my take on commercial success vs. critical acclaim.

When I posted that question two days ago, there was a motivation behind it.

The movie I reviewed a few days back, Let Me In, was pretty much a bomb at the box office.  On its first weekend, it took in only $5 million, which isn’t good for a flick that opened on over 2,000 screens.  Analysts say the reason for the low number was threefold:

  1. The crucial young audience (17-25) wasn’t interested in a movie with tween protagonists.
  2. The Tween audience wasn’t able to see it because it’s rated R.
  3. The older audience (30+) doesn’t like seeing kids that young as protagonists in a movie with scary/violent subject matter.

So, it didn’t do so well, despite the fact that it’s a very, very good movie.  (I must not be alone in my assessment, because it currently holds a great 87% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, and has been showered with almost universal critical acclaim.

Now, here’s the deal: I know it’s a better movie than the Twilight flicks.  It’s smart, well-acted, and offers a whole new and original take on an otherwise tired subgenre.  As a piece of storytelling, it’s in a whole different league.  Yet the Twilight films each made about twenty times what this one brought in, so the all-important wallet vote went to the formulaic, badly acted, corny drivel, for reasons that have very little to do with the artistic merit of the films in question.  By all my personal categories for good fiction and well-crafted storytelling, the flick that bombed is far superior to the one that rakes in the money.

Does that make me one of those snobby people who walk around wearing turtlenecks and huffing, “You peasants just don’t know how to appreciate art?”

I mean, commercial success is all well and good, and yes, I have heard (and used) the Heinlein quote that “the only criticism that counts has the words PAY TO THE ORDER OF written on it.”  I like currency, and without commercial success, art is little more than self-indulgent navel-gazing.  But I would have no pride in making a product that I personally consider inferior and generic, even if it makes me so much money that I can afford a different Bentley for every day of the year.

At the end of the day, I guess I’d rather be the guy who directed Let Me In than the guy who directed Twilight:Eclipse.  I guess that when push comes to shove, I’d choose the “Critical Acclaim” camp, if it’s the acclaim of the critic that matters most to me…the one between my ears. 

Snobby? Elitist? Idealistic? Stupid?


27 thoughts on “my take on commercial success vs. critical acclaim.

  1. scotaku says:

    Well, now you’ve changed the game by reframing it a little. Sure, I’d rather be the guy who directed Let Me In, of course. But he got paid hella lot more for the effort than, say, I did for my novel.

    If there’s money on the table, then sure: critical acclaim wins. But if the money is just a potentiality, then I’ll take commercial success because right now I have to.

  2. og says:

    Exactly. It isn’t as if the “let me in” folks didn’t make a dime as you framed the original question, they got paid fairly handsomely by the standards of “ordinary people”. And, if the movie is that good, the residuals will be a cash cow for some time to come.

    • Marko Kloos says:

      I didn’t quite stipulate that critical acclaim also meant “not making a dime”. I guess I should have phrased the original scenario differently.

      • og says:

        Gotcha. I tend to think of “Commercial success” as “Made a profit”, not “Made an obscene profit”. If i have a choice between doing good work and making a living, and doing crap work and making a big wad of cash, I pick the good work/living. In the type of work I do, that means repeat business, so you can continue to make a living.

        I worked with an artist once who “never sacrificed his art to commercialism”. He painted intensely complex paintings in oil and watercolor, taking years, sometimes, to finish them.

        They were predominantly hideous.

        When he died, his family burned them. He never sold a thing. If that’s the choice to be made, that’s just dumbassery.

        • ILTim says:

          Thats kind of what I pictured as critical acclaim (the burned art) in the original question.

          But the problem is, commercial success is an escalating scale starting at ‘broke even, plus a little’ and going up to ‘instant billionaire’. The more you pander to the ignorant masses, often the higher you’ll go. So you can try for commercial success with moderate profits without compromising artistic value much, or you can screw artistic value completely for cash.

  3. pignock says:

    “Snobby? Elitist? Idealistic? Stupid?”


    William Shakespeare said “to thine own self be true.”

    If you can look at yourself in the mirror after you cash your royalty check, that’s all that matters. If the image looking back at you is gaunt from malnutrition, well, you may need to compromise your principles a little.

