The Rotten Tomatoes site is blunt, but it’s not killing cinema
Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villenueve is one of few film-makers to praise the site
Canadian director Denis Villeneuve loves his rotten fruit. Photograph: Ettore Ferrari/EPA
What’s killing cinema this year? In the 1950s it was television. In the 1970s it was video. There have been suggestions that, in the new century, streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon will deal the final blow. Now, we have a new threat: studios hate Rotten Tomatoes.
The review aggregation website has actually been around for almost 20 years. One Senh Duong conceived the idea in 1998 and almost immediately saw it gain traction. If you’re reading this you probably know how it works. Reviews from around the world are rated as either favourable (red tomato) or negative (green splat). Any film that scores over 60 per cent favourable is assessed as being fresh. Any film scoring below that line is officially rotten. It’s a blunt object. But it’s just a bit of fun. Right?
The website was popular from the start, but it is only in recent years that its power has come to be questioned. It is telling who does the moaning and who remains content with the operation. Brett Ratner, often hammered by the Tomatometer, is unhappy about its influence.
“The worst thing that we have in today’s movie culture is Rotten Tomatoes,” the director of Rush Hour and Hercules commented. “I think it’s the destruction of our business. I have such respect and admiration for film criticism. When I was growing up film criticism was a real art. And there was intellect that went into that. And you would read Pauline’s Kael’s reviews, or some others, and that doesn’t exist any more. Now it’s about a number.”
Fair enough. But here’s a funny thing. Last week, Denis Villeneuve, director of Arrival, Prisoners and the upcoming Blade Runner 2049, told me that he welcomed the site’s influence. “The power of that website is a new element,” he said. “I think that is good. I am not saying that Rotten Tomatoes is perfect. But the fact that film critics are at the forefront again means that the quality of the movie matters. It’s not just about marketing.” None of Denis’ films has scored lower than 75 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes.
The debate reached a fulcrum this week when Yves Bergquist, director of the Data and Analytics Project at USC’s Entertainment Technology Centre, released a report that apparently proved that Rotten Tomatoes scores have no significant impact on a movie’s performance. There was worse news for the site’s most fervent enemies. “There’s virtually no difference between critics’ scores and audiences’ scores, and the more successful the film is at the box office, the smaller the difference,” Bergquist wrote. “Which means that audiences are becoming experts at smelling a ‘bad’ movie and staying away.”
This will infuriate no group so much as the small cabal of DC comics fans who believe that Rotten Tomatoes is biased (or more often “bias”) against movie adaptations of those entertainments. The maddest theory argues that the site favours Marvel films because Disney, corporate overlords of Marvel Studios, is bribing the site to be nice about Spider-Man and horrid about Batman. Last summer some nut even launched a petition to close Rotten Tomatoes because its contributors didn’t care much for DC’s Suicide Squad.
Among the smaller absurdities in this argument is the notion that, rather than being formed from an amorphous body of critics throughout the globe, Rotten Tomatoes is a thinking, unified entity. To blame the organisation for a film getting a poor score is like banning the electoral officer for your preferred party losing an election. Rotten Tomatoes merely count the votes.
There are some delicious ironies surrounding the online complaints. The people who whinge most loudly about Rotten Tomatoes’ influence are the ones who care most about its scores. While Suicide Squad fans were failing to organise boycotts against the site, most of the cinema-going public was remaining blissfully unaware of its existence. Potential enthusiasts for promising new films fly into furies when some critic dares to break a potentially perfect score. I was recently yelled at online for being the first critic offering a rotten review to It. Apparently I was only doing it to get attention. Well, if that’s your problem stop giving me that attention, pal.
Of course, nobody should take Rotten Tomatoes too seriously. When Tara Brady and I submit our reviews of “three-star” films to the site we are forced to decide if the notice is at the lower (rotten) or higher (fresh) end of the bracket. It sometimes feels as arbitrary as rating cucumbers at a county fair. The opinion is entangled within the clauses of the review. The score barely counts as even an approximation.
You could argue that Metacritic, which grades from nought to 100, offers a more accurate assessment, but, in truth, that’s just a different sort of deception. If somebody asked you whether you did or did not like a film (the Rotten Tomatoes approach) you would surely find that more sensible than being asked to rate the movie out of 100 (the Metacritic line). Hmm? Was it a “67” or a “68”?
Oh for the days when we didn’t even have the star ratings.