Who Cares About Rotten Tomatoes?

Is the review aggregate site really "holding film criticism hostage"?

2017 hasn't been a banner year at the box office for many big budget motion pictures. 

This summer, a few major sequels and two potential franchise starters - Transformers: The Last KnightPirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No TalesThe Mummy, and Baywatch - arrived DOA, inducing a shudder of fear amongst many industry leaders. Meanwhile, similar movies that were initially seen as gambles (Logan, Wonder WomanIT) succeeded by defying certain rules of tentpole picture-making ("don't make a superhero film R-rated""don't make a female-fronted comic book picture""don't make a nearly two-and-a-half hour horror movie"). As is their way, studio heads concocted a slew of excuses based on rather predictable straw man logic. After Baywatch tanked, Paramount's President of worldwide marketing and distribution, Megan Colligan, told The Hollywood Reporter:

“The reviews really hurt the film, which scored great in test screenings. We were all surprised. It is a brand that maybe relied on a positive critical reaction more than we recognized.”

When The Mummy failed to land a huge opening a little over two weeks later, director Alex Kurtzman commented to Business Insider regarding that film's poor reviews: 

“Obviously, that’s disappointing to hear. The only gauge that I really use to judge it is having just traveled around the world and hearing the audiences in the theaters. This is a movie that I think is made for audiences and in my experience, critics and audiences don’t always sing the same song. I’m not making movies for them. Would I love them to love it? Of course, everybody would, but that’s not really the endgame. We made a film for audiences and not critics, so my great hope is they will find it and they will appreciate it.”

Naturally, film writers did not take kindly to this dismissal of their opinions (not to mention the fact that Colligan literally says "there seems to be no way to combat [negative reviews]", as if confirming the production of a solidly crafted motion picture was out of their game-plan from the start). In their lengthy feature "Can Rotten Tomatoes Crush a Movie at the Box Office?", The Ringer interviewed a few film critics regarding how they felt their reviews impacted the financial gain or loss of a particular title.

A.O. Scott of the New York Times waved off the notion of "making movies for audiences, not critics" outright:

"...it’s basically what studios and filmmakers say when they’ve been caught underestimating the intelligence of the viewing public. And supposedly no one ever went broke doing that, as P.T. Barnum famously said. But sometimes it happens that people don’t want what’s being sold, and it’s funny to hear that, ‘I don’t make movies for the critics; I make them for the fans,’ which is absurd from every direction."

Indiewire's David Ehrlich doubled down on Scott's sentiment:

 “It’s a really transparent way of saying, ‘We made a really shitty movie and everyone has called us out for it, and we’re trying to spin it...’”

This weekend, Justice League utterly sputtered at the box office. The latest installment in the (probably soon to be shrinking) DCEU reportedly cost upward of $300 million, and ended up not even breaking $100 million domestically. That's 44% less than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice* did during its opening three days ($166 million); a disaster for a motion picture being positioned as the pinnacle of its franchise. 

There was a bit of a bruhaha regarding Justice League's Rotten Tomatoes score in the week leading up to its release. Earlier this month, Tomatoes took a rather large step away from being a pure aggregator to a bona fide content creator by launching a weekly video show titled See It/Skip ItStreamed through Facebook, the new criticism program is a rather #onbrand affair for the site, as it continues to try and reduce reviews to the binary Siskel & Ebert approach of "thumbs up?" / "thumbs down?" (or: "rotten?" / "fresh?"). In fairness, the production's pretty slick, as the set and graphics surrounding rather articulate hosts Jacqueline Coley and Segun Oduolowu are bright and crisp. Though it'd be easy to knock the show as mere corporate product, Coley and Oduolowu are rather steadfast in the opinions they hold, as each episode culminates with the reveal of the Rotten Tomatoes score of the movie they're debating. 

However, with Justice League, the press screenings for the movie were mostly held around the country roughly 48 hours before the movie was set to hit theaters (this critic saw it at 7 PM CST on Tuesday, November 14th). Naturally, See It/Skip It selected the DCEU tent pole as their weekly picture to analyze. That show airs at 9pm PST on Wednesday nights (in this case, the 15th) - 24 hours before most studio titles enjoy their first public screenings. Rotten Tomatoes privately announced to writers that it was going to be withholding the Tomatometer score until the show's premiere, in order to help boost ratings and help out their newly expanding brand. Not so nefarious-sounding, correct? 

Don't tell that to Ehrlich, who was very displeased in his piece "How Rotten Tomatoes’ New Facebook Show Is Holding Film Criticism Hostage":

"...while it was already worrisome that Warner Bros. didn’t let critics review (and predictably demolish) Justice League until the day before the film hit theaters, Rotten Tomatoes did the distributor one better by hiding its miserable score until just a few hours before the superhero extravaganza was scheduled to start playing on screens across the country. In other words, a site 'dedicated to making it easier than it has ever been for fans to access potentially hundreds of professional reviews for a given film or TV show in one place' is now actively withholding the information it exists to share with its readers."

Oof. While Ehrlich's rationale starts with the score being withheld to possibly help protect the movie's box office (a position the rather erudite critic admits is still a bit of a stretch, even if WB owns a minority share in ticket service Fandango, who in turn owns RT), he points to the site's refusal to post links to Justice League reviews until Thursday afternoon (3 PM EST, to be exact) as damaging to smaller sites who may be relying on the aggregator for hits:

"Even if only a tiny fraction of visitors care about the individual reviews, a tiny fraction of a huge number is still a lot. For smaller sites, it can be the difference between life and death. Now, their fates are being held hostage."