    Best wishes


  4. Jeff says:

    My preference for commercial success is based on the premise that the work is my best effort to reach the audience, which makes the critics’ opinions secondary. I want to be able to take pride in the work itself and the fact that it had an impact on the reader. It might be a work aimed at a teenager following a momentary fad like the Twilight series or my equivalent of Hamlet or Charles Dickens. Different audiences but best effort. If it succeeds, I hope the pay check will follow.

  5. PhillipC says:

    I believe in always doing your best at what you’re working at. In the movie example, I’d rather do a great job at making a not so well received movie than a so-so job at a popular movie that I know will be crap when it airs.

    On a different note, I watched Let the Right One In last night on Netflix play on demand. It was fascinating, and it showed some of the differences between what a foreign audience will watch versus an American audience. I can picture people walking out of it in an American theater because it wasn’t all excitement RIGHT NOW!!! and there were parts that didn’t seem to be integral to the plot. I enjoyed the film, and I’ll look forward to seeing the American version.

  6. eli says:

    “1.The crucial young audience (17-25) wasn’t interested in a movie with tween protagonists.
    2.The Tween audience wasn’t able to see it because it’s rated R.
    3.The older audience (30+) doesn’t like seeing kids that young as protagonists in a movie with scary/violent subject matter”

    This is not a failure of “critical acclaim”.
    To say so is to suggest the masses are capable of critical thinking.

    • cybrus says:

      Also, I’d wager that a large majority of movie goers are there for easy entertainment, not art. “Let Me In” may be a better movie, but for quite a few folks, it’s not a better 2 hour escape.

  7. scotaku says:

    More Thinking Later:

    When you first posed the question, I interpreted it in light of a solo endeavor, something taken on by an author or perhaps even a fine artist. Again, your reframe of the scenario makes it a much, much larger project, with no one person (regardless of the auteur) in absolute control.

    Also, there’s the notion of guaranteed distribution. If True Love Story No. 57 had been greenlighted with a clause guaranteeing the publishing equivalent of a 2000-screen release, then I’d be thinking a lot more on the side of “artistic merit” over “commercial success,” because my tally sheet would have the latter already marked off.

    Looks like I’m basically restating my initial reply. I need to check my coffee meter – I suspect I’m a quart low.

  8. Joanna says:

    Again, I call it the Will Ferrell principle: He makes his money on boorish comedies like “Old School” (which I couldn’t stomach enough to finish), and indulges himself with movies like “Stranger Than Fiction” (which is one of my favoritest movies EVAR). He’s obviously capable of some really great work, acting-wise, but he’s also willing to play to the audience’s preferences in order to make fat wads of cash.

    Of course, I doubt that Stephanie Meyer considers her work commercial schlock, either.

  9. Snobby? Elitist? Idealistic? Stupid?

    Of course not. Worst case? Short-sighted. I haven’t seen that movie yet, but I will based almost entirely on your recommendation of it. That will carry on to others, and so on. The movie, however, will not do well in theaters.

    Boondock Saints tanked in theaters, as did almost ever movie Kevin Smith made. Ask Kevin and Troy Duffy what they think about DVD sales.

    I’d wager that, when Let Me In hits DVD/Blu-ray, the production company and all those who stand to make points on the film will suddenly find themselves rather confused on what to do with all their giant piles of money. Small/niche fanbase be damned.


  10. The Other Jay says:


    My audience includes my lovely and talented spouse, my son, and my daughter.

    After I take care of whatever they need, I’ll find some time to spend caring what other people think. Until then, vote with your checkbook.

  11. Jay G. says:

    I’m sorry, the sales guy votes for GIANT PILE ‘O’ CASH every time…


  12. perlhaqr says:

    Idealistic? Yeah. Stupid? Nah.

    I’d rather be the director of Twilight. I could salve my conscience with the knowledge that I made the best take on horrible drivel I could, and, of course, millions of dollars.

    “Making crap” is not necessarily synonymous with “doing a crappy job”. It’s not like the director wrote the book the movie is based on. And painful as it may be, the book it’s based on is stupid popular.

  13. farmist says:

    My question is: Could they have made LET ME IN as a PG without seriously compromising the result?

    • Marko Kloos says:

      No. They would have neutered it and pulled all its fangs. It’s just a bit too dark for the PG-13 set. The protagonists being on the cusp of adolescence is central to the story, though…the US director was asked by the studio to bump up their ages, to make the movie more appealing to the Twihards, but he refused.

