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Rotten Tomatoes scores don’t correlate to box office success or woes, research shows

It’s an easy scapegoat, but not the right one

Sony Pictures

Depending on who you ask, Rotten Tomatoes is the reason some movies don’t perform at the box office.

Countless movie executives, including producers, have told Deadline and the New York Times that the number atop a movie’s page on Rotten Tomatoes signifying whether the majority of critics enjoyed or disliked a movie rules the box office. Director Brett Ratner was quoted as saying “I think it’s the destruction of our business” while others have called for its demise.

According to research conducted by Yves Bergquist, director of the Data & Analytics Project at USC’s Entertainment Technology Center, that’s not correct. Bergquist collected data from 150 movies this year that made more than $1 million at the box office. Using those Box Office Mojo numbers and comparing them to the critic and audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, Bergquist then “looked at [the] correlation between scores and financial performance” to determine if there was a linear line that could be drawn between low scores and bad box office performance.

Or, more simply, did a lower “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes equate to box office woes? The short answer is no, it didn’t. Bergquist’s findings confirmed that of the 150 movies surveyed, there was only a 12 percent correlation between a movie receiving a bad score and not performing well at the box office. Summer films saw even less of a correlation, with seven percent of lower-scored movies not performing at the box office. Bergquist did not confirm if these were domestic or global numbers.

“What is clear, from looking at all film data since 2000, is that Rotten Tomatoes scores have never played a very big role in driving box office performance, either positively or negatively,” Bergquist wrote.

The more interesting trend, according to Bergquist, is that audience scores and critic scores are becoming similar with each passing year. That means audiences are becoming experts in their own right at sniffing out a dud and staying away from it. Other movies, like Wonder Woman or Spider-Man: Homecoming, break box office records and have high ratings for similar reasons.

When big blockbusters fail, however, that has a ripple effect across the industry.

“Production budgets are less and less of a predictor of box office success,” Bergquist wrote. “This means that, as financial exposure rises, so does financial risk. This is not good (for a long time it was the opposite), and is a substantial reason why Wall Street has been so tough on entertainment stocks lately.”

Rotten Tomatoes isn’t the masked villain that everyone considers it to be — the phantom of the box office, if you will — but it is showing some disturbing trends. Big budget movies are no longer instant winners at the box office and the sentiment that Bergquist’s report suggests is that studios need to make better movies. If a movie is good, audiences will pay to see it. Last year, the film industry made close to $40 billion in global box office revenue, setting a newfound record. Based on Variety’s report, avid moviegoers (those who go to the theater at least once a month) made up nearly 50 percent of that audience. This proved that if a good film is made, there are already willing bodies who will shell out $15 to watch it.

Rotten Tomatoes is an easy scapegoat, but Bergquist’s data proves it’s in no way a sign that review aggregation sites are the reason the box office didn’t light up this summer. The solution to Hollywood’s current woes are unknown, but the fault doesn’t lay in Rotten Tomatoes’ lap.

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