Tuesday, May 03, 2005

In A World of Asymmetric Information....

The summer movie season is looming and thus the burning question every movie-goer must ask: which ones will actually be good and which ones should I avoid completely?

Not just a case of adverse selection, movie quality is a matter of taste and preference. Attempts to create a symmetry of information can never be consistently applied. If I bring a mechanic with me to buy a used car, he could give me all the information the dealership has: this part needs replacing, this part is good, that part is wearing. It’s not a matter of debate.

But suppose I consult someone with better knowledge about the movie, such as the director or screen writer. Assuming they are honest (a problem in itself), any opinions he has about the thing that matters—the quality of it—is subjective. Any objective information (such as the details of the plot) could be helpful to assess its quality, but it could ruin the movie. More information would not only affect my opinion of how good the movie is, it could actually decrease my opinion of the quality. Thus creating symmetric information while changing the value of the good as little as possible requires a delicate balance of conveying personal opinion and relevant fact. Rarely can these requirements be separated for one is embodied in the other.

Consider the movie trailer. It is meant to transmit the objective fact of what the movie is about. Thus it always has to give away information, but it passes on as little as possible to maintain the potential entertainment value. And yet it embodies personal preference, just as a journalist passes on their opinion by how they report the news. Scene selection, voice over dialogue, visual order—all of these are meant to engender a positive opinion of its quality. But ultimately it is not of the movie, but of the trailer. Trailers are not enough to judge quality with certainty.

So we hear/read reviews, where a critic (or a friend) consumed the good and reports on the quality. Assuming you can find someone you consistently agree with (a feat in itself), exceptions always loom as objective changes (such as the plot or style) dramatically affect the subjective conclusion. A local critic once gave a bad review of Jurassic Park, a movie most would consider phenomenal. It was clear from that review she simply didn’t like science fiction.

Sometimes a good indicator of movie quality is the basic information about how the movie is made. Who is the director? Is it a remake? Who stars in it? But none of these are consistent. Sometimes remakes are good (The Italian Job), sometime they are not (Planet of the Apes). Some directors are usually great (Tim Burton), but they have their dismal failures (again, Planet of the Apes). Sometimes Bruce Willis is in a good movie (Die Hard), sometimes he’s in a crappy one (Armageddon). A consistently good director can make a poor movie (Steven Spielberg’s AI) and a first time director can make a wonderful movie (Troy Duffy’s The Boondock Saints). There are no hard-fast rules.

I would love a reliable way to judge movie quality, but there is none. It ultimately comes down to considering all three categories and making a judgment based as much on instinct as information. But it takes a lot practice before you get any good at it. So before you go to the movies this summer, do your homework and think about the information you get. Realize the trailer isn’t the movie. Take all critics’ claims with a grain of salt. See how the movie is made. Who knows? You might just get lucky.

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