“The worst thing that we have in today’s movie culture is Rotten Tomatoes.” So said director and producer Brett Ratner, during a talk at Idaho’s Sun Valley Film Festival last week. Discussing the critical response to Batman v Superman, which his company RatPac Entertainment co-financed, Ratner made a few eyebrow-raising claims: that film criticism on the level of Pauline Kael had “disappeared”; that Rotten Tomatoes scores aren’t “correct”; and, most notably, that review aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes are now actively “hurting the business.” It’s not the endless franchising, then, nor the fact that studios sink ever-increasing boatloads of money into bloated, confused blockbusters that oftentimes begin shooting without ample prep and leave hardly any money for smaller projects. No, according to Brett Ratner, most harmful to the film industry today is the site that decides whether your movie is worthy of a red tomato or a green splat.
Ratner might have had himself a discussion if his point had been that Rotten Tomatoes was having an impact on film journalism. Some would agree. This is a site which reduces writers down to scores and soundbites, or a “compounded number of how many positives vs negatives,” as Ratner put it. Only that isn’t Ratner’s main argument. It’s the “business” and “movie culture” that Ratner says Rotten Tomatoes is harming. Except movie culture has been allowed to flourish in the digital age, and the business Ratner is talking about appears largely unaffected by the existence of Rotten Tomatoes. The business that produces films like Batman v Superman continues to dominate the box office, bad Rotten Tomatoes scores or no. When Ratner says Rotten Tomatoes is “getting people to not see a movie,” he’s wrong. Batman v Superman, despite a lowly RT score of 27%, took $873 million worldwide last year.
Critics of Ratner’s comments have been quick to accuse him of sour grapes, because what really seems to trouble the producer/director is specifically that the critical community trashed DC’s 2016 superhero mash-up. He briefly alludes to the dying art of film criticism, but the focus of his ire is Rotten Tomatoes “putting a cloud” over the success of Batman v Superman. (As if Warner Bros. shareholders noticed any clouds when the film took close to $900 million.) And yes, the response to BvS might have made Ben Affleck sad, but the critical “cloud” over the film wasn’t so significant that it bothered fans or much dented the DC/Warner Bros. brand: follow-up DC Extended Universe movie Suicide Squad scored $745 million at the box office, and Warner Bros. remain confident enough that they still have numerous DC movies in various stages of production, critics be damned.
Hollywood blockbusters score poorly on Rotten Tomatoes all the time, but there’s not a great deal of evidence to suggest a correlation between low RT scores and low box office. Ratner believes that, “in Middle America it’s, ‘Oh, it’s a low Rotten Tomatoes score so I’m not going to go see it because it must suck',” but it seems audiences don’t really care about Rotten Tomatoes at all. Even if they did, it’s not the fault of the site itself when critics dislike a movie – that’s an argument for paranoid DC fans who think Marvel has critics on their payroll. No matter what we think of them, review aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic offer up averages without bias. Ratner claims RT scores aren’t always “correct,” but for his ‘rotten’ Batman v Superman, the site merely accurately summed up the critical consensus, as it does with all releases.
Without Rotten Tomatoes, the negative critical consensus regarding BvS would still have existed, and it would still have been felt. Bad buzz around bad movies didn’t suddenly come about with the creation of Rotten Tomatoes; there was bad buzz in the time of Pauline Kael, and it arguably had even more of an impact back in her day (it was bad critical buzz that killed 1980’s epic western Heaven’s Gate, for example, whereas today’s blockbusters seem almost invulnerable to it). Critical consensuses have formed for as long as there has been a healthy amount of film criticism, and discerning fans who want to know what current movies are worth their money have always looked to it for guidance. If they choose to use it, they now have aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes to help them make a decision quicker.
Ratner is right to point out that aggregators aren’t always precise – with critically divisive films, say those by Nicolas Winding Refn or Terrence Malick, the aggregate often comes out as somewhere in the middle as an average rating, hardly reflecting the strong views on either end of the critical scale – but they can still be a good resource, not just for checking what’s good at the cinema at the moment. Ratner says “film criticism has disappeared,” but it hasn’t. Those that appreciated good film criticism as an art form in itself before Rotten Tomatoes appreciate it still, and handily the best of it is now collected in one place, right there on aggregators like RT. People who wish to read reviews in full for a more thorough evaluation, and they do still exist, are just a click away.
Perhaps best of all, aggregators such as Rotten Tomatoes can help guide viewers to films recommended by the critical community and which otherwise they might not have seen. Though blockbusters aren’t affected much by Rotten Tomatoes scores, smaller movies that score eye-catchingly high on the site can be. The kind of interesting films that Ratner sometimes produces, like Catfish or James Toback documentary Seduced and Abandoned, can get the sort of attention that they might not have had before RT’s existence, just by being ‘certified fresh’ amidst a crop of rotten blockbusters. Surely Ratner, a self-confessed cinephile and “fan of real movies,” can get behind that.