Michael Bay: A Quantitative Comparative Analysis

Michael Bay: A Quantitative Comparative Analysis

How bad is Michael Bay, really? And how does he compare to some of the greatest directors of our time, quantitatively?

Official Poster for Michael Bay Hate-fest 2009

Official Poster for Michael Bay Hate-fest 2009, aka ZOMG OPTIMUS PRIME

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen has arrived in theaters, and to no one’s surprise, Michael Bay has stayed true to form and given us a loud, action-packed summer blockbuster. Also to no one’s surprise, critics have savaged his latest work: the Rotten Tomatoes aggregated review score comes in at a meager 20%. And again, to no one’s surprise, the idiot savants of the blogosphere have, as if by reflex, piled on the Bay hate and lampooned his heavy handed filmmaking techniques and lack of sophistication.

The Overthinkers are by and large of the same opinion: we see Michael Bay movies as the epitome of style over substance, cleavage over character development, and explosions over elegance. He does make a convenient whipping boy for the shortcomings of mainstream commercial cinema these days, and as such he’s been the butt of jokes on several occasions on this site.

That being said, I’d like to use this occation, the release of Bay’s latest fil…er, movie, to take a step back and examine his body of work more objectively. How bad is Michael Bay, really? And how does he compare to some of the greatest directors of our time?

As you’re probably aware, almost any effort to objectively analyze the inherently subjective nature of movie quality involves turning to the vast database of user ratings on IMDb. It’s an imperfect methodology, I know, but it’s better than nothing. This is not the time to argue the merits and meanings of the IMDb user ratings (if you’re interested in such things, you should probably check out this earlier piece of analysis on the topic). This is time to take the data we do have, fire up the Excel, and get to work.

[Note: all IMDb ratings used in this article are current as of June 29, 2009]

First, let’s see how well Michael Bay’s seven major features prior to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen have fared among IMDb users:

michael-bays-first-seven-films-imdb(Note: I’ve omitted the most recent Transformers movie since, as of this writing, it’s too early to get a good read on the movie’s rating. IMDb scores are typically inflated for the first weeks/months after a movie’s release; only later do they fall back down to earth. See The Dark Knight‘s brief reign at the #1 spot as an example of this phenomenon.)

So what do these numbers tell us? Not much in isolation. The average score across these seven movies is 6.51 out of 10, which at first may seem pretty bad, but in reality is fairly respectable for action movies. Con Air, which few would call a complete stinker, clocks in at 6.6.

Now for the real test. If Michael Bay is such a bad director, how does he fare against some of the greatest directors of all time?

Surprisingly well, it turns out. I compared Bay’s “first seven” rating with those of five directors that are often regarded as “great” (based on their presence on various “greatest directors” lists that I googled)–Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, Orson Welles–and Bay isn’t too far off their pace:

directors-comparisonKeep in mind that all of these directors have some serious classics within their first seven features: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Raging Bull, and The Godfather all are part of these statistics. Even so, Michael Bay’s “first seven” average score of 6.51 is only 13 % off from these five “great” directors’ combined average of 7.46. That’s roughly the difference between the aforementioned and totally respectable Con Air (6.6) and the slightly more respectable Star Trek: First Contact (7.6).

But who’s this at the end? Yes, that’s Ron Howard, as in Academy Award Winner Ron Howard. His combined average score across his first seven major features is a paltry 6.11. Michael Bay’s “first seven,” at 6.51, comes out slightly ahead. Ouch.

Better than Ron Howard?

Better than Ron Howard?

Does this mean that Michael Bay is a better director than Ron Howard, at least after seven films, and is only slightly removed from the likes of film gods Kubrick and Scorcese? Not necessarily. All this proves is that thousands (if not millions) of IMDb users have chosen to rate Bay’s work at a fairly high level, by whatever standards they so choose.

This is not necessarily in conflict with the “Michael Bay Sucks” mantra that echoes through the blogosphere these days:

Does Michael Bay make thought-provoking action movies along the lines of The Dark Knight?

Is Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen an excruciatingly long explosionfest with an incomprehensible plot?

