This month has been a strange one for the creators and producers of the new indie film Kicks. Their coming-of-age drama, about a Bay Area teen who sets out to recover a pair of beloved Air Jordans, had earned promising reviews after playing at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, and was now getting released by Focus World, a division of Oscar-winning studio Focus Features. Things were going well enough that, on Sept. 2—a week before opening night—a member of the film’s creative team checked to see how Kicks‘ user-voter score was faring on the film’s IMDb page. The tally: About 80 votes, giving the film a weighted score of 7.8. For a low-budget indie that by that point enjoyed just a handful of festival dates and few select word-of-mouth screenings, the number was promising.
But as the weekend progressed, Kicks began experiencing a sudden and surprising influx of new IMDb votes—and nearly all of them were negative, including several 3/10, 4/10, and 5/10 ratings. By Sunday, the movie had gone from around 80 votes to nearly 1,000, dragging its average down considerably (as of this afternoon, Kicks had 1,082 votes and a 4.5 score). And the bulk of these scores came from voters who provided the site with no biographical data, making them essentially anonymous—and, to the filmmakers, very suspect. “Not to be conspiracy theorists,” says David Kaplan, a Kicks producer whose credits also include Short Term 12 and It Follows, “but when you see something like this, you want to know what’s going on.”
As it turns out, Kicks’ IMDb-drubbing might not have been an isolated incident, as at least two other relatively under-the-radar titles—both of which shared Kicks’ Sept. 9 release date—also appear to have been the victims of “vote brigading,” the practice of rallying multiple online users to knock down an entity’s score. The first film was the well-received dramedy Other People, which on Aug. 30 had a mere 168 votes, and an average score of 6.8, according to a search on Internet Archive. But by the afternoon of Sept. 9, the movie suddenly had more than 1,000 new votes—and, like Kicks, a majority of the new votes were negative, bringing the movie’s average down considerably. And the Polish drama Demon seems to have experienced a similar hit: On Sept. 1, according to Internet Archive, the movie had 750 votes and a score of 6.4. But just a week later, it suddenly had nearly 1,000 new votes, which were apparently negative enough to bring its score down to 6.0.
Small Movie, Big Impact
A decade or so ago, these low opening-weekend IMDb ratings for a movie like Kicks would have been little more than a bummer—the kind of blip that could potentially be course-corrected as more people saw the film over time. But in an age where aggregation sites have become crucial arbitrators of what we watch, and why, the site’s scores are more important than ever. On search engines, the first results for the terms “kicks movie review” or “kicks review” are invariably Rotten Tomatoes tally (which, for Kicks, is currently at 83 percent, thanks in part to a rave New York Times review), along with the film’s IMDb rating.
When that score pops up, how many people are potentially going to be dissuaded from seeing this movie on our opening weekend, and in release? It’s hard to extrapolate what damage it could do. Kicks producer David Kaplan
“When that score pops up, how many people are potentially going to be dissuaded from seeing this movie on our opening weekend, and in release?” asks Kaplan. “It’s hard to extrapolate what damage it could do.”
Of course, it’s entirely possible that nearly 1,000 people caught these films at early screenings, simply didn’t like what they saw, and decided to make their opinions known en masse within the same narrow time-span. But it can take weeks—sometimes even months—for smaller films to acquire such a high number of IMDb user-reviews: Don’t Think Twice, which opened on July 22, and has made $3.5 million at the box office, has earned slightly more than 1,300 IMDb votes, while the well-reviewed Little Men, which opened Aug. 5, has just more than 500 user-review votes on the site. For Kicks, Other People, and Demon—all of which had been screened at festivals for months prior to last weekend’s openings—to receive such a huge glut of negative votes in such a short period of time seems, at best, like a cosmic coincidence and, at worst, the end-result of an organized attack.
Ratings: The New Soft Weapon in Online Turf Wars
And if these movies were the victims of brigading campaign via IMDb, they were hardly the first, as the site’s voter system has increasingly become a soft weapon in all sorts of online turf wars. Angelina Jolie’s Golden Globe-nominated In the Land of Blood and Honey has a staggering number of 1/10 votes on the site—likely due to the film’s controversial depiction of the Bosnian War—while irate Bangladeshi users took to IMDb to take down the hit Bollywood film Gunday. Earlier this year, Ghostbusters-haters attempted to torpedo that film’s score, while Nate Parker’s as-yet unreleased The Birth of a Nation saw several hundred new 1/10 scores recently added to its tally, possibly as a result of the outrage about the actor-director’s 1999 rape case. And in the last few days, the Christian Bale-Oscar Isaac Armenian genocide drama The Promise has earned more than 40,000 bottom-scraping votes (and nearly 20,000 raves)—despite having just premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on Sunday morning. (The vote-fixing works both ways: As one Reddit user noted earlier this year, the positive votes for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice were suspiciously given, especially given its so-so reviews from critics.)
Yet IMDb’s grade-fixing disputes usually focus on highly publicized films that have, for whatever reason, found themselves in the center of some sort of crowd-stoking controversy. There’s seemingly nothing incendiary about a movie like Kicks—which makes its creative team all the more baffled. “I couldn’t really say why we’re getting picked on,” says Kaplan. “There’s no easy motive to point to. Maybe it’s a group going out for fun; maybe it’s some filmmaker I’ve wronged along the way; or maybe it’s an ex-girlfriend of [director] Justin Tipping. But none of those seem right.” The producers have also considered the possibility that the gang-up on Kicks—which features a predominantly African-American cast—may be racially motivated. But the movie’s tiny roll-out and low-profile makes all of these scenarios seem unlikely.
Ultimately, Kaplan says, the Kicks creators have no idea why the film was targeted, nor could they find any evidence of an organized online campaign to bring it down (a search by WIRED of several sites and platforms also found no evidence of a coordinated effort, but considering the ephemeral nature of online messaging platforms—and the films’ relatively straightforward titles—that’s almost to be expected). If it was a gang-up, it’s one of the most seemingly random, small-victory attacks in recent memory, without a clear-cut victor or ideology: Who could possibly benefit from picking on a bunch of indies that just happened to open on the same weekend? Rival filmmakers? Sully squadders?
Eventually, the Kicks producers reached out to the site, hoping to find out what had happened. The response, according to Kaplan, was an explanation of how sample-sizes work, and a link to a FAQ that outlines IMDb’s voting guidelines, which states the following:
While there is no foolproof way to verify that users have actually seen the film that they are voting for, or that the vote that they are casting is what they really think about it, we depend on and expect our users to be truthful and only vote on those films that they have personally seen.
We are aware that there are people who vote for the sole purpose of trying to lower the rating for a film (this happens both ways—there are just as many people who try to inflate a vote). As previously stated, we have several safeguards in place to automatically detect and defeat this type of ballot stuffing: even though we count and display all unaltered votes in the rating breakdown, we apply several countermeasures against all attempts to skew the rating and the weighted rating you see displayed on the site already takes all of the above into consideration.
Kaplan says the Kicks team was frustrated by the “pro forma” response, eventually leading one of the producers to post about the movie’s plight to Reddit (an IMDb publicist did not respond to emails from WIRED seeking further information on the site’s safeguards, and representatives for Other People and Demon declined comment). For now, at least the Kicks team can take comfort in the fact that, since the film’s opening on Friday, the number of positive IMDb reviews for Kicks has increased, as more viewers chime in (high votes for both Other People and Demon increased over the weekend, as well). But the last few weeks have been an uncomfortable reminder that, online, there’s no such thing as safety in numbers.
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