Back in August, Ra.One director Anubhav Sinha voiced his frustration at the appalling rating meted out to his latest film, Mulk, which explores communal tensions and probes patriotism through the lens of a Muslim family forced to clear its name after an incident.
Sinha was referring to the low user score on the popular website IMDb, which allows registered users to vote on a scale of 1 to 10. Less than a week into its release, the critically-acclaimed Mulk stood at a weighted score of 3.5 — it's now up to 6.1, which most would argue is still an incorrect representation of its quality — and Sinha implied that certain groups had dragged down the film's rating. Look at the breakdown and you will find over 40 percent of the votes for Mulk is the lowest possible rating of one.
With the growing prominence and use in marketing of aggregated review scores — Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic the other big two, which collate both user and critic ratings unlike IMDb's sole focus on fan input — there was bound to be a time when these sites would get politicised like everything else on the Internet. Targeted carpet-bombing of a film's user rating is a universal trend now. It happened with the 2016 female-led Ghostbusters reboot, though the reasoning was simply good ol' misogyny. Then there was the attack on last year's Star Wars: The Last Jedi, followed by a social media campaign against Ava DuVernay-directed A Wrinkle in Time.
It's something IMDb founder and CEO Col Needham is obviously aware of. The company says it has several built-in safeguards — it wouldn't go into details, but some such as excluding ratings of users with very few contributions are publicly known — to minimise the impact of any attempts to influence ratings via automated or ballot-stuffing approaches.
“We basically pretty much tweak the ratings algorithm every week, not so much in reaction to a specific instance, but more the general trends that we see in terms of how a group may be trying to influence a rating,” Needham told Gadgets 360 in Mumbai last week. “And so, we basically change things to do with the way things are weighted, and the way things are considered in the rating, and what we feel we end up with is a pretty fair fan representation. If not immediately, things settle at the level where they should be, as far as you can when you're rating art on a 1 to 10 scale.”
Online rating systems such as IMDb are inherently open to abuse because there is simply no way to verify if a user has even seen the title in question, let alone tell whether their rating is an accurate reflection of their viewing experience. IMDb says that any apparent anomalies in voting and ranking of individual titles are usually short-lived, but it's easy to see with some of the aforementioned cases that the individuals or groups in question have been able to influence how some films will be publicly remembered.
An Indian spike
Needham was in India to talk about IMDb's rise in popularity in the country, which is now the second-largest user base for the website after the US, and may well overtake it to become the biggest in the next five years. He feels it can be attributed to the rise in smartphone sales and drop in mobile data prices which brought a surge of users to the platform, and IMDb responded to that trend with a bunch of new features in trending and anticipated titles, a dedicated top-250 for movies from India, and even top-50s for regional films in Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam.
There are now 200,000 pages on IMDb that reflect either Indian films, shows, or the people who make them, Needham said. And that growth is also bringing users from outside India to those titles. Within the last year, IMDb has seen a double-digit growth in Indian titles being accessed by international users, who now make up 30 percent of the total hits.
“As we get more Indian titles and more people from India getting involved in rating those, they're going to raise the profile of those titles to people outside of India,” Needham added. “In the past, that might raise the profile of the title, but then it's not available to watch. Whereas nowadays, it's like, ‘Oh my goodness, this is now available on my favourite streaming service.'”
Of course, Prime Video is the only streaming service that's currently linked to IMDb, since both are owned by Amazon. Needham wouldn't comment on the possibility of other services being added. Users are still going to have manually look up titles for now, or make use of a third-party search engine that does the hard work for them.
Needham noted that what IMDb does, as a platform, is that it provides a level-playing field for all. “If you're a small regional title, you're still on IMDb and you're still as searchable as the latest blockbuster from Hollywood,” he said. Sure, that's technically true, but IMDb does have an editorial team, which leans heavily towards US titles with its coverage and curation. It's changed in the past couple of years — India is unique in that it has a dedicated hub at imdb.com/india — and it's only going to tilt further forward as more Indians find their way online.