By these standards, sure, Michael Bay sucks. But he’s cleary doing something right, by some standard, to get IMDb votes in the 6 to 7 range (and ticket sales in the $500-700 quadrazillion range). In other words, more than enough people get some sort of satisfaction from Michael Bay movies and express that satisfaction through their ratings to elevate Michael Bay’s body of work above the true abyss of worthless cinema.

I know there’s plenty of room for debate on IMDb ratings, Michael Bay, and my methodology. Take a look at the rest of the raw data, draw your own conclusions, and sound off in the comments!



30 Comments on “Michael Bay: A Quantitative Comparative Analysis”

  1. Saint #

    Average for first seven features for seven woman directors:

    Agnieska Holland (7.28), Chantal Akerman (7.19), Agnes Varda (7.20), Catherine Breillat (6.14), Jane Campion (6.97), Gillian Armstrong (6.68), Lina Wertmuller (6.79).

    I was surprised that Breillat scored so low. I love her movies.


  2. TheGryphon #

    Perhaps one factor you have failed to consider is that the Bay filmology is relatively recent. The “inflation” effect you reference may be occurring on a longer time scale as well. Kubrick, Scorcese, and Coppola are all roughly contemporary with each other (or at least have careers that overlapped to some extent), while Bay is a relatively recent phenomenon. Perhaps we should look at these statistics in a decade or so and see what a more historical perspective says. I suspect is mostly says “Michael who?”.


  3. Bay All the Way #

    After missing practice the other day to finish watching Bad Boys II (on cable TV no less) I realized that I had a problem. Michael Bay movies are like pronography; while you’re watching it is very pleasurable, but afterwards, you feel only shame and guilt.

    Looking at it the reverse way, what is the one thing he is missing to be in this top elite category?


  4. Nameless #

    I think it’d be interesting to use a larger sample of directors; as it stands, it seems that IMDb voters have no problem giving even terrible movies above average scores; in fact, I wonder what the average score for a Hollywood film is. I’d guess it’d be somewhere in the mid 6s, but that’s just from my own experience with IMDb.

    My argument though, is that due to the fact that the votes generally fall into a bell-curve/normal distribution, even a slight difference in averages is significant. For example; to achieve a 9.0 rating, then your curve has to be centred somewhere around 9, which means that most votes have to sit around 8-9-10 (ie: more people think it is a fantastic/perfect movie).

    Whereas, a movie with an average score of 7 can have a much wider vote distribution, and for every person who gives it a 10, there’s probobly quite a few who gave it a 4.

    So I didn’t put too much effort in this argument, but my point is that any movie rated higher than 8 is harder to achieve than a movie rated between 6-8.


  5. Saint #

    IMDb averages (first seven features) of other people who have completed their seventh film in the past five years:

    Christopher Nolan (8.06)
    Quentin Tarantino (7.81)
    M. Night Shyamalan (6.62)
    David Fincher (7.73)
    Bryan Singer (7.15)
    Danny Boyle (7.17)
    Guillermo Del Toro (7.05)
    Alfonso Cuaron (7.54)

    Michael Bay lags behind all of his high-profile contemporaries, even M. Night Shyamalan, who has probably made more horrible movies than Michael Bay has (IMO).


  6. Saint #

    Average of first seven features, for comparison:

    Uwe Boll (3.07)


  7. Saint #

    Sorry to keep posting, but your Orson Welles data includes several films he didn’t actually direct. He was only rumored to have directed Journey into Fear (which he denied) and only directed a few scenes from Black Magic.

    His first seven feature films as director should be:

    Citizen Kane (8.6)
    The Magnificent Ambersons (8.0)
    The Stranger (7.6)
    The Lady from Shanghai (7.8)
    Macbeth (7.5)
    Othello (7.8)
    Mr. Arkadin (7.4)

    This changes his average from 7.66 to 7.81.


  8. Gab #

    Who votes on IMDB, anyway, and when? I have a feeling the votes for directors like Bay, directors lacking substance, are probably from the type that would vote top numbers for anything he does because they’re more fanboy/fangirl-esque; whereas someone voting for Welles is sort of a connoisseur of films, someone that dapples into a bit of everything and thinks more about the substance of a film before giving it a score. Also, the time thing has already been brought up. Give Bay’s movies more time to get watered down by non-fan-crazed film viewers, and his averages will probably drop.

