Ed Mintz, Who Gave Audiences the Chance to Grade Films, Dies at 83

Ed Mintz, a mathematician who created an exit polling system for films called CinemaScore, which asks people leaving theaters on opening nights to grade the movies they have just seen — a precursor of the website Rotten Tomatoes, which aggregates and scores critics’ opinions — died on Feb. 6 in Las Vegas. He was 83.

His son Harold said the cause of death, in a memory care facility, was vascular dementia.

Mr. Mintz, a film buff, was a partner in a computerized billing service for dentists in 1978 when he and his wife, Rona, went to see “The Cheap Detective,” a comedy written by Neil Simon and starring Peter Falk, at a theater in the Westwood section of Los Angeles. They both disliked it, and they felt let down by the critics whose praise had encouraged them to see it.

Their disappointment was echoed by at least one other departing moviegoer.

“And all of a sudden, some guy said, ‘Is anybody here wondering why they can’t get the opinions of actual moviegoers and publish that? We keep getting critics,’” Mr. Mintz recalled in an interview with The Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2016. “I looked at him and thought, ‘Wow, that’s a great idea.’”

That thought percolated until later that year. While attending Yom Kippur services at a synagogue in Los Angeles, he gazed at a donation pledge card. Rather than write with a pen or pencil, which Jews are prohibited from doing on Yom Kippur and the Sabbath, worshipers designated what to give by bending a perforated tab.

“I almost jumped out of the chair,” he said. “I thought: ‘Simple. How simple.’”

He quickly conceived the CinemaScore ballot card, which he tested by sending employees of his dental business to a few theaters. When the testing phase ended, polling began in 1979, and Mr. Mintz started reporting the results in a syndicated newspaper column.

The card and the polling process have changed little since the beginning and create a crowdsourcing alternative to critics’ opinions.

The card features six categories: grade, gender, age, and reasons for attending (including actors and subject), plus two questions about buying or renting the movie in the future.

After hundreds of moviegoers at theaters around the country tear perforations in the cards to designate their answers, they return them to the pollsters, who input the data into their iPads, and the results are processed by Harold Mintz at the company’s office in Las Vegas.

“A’s are generally good, B’s generally are shaky and C’s are terrible,” Ed Mintz told The Review-Journal. “D’s and F’s, they shouldn’t have made the movie, or they promoted it funny and the absolute wrong crowd got into it.”

With enough A’s for a film, the CinemaScore algorithm can award an overall A-plus grade, as it has for movies like “E.T. the Extraterrestrial” (1982), “Remember the Titans” (2000), “Finding Nemo” (2003) and “Argo” (2012). One of its recent F’s was for “The Grudge” (2020).

Studios use CinemaScore’s grades — at least the better ones — to promote their films, and use the demographic results from the other questions on the cards to guide their marketing. In the late 1980s, studios started asking to be the company’s clients.

“You want to know who went, why they went and what they thought of the film,” Dan Fellman, a former president of Warner Bros. Distributing, said by phone, adding that CinemaScore ended Warner’s own exit polling. “Ed was very smart in the way he analyzed his statistics and the locations that he used.”

Edward Allen Mintz was born on Dec. 24, 1940, in Milwaukee. His mother, Belle (Moroff) Mintz, sold clothing at a department store. His father, Herman, sold aluminum siding and later had a company that built carports.

Ed’s parents divorced when he was a boy; his father died soon after. His maternal grandmother, Bessie Moroff, moved in to help care for him. When his mother remarried and moved to Omaha, his grandmother raised him full time.

His interest in math led Ed, as a teenager, to write a book about square roots, and later to study the subject at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1964.

He eloped with Rona Shikora in 1963. In addition to their son, Harold, she survives him, as do their other son, Ricky; their daughter, Julie McInerney; three grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

After graduating from college, Mr. Mintz used his mathematical background and his knowledge of computers to start his dental billing business. In the 1970s, he also developed algorithms for a gambling service’s sports magazines.

“He did a lot of entrepreneurial things involved in computer programming,” Harold Mintz said by phone, “but his main focus went from dental billing to the movies.”

CinemaScore’s grading system predated by a few years the thumbs-up and thumbs-down assessments of the film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, and by two decades the film and TV review scoring done by Rotten Tomatoes, which gives numerical Tomatometer (based on critics’ reviews) and Audience scores.

The director Martin Scorsese — whose most recent film, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” earned an A-minus from CinemaScore — is not a fan of either service.

In an article in 2017 in The Hollywood Reporter, he described them as “hostile to serious filmmakers” and claimed that they “rate a picture the way you’d rate a horse at the racetrack, a restaurant in a Zagat’s guide, or a household appliance in Consumer Reports.”

After Mr. Scorsese reiterated his criticism at the TCM Classic Film Festival the next year, Harold Mintz responded by telling The Playlist, a film website: “CinemaScore polls the audience that MOST want to see it. The data is deadly accurate. It correlates to box office as well. To bury those results, as Mr. Scorsese wishes to suggest, only says that he doesn’t want his fans to let others know whether or not his latest film meets expectations.”

Like his son, Ed Mintz believed that CinemaScore grades accurately reflected audience sentiment and could be a good predictor of box-office success.

But he didn’t always love moneymakers.

“‘Out of Africa’ bored me, but it got an A,” he told The South Florida Sun Sentinel in 1993. “‘Wayne’s World’ got a good grade” — an A — “but I thought it was terrible.”

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