The value of a Rotten Tomatoes score is once again a hot topic, thanks to a widening divide between how critics view a movie and how audiences see it.
Discussion about that divide flared recently over Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which received more than 100,000 reviews and an audience score hovering around 56 percent — much lower than the critics’ “Certified Fresh” score of 91 percent. A similar disparity occurred with the release of Justice League in November, wherein the film received a lackluster 41 percent score from critics and a whopping 78 percent from audiences.
The latest movie to experience a noticeable difference from critics and fans is also one of Rotten Tomatoes’ biggest divides: Netflix’s Bright. The film, which I called the “cinematic embodiment of a busted, spewing sewage pipe,” has a 27 percent “rotten” overall rating from critics, but an audience score of 89 percent.
Justice League, Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Bright released within five weeks of each other, making the gap between audience scores and critics’ ratings more noticeable, but this has always been the case on the platform. Vox noted that “the [audience] score is often out of step with the critical score,” adding that “sometimes, the difference is extremely significant, a fact that's noticeable because the site lists the two scores side by side.”
There are numerous theories about why audience scores and the critics’ ratings are often so different. Vox hypothesized that because people are spending $20 on movie tickets and snacks, they’re inclined to like the movie a little more.
FiveThirtyEight suggests that because some movies may come attached with controversial, cultural components — look at the reaction from some outspoken reactionists to 2016’s all-female-led Ghostbusters — there is an organized attempt to either drive the audience score down (aka “review bombing”) or inflate its overall rating.
“The point is that this is a hugely instructive case for why internet ratings need to be approached with way more nuance than they currently are,” FiveThirty Eight’s chief culture writer, Walt Hickey, wrote last year. “People put far too much faith in numbers that are preliminary, decontextualized and, in the end, oversimplified.”
Hickey is referring to both the audience score and the official “Tomatometer,” which is the single number attached to critics’ rating. The Tomatometer has become controversial in recent months, with many people in the film industry and outside of it pointing to the Tomatometer as the reason for a film’s box office success or failure.
Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer is easy for people to point to and debate because of its prominence on the site: A rating, displayed in large font, sitting beside a symbol reiterating its status. Other polling institutions, like CinemaScore and ComScore, release their own data, but it’s not as easily accessible for the public.
In the case of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, despite a negative audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, the movie received a CinemaScore of “A,” which is the same as Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Deadline reports that a positive CinemaScore rating often translates to a successful box office opening weekend and generally positive sentiment among viewers.
A+ grades generate on average a 4.8 multiple for a movie off its opening and A grades 3.6x. CinemaScore only polls audiences on Friday night from 35 to 45 pollster teams in 25 cities including Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Denver, Dallas, Portland, St. Louis, Atlanta, Tampa, Philadelphia, and Memphis.
Rotten Tomatoes’ method of data collection isn’t viewed in the same light. When Rotten Tomatoes delayed Justice League’s official score, the move raised questions about whether the aggregation site was stepping into the role of a critic. Although the company noted it was holding back the score for its Facebook show, See It/Skip It, some argued this would impact Justice League’s opening box office numbers and play into a narrative about DC Universe films in general. Rotten Tomatoes became a critic, and a group of opinionated people on the internet started revolting against the official critical score, using audience reviews to try and boost the appeal of a movie.
It’s not just the numbers, either. Dive into the actual audience reviews left on Rotten Tomatoes for any of the aforementioned films and there’s a consistent message: Critics were wrong. Justice League fans called out critics for their attack on another DC Universe property; audiences lambasted critics for their generally positive reviews of Star Wars: The Last Jedi; fans of Bright pointed out that critics were overly aggressive with their reviews, donning their blurbs with accusations that critics were taking money to give poor reviews.
This divide between critics and fans is something that the company has tried to address before. Rotten Tomatoes’ former editor-in-chief, Matt Atchity, told Wired that he never wants to see a movie bomb and has no personal stake in what does well or what doesn’t.
“I want every movie to be good. I absolutely do,” Atchity said. “I hope every movie I sit down and see is good. Do I want to see people fail? No. I don’t want to see anybody fail.”
Still, the divide seems to be growing. Vox argued that while critic reviews tend to be “more controlled and methodical,” audience scores and reviews are often generated by people who have an emotional stake in the movie. People who go out of their way to write positive reviews of Justice League, for example, may be the same people launching Zack Snyder fan sites and moderating subreddits dedicated to the extended DC Universe.
As more blockbusters are released throughout the year — we’ll go from Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Bright in December to Black Panther in February — and on a plethora of platforms, the divide on Rotten Tomatoes between audiences who are invested in the movie and critics assigned to review it is likely to grow. This is natural, but important to take note of. As Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff said:
If you’ve bought a ticket for a movie — as opposed to having seen it at a free critics screening — you’re far more likely to have self-selected as a fan already, and thus, you’re far more likely to be into the movie.
I’ll use this last bit of the article to remind readers and movie goers that criticism is entirely subjective, and the best method of trying to figure out whether you’ll enjoy a movie is by paying close attention to one or two critics whose opinions tend to line up to yours. Rotten Tomatoes merely aggregates reviews; it doesn’t subjectively determine whether a movie is worth buying tickets for.
I hated Bright and loved Star Wars: The Last Jedi — but that doesn’t mean everyone else does (or should). Rotten Tomatoes can tell you what other critics and general audiences thought, but developing a relationship with a critic who you can trust is always the best method of deciding what to spend your money on.
It’s time to let the “Tomatometer” score go.