    While I don’t deny Michael Bay movies are FUN, I would never give them anything above a six. I’ll pay to see them, but I don’t think they’re worth anything except empty brain calories. I’m good with empty brain calories, though- we all need our indulgences sometimes, after all.

    @Saint: Great detective work for the women directors!


  9. Gab #

    Sorry to spam, but go to about 1:17 in this: (although there is a semi-spoiler, so be warned) (and the f-bomb, if that bothers you):


    Or if you don’t want to watch, he basically says that Michael Bay movies need to be watched on two levels, as “movie movies” and as “Michael Bay” movies. So as far as the former goes, _Transformers 2_ is awesome; but with regards to the latter, it’s terrible.


  10. mlawski OTI Staff #

    I was curious to see if your results would be different based on the Netflix scores. My theory that Netflix raters are more balanced in terms of gender and possibly age than the fanboyish IMDB. I left out Orson Welles, because Netflix doesn’t carry many of his movies, and stuck in Tarantino and Chris Nolan for a more modern comparison.


    Steven Spielberg: 3.9/5
    Quentin Tarantino: 3.85/5
    Chris Nolan: 3.82/5
    Francis Ford Coppola: 3.78/5
    Stanley Kubrick: 3.72/5
    Michael Bay: 3.5/5
    Martin Scorsese: 3.43/5
    Ron Howard: 3.48/5

    Take from this what you will. (Incidentally, Transformers got an average rating of 4/5 on Netflix. I find that… fascinating.)


  11. fenzel #

    Isn’t this obviously just selection bias? You are more likely to vote for a movie if you actually see it, and it is pretty easy for people to identify ahead of time whether they will enjoy a michael bay movie because they are so clearly branded, straightforward and predictable.

    I would expect more prestigious directors to have lower scores relative to the quality of their movies than Michael Bay does, because seeing a movie based on a critic or a social pressure to see it is less likely to match you up with exactly the movie you want to see than a director who is a known quantity and never goes outside the box.


  12. Tom #

    Alternate title for this post: “The Soft Bay-gotry of Low Expectations.”


  13. B.Lily #

    Hey, sometimes you are in the mood for explosions and cheesy one-liners. It’s just that simple. Might not be great cinema, but it’s got it place.


  14. Saint #

    Among all the directors already mentioned, Nolan (8.06) seems to have the highest average for the first seven movies and Uwe Boll (3.07) has the lowest.

    If we use those as the top and bottom of the scale (by subtracting 3.06 from all the average ratings, giving Uwe Boll a 0.01 and Nolan a 5.00), I think we can account for the problem of the bell curve and map the IMDb rating onto the 0 to 5 scale Netflix uses.

    I think this lets us compare the IMDb averages to the Netflix averages.

    IMDb first, then Netflix, then difference (+/-):

    Nolan – 5.00, 3.82 (-1.18)
    Tarantino – 4.75, 3.85 (-0.90)
    Scorsese – 4.19, 3.43 (-0.76)
    Kubrick – 4.45, 3.72 (-0.73)
    Coppola – 4.04, 3.78 (-0.26)
    Spielberg – 4.35, 3.90 (-0.45)
    Bay – 3.45, 3.50 (+0.05)
    Howard – 3.05, 3.48 (+0.43)

    If these numbers mean anything (and they probably don’t) they seem to indicate that Netflix users are more likely than IMDb users to have favorable opinions of Ron Howard and Michael Bay (and to a lesser extent, Spielberg and Coppola) while having lower opinions of Scorsese, Kubrick, Tarantino and Nolan.

    This makes sense to me, as the IMDb is only a database, and has information valued by people who care about movies (mostly male movie geeks), while Netflix is a resource for people to WATCH movies, which includes families, casual viewers and women. The broadly popular Spielberg, Bay and Howard all seem to benefit from the broader range of opinions on Netflix, while the narrower appeal of Kubrick, Tarantino, etc, hurts their Netflix scores.


