If you ask Warner Bros. why The House or 20th Century Fox why Snatched did poorly, you’re likely to receive a couple of different answers, but one common thread will stand out: Rotten Tomatoes.
The review aggregator, which collects reviews from more than 2,000 critics, is essentially an algorithm: critics are asked to rate a movie as fresh or rotten. As answers come in, an average is determined. That average is then displayed as a percentage underneath the movie’s title. There’s a score for all critics and a score for top critics, wherein the latter is usually a little lower than the former, especially when it comes to genre films.
Rotten Tomatoes collects all of these reviews in one place and gives it a clear percentage based on the average, and so it’s become a go-to source for consumers. Is a particular movie worth checking out? Chances are you’re going to check Rotten Tomatoes before anything else.
If the average is anything less than, say, 60 percent — a number I just pulled from thin air — chances are less likely people are going to spend $15 on a single ticket. That doesn’t take into account the cost of popcorn, drink and other snacks. Going to the movies is an expensive hobby and people don’t want to waste their money on a less than satisfactory experience. It’s become a much more selective process.
This is why Rotten Tomatoes is an easy target for studios. Executives at various studios have told Deadline that Rotten Tomatoes scores were the reason movies like Pirates of the Caribbean 5: Dead Men Tell No Tales and Baywatch failed at the box office. Directors like Brett Ratner (X-Men: The Last Stand) agree. Ratner told Entertainment Weekly that everything comes down to a Rotten Tomatoes score, no matter what movie it is or which studio produced it.
“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,’” Ratner said. “But that number is an aggregate and one that nobody can figure out exactly what it means, and it’s not always correct. I’ve seen some great movies with really abysmal Rotten Tomatoes scores.”
It’s easy to blame Rotten Tomatoes for a movie not performing well, but it’s in no way the website’s fault. This isn’t a subjective approach to ensuring that one type of movie succeeds while another fails. This isn’t a war between Marvel and DC fans. This is a simple algorithm designed to give audiences the fairest examination of a movie.
Even if that means upsetting actors, directors, writers and, of course, studio executives.
Matt Atchity, the editor-in-chief of Rotten Tomatoes and a veteran film critic, doesn’t want to see movies fail. In a recent interview with Wired, Atchity said he wants the complete opposite.
“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.”
But neither Atchity or anyone else could have foreseen that Rotten Tomatoes scores would become headline news. When Wonder Woman scored a 93 percent rating — certifiably fresh by Rotten Tomatoes standards — almost everyone wrote about it. After Wonder Woman became the highest-rated DCU movie of all time, it was all anyone could talk about. It was a celebratory moment!
It’s something Warner Bros. was ecstatic about, but the studio hasn’t always had the best relationship with the website. When reviews came out for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad and, most recently, The House, people were quick to note the low scores on Rotten Tomatoes. In the name of transparency, I also did at Polygon.
This is where the real question regarding who’s at fault comes in: Is Rotten Tomatoes to blame or, in a much larger sense, the way the media reports on it?
It all comes down to changing landscapes. Fifty years ago, if you wanted to read about the latest movies hitting the theater, you picked up a weekend paper or the latest issue of Variety and made your decision. You had to read reviews and trust the critic you were reading. This is partly why Siskel & Ebert were as read and watched as they were. They were trustworthy household names and, in an pre-Rotten Tomatoes and percentages era, they were all there was.
Now, however, Rotten Tomatoes has collected all of the critics that people read on a daily or weekly basis and has put their reviews in one spot. Going one step further, it’s eliminated the actual reading process and just assigned a percentage for those who want a snappy decision based on the average judgement most critics had about the movie. Polygon assigns scores to its game reviews in part because people like to see a score at the bottom of the page. It may even be the reason they read the review.
Again, is this Rotten Tomatoes’ fault? Not particularly. People who want to read reviews are still going to seek those pieces of writing out. For those who don’t, however, this has been a long time coming. Vanity Fair reported that internal studies at both 20th Century Fox and Paramount Pictures warned executives that more people were going to rely on Rotten Tomatoes — and sites like Metacritic, etc. — especially millennials.
Rotten Tomatoes was a sign of things to come and executives are trying to figure out how to combat it. According to Deadline’s sources, certain studios are threatening to withhold screenings from critics. That’s certainly one way to prevent people from checking out a Rotten Tomatoes score opening weekend, but it won’t do much in the long run. Scores will be up by the Sunday of that weekend, if not sooner, and the drop off the following week will be all the more noticeable.
The answer, perhaps too idealistic and simplistic in its foundation, is for studios to spend more money on marketing if they’re not going to make better movies. Whereas Warner Bros. barely spent money on marketing and advertisement for The House, Paramount Pictures spent an enormous amount of money on marketing for its Transformers series. While Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen only has a 19 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it grossed more than $800 million worldwide. Paramount always markets Transformers movies as widely as it can, giving it a number of TV spots, trailers and teaming up with various companies to ensure everyone knows it exists. Although Revenge of the Fallen wasn’t well received, it still managed to do pretty okay.
Rotten Tomatoes is in an interesting place. It does contribute to the conversation at large, but it’s not doing so with a critical or subjective eye. It’s merely stating what more than 2,000 other people are saying. It’s a website that has exploded in the past five years and it’s trying to figure out how to exist in the new spotlight it has found itself under.
As Atchity told Wired, the answer seems to be sending people more frequently to the actual reviews and helping critics get their pieces read, creating a better platform for conversation among people.
“On a certain level it is in our best interest to send as much traffic as possible to individual reviews, because without the critics being incentivized by the platforms that employ them, RT is less useful.”