That's a fair point, especially in an age where it's getting harder and harder to make a living writing about movies (just talk to any of the numerous scribes who've been recently laid off as sites have "pivoted to video" as sad but true examples). But Doctor Strange screenwriter (and former film critic) C. Robert Cargill hammers home the site's impact on a film's rate of success or failure:

"With Rotten Tomatoes, the days of the critic-proof film (a film that even a sea of negative reviews couldn’t kill at the box office) were all but over. Even films that were simply below average often found their way to early graves at its hands. This summer I watched as a tentpole blockbuster with an A-list actor, tracking to make more than $50M its opening weekend, instead pulled in less than $20M. That tracking dropoff occurred immediately after the Rotten Tomatoes reviews and score dropped."

The film Cargill's referencing is, of course, the aforementioned Mummy, which did so poorly Universal's entire Dark Universe was put on hold (though the writer's figures are slightly fudged, his point still stands). Cargill's quick to clarify that, while he works for Marvel, this isn't about some horseshit rivalry between book houses. Success for the genre means success for all working in it, after all ("a rising tide lifts all boats", as he puts it). Instead, Cargill's worried about what this means for the future of movie marketing:

"What if it’s a test balloon? What if, from here on out, studios can buy a marketing package which includes featuring their film on See It/Skip It which comes with the added bonus of holding your Freshness rating until the day of release? Consider for a moment being the filmmaker of a scrappy little film getting great reviews that must fight for every dollar at the box office it can. In this new environment, you’re rewarded for great reviews — fortunes are being made and lost at the hands of these united, aggregated critics. What happens when your film gets annihilated by a juggernaut of a stinker that would have been otherwise crushed because of its poor reviews — reviews that were brushed under the rug of the site that has become the Siskel & Ebert of its day?"

The similarities between Ehrlich and Cargill's arguments are rather apparent. Both are presenting David v. Goliath scenarios, just in different arenas that Rotten Tomatoes affects (small criticism sites needing hits/small movies needing every BO dollar). Yet there's evidence to support that neither of these are necessarily valid stances to take regarding the company's withholding of a film's overall reception, big or small. 

Returning to that Ringer article, the company line when it comes to Rotten Tomatoes' statement of purpose echoes Kurtzman's qualitative cop out regarding The Mummy ("it's for the fans"):

“Our goal is to get you to the entertainment, the film and TV shows, that you, as a fan, want to experience...box-office performance is for analysts and studios to talk about. For us, it really is about, ‘Are we serving fans?’”

But serving them how? An LA Times profile reveals that 36% of U.S. moviegoers look at the site before seeing a film. That number is up 8% from 2014, according to box-office-tracking firm National Research Group. The majority of readers use Rotten Tomatoes as an average, as opposed to clicking on individual links and reading full reviews (something Ehrlich laments in his own piece, and is backed up by sources in the Ringer article). Nevertheless, critics manually upload their writing to the site, and must determine on their own whether or not their review is to be rated "rotten" or "fresh". So, these scribes do still retain some control over the destinies of films they're either championing or damning, even from a sheer numbers perspective. As Scott puts it:

“I don’t think my work has much of an impact negatively on the box office of large commercial movies. I think that my reviews have had an impact, positively, on the box office of small movies. I think, in all modesty, that my review of Moonlight got a lot of people to see that movie.”

That's a noble cause, but also flies in the face of Cargill's hypothetical threat of a larger film whose RT score is concealed crushing a smaller movie whose RT score is displayed, as visible or not, one of the most prominent critics in the world doesn't believe that their words feed into the monetary success or failure of a tentpole picture at the box office. It's essentially gonna do what it's gonna do, regardless of his review. Furthermore, if the majority of Tomatoes' viewers (which can run upwards of 14 million unique views per month) are only utilizing a calculated percentage as they make their choices regarding which movie to see on a given weekend, is it really losing sites - from Indiewire to your locally accredited paper's Arts section - that many views? Granted, even one to two extra clicks per piece could help any site these days, but it just seems like there's a bit of double-talk going on. You can't lament the attention to median while complaining its costing you individual eyeballs, can you? 

The question that doubles as this article's title could be seen as an act of provocation - a willful dismissal of both Ehrlich and Cargill's concerns, or even a total brush off of Rotten Tomatoes as a monolithic entity within the sphere of film criticism. But neither are this writer's intention. Instead, it's a genuine inquiry. Perhaps an even more apt title for this piece would be "Why Do We Care About Rotten Tomatoes?" It seems the average filmgoer does so only as a qualitative guide: a Consumer Reports approach to the ingestion of cinema (which, in all honesty, makes my stomach turn a touch). Those working inside the film industry care because Rotten Tomatoes could possibly (despite what critics like Scott say) be shaping the future of both the content and marketing of the movies they're crafting. Critics care because it's not only reducing their words to a mathematical formula, but also possibly tanking smaller sites, who could be fostering the next Pauline Kael. 

Let's face it, there's also a healthy amount of ego - from fans, to critics, to screenwriters, to studio employees - involved when debating Rotten Tomatoes' worth. How many times have you heard even the most casual cinephile cite an RT score as a way to validate their own opinion (or disqualify another's) on a movie? Critics don't want their words tossed into some lumped whole because they truly believe in the filmic causes they're championing (and the very best writers are as much artists as those making movies). Furthermore, studios don't want critics - via a number or an essay - dictating what type of product they can make millions on. The debate is omni-directional, incredibly complicated, and isn't going to go away as long as big companies keep churning out motion pictures, writers keep critiquing them, and fans keep spending their hard earned money on auditorium seats. Rotten Tomatoes is here to stay, for better or worse. So what do we do with it from here? 

*Actual title.  

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