  15. Saint #

    Uwe Boll’s Netflix average is 2.51, or (+2.50) over the adjusted IMDb average. If you just cut the IMDb average in half, rather than shifting it 3.06 toward zero, his Netflix 2.51 is still (+0.98) compared to IMDb.

    That seems to point to an even steeper bell curve in the Netflix ratings than in the IMDb ratings, as Nolan is pushed far from 5 stars and Boll is pushed from zero, while middle-of-the-road directors like Bay and Howard are relatively unchanged.


  16. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @Saint: I think the steep bell curve in the Netflix ratings comes from the fact that they tell you what each star means.

    1 star=Hated it
    2 stars=Didn’t like it
    3 stars=Liked it
    4 stars=Really liked it
    5 stars=Loved it

    The problem with this system is the lack of a “meh” or “it was okay” rating. I’d assume most people round up to 3 stars for movies that they thought were pretty okay… such as Michael Bay movies.


  17. sabes #

    It’s the same thing with books. Ratings are subjective and they don’t compare with one another. I know people whose opinion I generally respect give the book Twilight 5 stars. “It was a great read!” So, what is Old Man and the Sea? Also 5 stars? Well, yes, but they are DIFFERENT 5 star books. Limiting ratings to one dimension is pretty much completely useless when comparing different types of books/movies/etc. Sure, I *LOVE* the original Planet of the Apes. It’s one of my favorite movies. Do I really give it the same 5 stars as, say, Citizen Kane? No, of course not, but if I was rating it on Netflix I probably would. I think comparisons like this are completely deceiving and a waste of time.


  18. sabes #

    Another salient point: the people who won the Netflix prize for increasing the recommendation algorithm by 10% said that people rate movies differently on different days of the week. It also matters what other movies they rated before rating the current one. There are just way too many unknown variables for these types of comparisons.


  19. Jonathan #

    As someone who is NOT a professional film critic, nor somebody who has any film class experience, allow me point out that when I rate on IMDb, I rate according to my experience regarding that movie, and I’ll bet most people do the same.

    Movies hated by critics (judging by Rotten Tomatoes) — such as Hook (21%), Willow (46%), Wolverine (37%) and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (20%) — get good IMDb ratings from myself simply because of my own experiences with the movie, whether it’s due to great memories that become re-excited upon recent viewing (such as the former two examples) or new movies that I really enjoyed for what they’re worth.

    I don’t sit there and try to dissect a movie before posting an IMDb rating; I think on it for maybe five seconds before clicking, and I’ll bet most people do the same ;)


  20. Darin #

    @fenzel: absolutely yes

    For every stats project, there will always be something to niggle at. My niggle is that the other directors shoot movies in the super action fluff genre. If we chose director / producers of similar ilk, then I’d think the comparison would be more interesting.

    If my kid wasn’t bothering me, I’d look up the other super action fluff types like Bruckheimers and throw in some hard boiled (genre) types like John Woo. I imagine that among his all action thin story line movies that Bay ranks near the top.

    I think that’s part of the joy of this type of conversation… what’s an appropriate reference. In his pond, he is the big fish; in the big pond, he’s a flash in the pan.


  21. Laurence #

    I don’t get why people bash Michael Bay so much. They say his films are loud and brash etc… Isn’t that the point?

    Don’t we have enough of serious,character study,atmospheric films out there already? Enough directors who are so far up their own arse?

    Sometimes it’s good to go to the cinema and just lose yourself in a story which has no real relevance other than to entertain you. The sole purpose of Micheal Bay films are to entertain you, both with flashy stunts, good casts and excellent CGI.

    Tell me who dosn’t want to see Bruce Willis give up his job as an oil driller, get trained by NASA, Narrowlly escape an explosion on a space station, land on an astaroid, forgive his soon-in-law to be then blow up the aforementioned astaroid, killing himself in the porcess in order to save the human race and earth?

    Yea it sounds ridiculous, and it is, but thats why it’s good. I recently watched Capote (because I think Phillip Seymour Hoffman is an excellent actor) and yes, it’s a very good character study with excellent acting, but my god it is boring. After watching it I literally felt as if I had wasted my time with it. Now this films rating is 7.6 on IMDB, .2 more than Bay’s best.

