success?

Our findings — fascinating and a touch confounding — have implications that might just change how you perceive popular pre-release reviews. Our study analyzed a plethora of pre-release movie reviews penned by film critics on Rotten Tomatoes.

We wanted to see if we could predict a movie's success based on these reviews. As it turned out, the so-called harbingers of failure did exist.

Interestingly, when these critics penned positive pre-release reviews, they signaled that the movie would be a flop. Conversely, their negative reviews hinted towards the film being a success. The stronger the sentiment in either direction, the stronger the predictive signal.

For example, the movies "Baywatch" and "Tomb Raider" received positive pre-release reviews but generated dismal opening box office results.

What’s more surprising, this pattern persisted even with top critics, which usually consists of professional critics. Expertise, it seems, does not always lead to accurate predictions. This surprising outcome challenges the prevailing belief that positive reviews equate to better box office revenues. 

To understand this paradox, we used text analytics to delve into the writing style of these harbingers of failure, shedding light on their personality traits and cognitive biases. What surfaced was fascinating: harbinger critics lean towards a formal and analytical writing style, using fewer self-reference pronouns. This suggests that the harbinger critics tend to be overconfident in their evaluations, while non-harbinger critics are more introspective and display greater confidence in their reviews.

Remarkably, these traits persist, irrespective of the reviewer's professional stature. Top critic harbingers use a greater number of adverbs in their positive reviews, a trait tied to extraversion and over-optimism.

This fresh perspective on critic personality traits adds a new dimension to our understanding of the film review landscape.

Students bring new insights to light

As we share these groundbreaking research findings, I’d like to highlight the remarkable contributions made by our MSBA students. We hope this inspires prospective students to see the value and opportunities an MSBA degree can provide. It’s not just about learning; it's about applying that learning to challenge established norms and bring new insights to light.

The movie industry, like any other, is fraught with complexity and unpredictability. Yet, with the application of robust analytics and a willingness to question and explore, even its paradoxes can be unraveled. As we move forward, we continue to champion the blend of academia and practical application, for it is this synergy that leads to such path-breaking revelations.

Our study, “What reviews foretell about opening weekend box office revenue: the harbinger of failure effect in the movie industry,” was published in Marketing Letters in April 2023.

Media Resources

Media Contacts:

  • Tim Akin, Graduate School of Management, UC Davis,
  • Karen Nikos-Rose, News and Media Relations, UC Davis,

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