  14. Brandon says:

    From my subjective point of view, “critically acclaimed” does not always equal “good,” just like “made a truckload of cash” doesn’t always equal “bad.” The Thin Red Line opened to great critical acclaim, but I couldn’t stand it. I honestly think it’s a bad film. Conversely, Waking Ned Devine isn’t widely known in this country, grossing in total what New Moon (gag) took on its opening night, and yet Waking Ned remains one of my favorite films of all time. I mean, how can you not laugh at a little old naked man on a motorcycle?

    Critical acclaim doesn’t mean I’ll enjoy a movie, or even that it’s a good movie (Bowling for Columbine stands prominently in that category). When I see that phrase, I’m often somewhat disinclined to watch a movie, unless I see positive commentary from someone other than a film critic, as in this case with Let Me In. Movie reviewers are subject to their biases just as the rest of us, and it seems to me that the more pretentiously artsy a movie, the more likely it is to win critical acclaim (and an Oscar, for that matter).

  15. Carl says:

    The choice isn’t between commercial success and critical acclaim, the choice is between pride in one’s work and compromise for the sake of commercialism. (Or, in the case of certain “sparkly” books that shan’t be named, the choice of mastering one’s craft vs. shoveling semi-interesting plots dressed with potent themes of subservience to the alpha male.)

    The choice of pride in one’s work may not always be the smart choice–as evidenced by the painter in Og’s comment above–but placing either one’s talent or the work one seeks to create above consideration of what will sell or have mass appeal is a far more respectable choice.

  16. karrde says:

    Quick comment about definition of “commercial success”.

    Example: Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart liked working together. Capra would find a good, successful play or short story, and write a screenplay based on it.
    Sometimes, it would do minimally well in theaters. Maybe even moderately well. But they didn’t do really well until they were seen on TV, and even later when they were available on VHS/DVD.

    I’m told that there was a particular film titled It’s a Wonderful Life which went through that arc. It was a flop in theaters.

    Then some network TV exec decided to try it for a Christmas special. And it was a major hit, and has been a staple of Christmastime TV ever since. It is a perennial good-seller on VHS/DVD.

    Was that commercial success?

    Was it critical acclaim? I don’t remember if it got critical acclaim originally.

    The question as it was originally posed is interesting, but not well-phrased enough to answer easily.

  17. Al Terego says:

    Art for its own sake is a lot easier on a full stomach than an empty one.

    In most endeavors, one does what he must so he can do what he pleases. Is art different?


  18. TimP says:

    I think this is a slightly different question than “Critical Aclaim Versus Commercial Success”; I’d probably word it as “Working on something I’d be ashamed to admit to my friends and family for lots of money versus something I’d be proud to have worked on for a small to moderate amount of money”. In the first case I think I’d go with the Commercial Success, but in the more specific case I would probably go with pride and a small amount of money, though still perhaps not, I can make my millions now and then retire and spend the rest of my life working on my “art”. 🙂

  19. Mulliga says:

    I think a big part of the low BO is that much of the people who would have seen “Let Me In” are the people who already saw “Let the Right One In” a year ago.

    I’m one of those people. When I heard that “Let Me In” followed most of the beats of the film (and didn’t readapt the book, as the director claimed), I decided to pass.

  20. Justthisguy says:

    Heinlein always said that he was competing for beer money. He did OK, both financially and critically.

  21. “Snobby? Elitist? Idealistic? Stupid?”

    I don’t really know. However, I have to agree with Heinlein’s position. Without the money, chances are you will never have a real chance to have that “critical success”.

    Many of us spend our days laboring at a job (or jobs) that hold little interest for us any longer–outside of providing the paycheck that allows us to pay our bills, keep a roof over our heads and so on.

    I view the “novel written solely for commercial gain” to be something along those lines. And if people enjoy it enough to plunk down their coin for it, then we both win. They enjoy the work, I enjoy the money. The money allows me time to do other things, like writing a novel that may win critical acclaim. We all win.

  22. MarkHB says:

    As a commercial artist, I do what pays in order to be able to do what I will.

    When I have an idea which will sell to billions, and make me a fortune, I will do it in a New York minute, despite the fact that – to sell to millions – it will be art for the lowest common denominator. I will entertain billions with stuff I hate, and I will use the money I make to do the shit I want, to entertain a few dozen thousand.

    Way of the world, brosef.

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