    Tell me, what film would you rather watch? Bays OTT CGI Filed ‘summer hit’ Tranformers or the amazingly beige Capote?

    I say thank god for the Michael Bay and other action directors, they provide the entertainment while we are waiting on the next serious, oscar nominated for best screenplay, film.


  22. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @Laurence: I don’t know about everyone else, but when I bash Michael Bay, it’s not because his movies are bad in comparison to Capote. When I bash Michael Bay, it’s because his movies are bad in comparison to, for instance, Chris Nolan’s. The fact is, you can make a big action spectacle that’s hugely entertaining but that also makes sense. The Michael Bay movies I’ve seen are confusing, overlong, and falsely dramatic. It’s not about comparing Transformers to Capote. It’s about comparing Transformers to Batman Begins, Die Hard, or Independence Day.


  23. Gab #

    @mlwaski: I do the same thing in comparison, but I still enjoy Bay’s movies, if only because I EXPECT them to be so awful. If I am not in a theater, I tend to make peanut gallery comments the whole time because it’s not a “serious” experience.


  24. zaws! #

    you don’t have the same mindset when you see a Bay’s film than when you see a Welles’ one (unless you’re a moron), you really can’t compare them more than you can compare apples and Toto’s 1982 classic “Africa”. There is no point in arguing if, say, The Lady from Shangay is better or worse than Independence Day, because they are both great films, for quite different reasons. So the only rational way to tell wether Bay is a good director or not is to rank it against the people who make the same kind of movies he makes

    …AND, looks like i have way too much free time in my hands and i enjoy working with spreadsheets way too much, so i just spent a couple hours or so filling one with the ratings of movies from “comparable” directors from metacritic, rotten tomatoes and imdb. Here:
    (it’s open to edit, so if anyone have as little social life as i do and wants to add something, go ahead)

    …AAND looks like, while Bay is usually ranked slightly better than Roland Emmerich, he is still behind people like Brett Ratner, Paul Verhoeven or John Woo. So i’d say that, at least before Internet’s eyes, Michael Bay is a pretty bad director


  25. evan #

    When your script has Optimus Prime proclaim “my, bad” like he was some sort of teenie-bop that listens to blink 182 instead of a badass gigantic hero bot, then you are open to massive hatred by anyone who grew up having Mr. Prime as a role model.


  26. martinfrancisco #

    michael mann?

    ali 6,5
    Heat 8,2
    The Insider 8
    The Last of the Mohicans 7,7
    Manhunter 7,2
    The Keep 5,7
    Thief 7,2


    Collateral 7,8
    Miami Vice 6


  27. Michael #

    I’d like to see this done with RT ratings instead of IMDB… THAT would be a more accurate graph IMO.


  28. Gab #

    RT averages out the scores of its staff with fan submissions, right?


  29. Gurtrude #

    The comparisons made for this article seem valid. I do agree that maybe Bay’s films should be sized up against competition in his genre. But then again even skilled directors like John Woo and Tarentino have had crap films also,”Bullet Proof Monk” & “Grind House”. The main argument that im hearing is that Bay’s movies suck because the cant compare to Nolan’s Batman. Well lets get real here. Nolan’s Batman exist in the world of reality. Its only been in the last few years that Batman and everything he can do has become exceptable in the mind of average viewers because the technologies that Batman uses exist, for the most part. People will have a hard time excepting giant robots turning into other stuff until some scietist makes transformation a reality. What other film has Nolan done besides Batman that critics also rate as high as Batman. Bay’s films deliver the goods. Action, suspence, scantily clad women, explosions and everything else that gets you glued to the screen. Whoever says they feel guilty after watching a Bay film has some serious issues. Its a movie, it isnt actually porn that your watching. To me the true judge of wether a director has made a decent movie is by the box office. Bay’s films always gross 3, 4, 5 times its budget. I think that tells you right there people will spend money to see his films even you haters so you can later bash on it. But guess what nobody goes to see Capote, or Brokeback Mountain. Check out their Box office earnings, yeah the movies get great reviews from critics and win awards but it doesnt put money in the pockets. And when it is all said and done Hollywood is a business a money businees and Bay delivers the goods.


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