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.
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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 Kick’s 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 had750 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 “kick 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.