Friday, March 1, 2013

Death to all stars! (Long live letter grades)

If you like movie criticism accompanied by star ratings, savor the reviews in today's CLT section. As of next Friday, we're switching to letter grades. I have hoped for this change for years, and the boss has said OK.

Our sister paper, the News and Observer in Raleigh, uses letter grades; my reviews often run there, so this simplifies the ratings chore. I've always felt people raised on letter grades in school had a better idea of what they meant, especially as we'll use five levels -- A, B, C, D, F -- instead of four, as with stars. (I didn't give even the worst movies "no stars.") Most importantly, the change gives me more flexibility: Instead of half-stars, I'll have pluses and minuses.

The two-and-a-half-star ratings were the breaking point. People have often told me, "If a movie gets less than three stars, I blow it off." I appreciate their trust, though that statement suggests they don't read actual reviews. But plenty of two-and-a-half-star movies deserve your consideration.

That 2.5 translates into either a C plus or a B minus. A C plus says "slightly better than mediocre, so not worth much." A B minus says (at least to me), "This film is flawed but ought to find an audience that would appreciate it." When I ship reviews to Raleigh, I use a B minus to encourage readers to look more closely. 

The common misconception about critics is that we want people to attend films or stay away on our say-so. We're little Roman emperors, deciding which gladiator should be spared in the arena and which should get a sword through the neck. But good critics want to tell readers what kind of experience they'll have at a movie, then let them make up their own minds whether to go.

Maybe the letter "B" will make folks stop for a moment, even if there's a minus sign attached. That's my goal: To get them to consider all of a mixed review and decide whether the film's accomplishments outweigh its shortcomings.