Why You Can’t Trust IMDb Movie Ratings

The site tells you, within seconds, whether a film or TV show is worthy of your time. It's also ridiculously easy to manipulate
Why You Can’t Trust IMDb Movie Ratings

Dil Bechara has an 8.9 rating on IMDb. That's a higher score than Citizen Kane (8.3), Psycho  (8.5) and Sholay (8.2) have and the same as Schindler's List does. Is the effusive reaction to Sushant Singh Rajput's last film, a remake of 2014 drama The Fault In Our Stars, driven by personal sentiment rather than artistic merit? User reviews such as, "Sushant's last film…This one deserves record-breaking ratings" would have you believe so.

Online ratings are an indispensable part of how we watch movies. They condense an entire feature-length production into a single metric, giving us a measure by which to decide, within seconds, whether it's worthy of our time or not. They're also ridiculously easy to manipulate.

Take IMDb, where all one needs to rate a movie out of 10 is a registered account. There's no way to verify whether voters have actually watched the film. While a statement on the platform mentions that it applies "various filters to the raw data to eliminate and reduce attempts at vote stuffing," the lack of transparency surrounding how the final score is calculated (it's not an average of all the votes) means that it's not so much a testament to the quality of a movie as it is to the ease at which online metrics can be skewed.

If Rajput's untimely death spurred an outpouring of 10/10 scores for the film on IMDb, in addition to its trailer becoming the first on YouTube to hit more than 10 million likes, the flipside is online campaigns that are orchestrated to tank a film's rating. In January, the IMDb page of Deepika Padukone-starrer Chhapaak was flooded with 1/10 ratings after the actress' visit to JNU in support of its student protests spurred the Twitter campaign #BoycottChhapaak. The film is currently at 5.1, with 12,001 or 50.7% of its 23,666 voters giving it one star. "Using IMDb and other rating services to peddle a political agenda is a dangerous and alarming trend," says the film's writer, Atika Chohan. "Everything got so muddled. There was no way to know whether the audience genuinely liked the film, were genuinely dissing the film or if they were all politically motivated."

There's no telling what will spark outrage online. Films and shows deemed "Hinduphobic", like Ghoul, Paatal Lok and Krishna and His Leela, are routinely downvoted.

And, more recently, so are films that are perceived to be promoting nepotism. "This film is rather an insult to Gunjan ma'am for boosting the career of C grade nepokid," reads one of the recent IMDb reviews on Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl. Of the 17,261 users who assigned the film a score, 6,754 (39%) gave it one star. The film currently has a 5.2 rating.

"It's so easy to identify when the trolls are at it. You click on the rating, you can see the percentage breakdown and it's easy to realise. If IMDb wants to remain a playground for trolls, one really can't do much," says Somen Mishra, head of creative development at Dharma Productions and creative producer, Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl.

The yet-unreleased Sadak 2, directed by Mahesh Bhatt and starring his daughter Alia, has a 1.1 rating on Google, based on 23,317 votes. Its trailer is the second-most disliked on YouTube, with 11.65 million dislikes. "I have not watched the movie and I am never going to. Then what gives me the right to award it a single star?" reads one user review, completely devoid of irony. One can only imagine what the film's eventual IMDb score will be.

Wired.com got it right in 2016 when it called IMDb's vote system "a soft weapon in all sorts of online turf wars." A film's content is no longer the sole basis by which it's rated on IMDb. Now, even the cast or crew's political leanings are reason enough to attack their art. Actress Swara Bhasker and director Anubhav Sinha, both of whom are outspoken against the current government, frequently find their films' IMDb scores at the receiving end of trolls' ire.

How serious are the repercussions of having one's film massively downvoted on a popular site? While the ratings might not necessarily act as a calling card within the industry or prevent those associated with a project from getting future work, there's a chance low scores can put off potential audiences.

Patty Smith, head of corporate communication at IMDb, acknowledged that "vocal fans attempt to influence the rating for a particular title for personal reasons," but added that the platform "is designed to detect and minimize the impact of these votes." She declined to elaborate on the exact methods used to arrive at a rating and whether the site would take efforts to make the voting process more stringent.

A film's rating isn't the only field on IMDb susceptible to manipulation. Last month, lyricist Varun Grover tweeted about how a man identified as Abhishek Chaudhary fraudulently added his name to the writing credits of all 16 episodes of Sacred Games. Weirder still, the man also had acting credits as the 'newborn baby' in Good Newzz and the 'real father' in Badhaai Ho.

Meanwhile, Pooja Tolani, who wrote two Sacred Games episodes, was required to submit screenshots of the show's end credits to IMDb as proof of her claim. In a Mumbai Mirror report, she spoke about how her submissions were rejected as they "couldn't be verified". Last month, writer Apurva Asrani detailed his three-year-long struggle to get his IMDb credit as Shahid co-writer reinstated.

IMDb, however, is far from the only user-driven movies platform vulnerable to vote manipulation. Last year, trolls 'review-bombed' Captain Marvel, the first female-led Marvel Studios movie, on Rotten Tomatoes, driving down its anticipatory "want to see" score. In response, the site axed not only that metric, but also turned off users' ability to comment on a film pre-release. "Unfortunately, we have seen an uptick in non-constructive input, sometimes bordering on trolling, which we believe is a disservice to our general readership," the site said in a blog post.

What, then, is the most reliable way to find out whether a film is worth your time? Ask your peers, says Mishra. "Thanks to social media, people trust their friends' views on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/WhatsApp groups more than anything else now."

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