Rotten Tomatoes: is it a good thing for movies?

You may have seen yesterday, but a petition has started doing the rounds demanding that the Rotten Tomatoes web service get shut down, following a torrent of negative reviews that went live for David Ayer’s Suicide Squad movie. The petition has since been updated, to clarify that its aim is “to deliver a message to the critics that there is a lot of people disagree with their reviews”. In truth, in the era of social media, I think there are few critics who aren’t aware of this.

Still, this followed a petition earlier this year, which called for Disney to stop paying off film critics, in order to negate the glowing reviews for Marvel movies. That one was launched in the aftermath of the savaging that Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse was on the receiving end of.

Fandom has a habit, of course, of defending what it cares about, and sometimes attacking what it doesn’t. But I was interested in the Rotten Tomatoes debate in particular, not least because it’s a service I’ve grown – at least from my side of the fence – increasingly uncomfortable with. To be clear: not the site or service itself, more what it represents.

Certified Fresh

If you’ve not had the pleasure, Rotten Tomatoes is genuinely an excellent resource. It gathers together reviews from across the world of modern movies, and in theory, allows you to find critical voices that tend to tally closely with your own tastes, and follow their respective reviews. It’s a useful place for getting an idea of how a film is being received, and at what it sets out to do, I struggle to fault it.

What I do struggle with, though, is the number that it spits out at the end of it, regardless of whether you’ve made The Godfather or The Do-Over. Because what Rotten Tomatoes does is aggregate reviews. It’s not the first to do it – Metacritic was and has been doing a similar job on videogames for years – but it’s arguably the biggest at what it does. And certainly the most influential right now.

What Rotten Tomatoes does is take the mix of reviews, and comes up with a critical consensus of sort. Then, it also comes up with a ‘Tomatometer’ score. At the time of writing, the score for Suicide Squad stands at 33%. This, in the parlance of Rotten Tomatoes, is a ‘splat’.

A splat, let me tell you, is not what movie marketing departments want to hear about.

The two other gradings that Rotten Tomatoes offers are Fresh (for films that are averaging a score of 60% or higher), and – this is the big one – Certified Fresh. For a film to be Certified Fresh, its score needs to be 75% or higher, and to be reviewed by at least 80 different critics, of which at least five need to be from the service’s anointed ‘Top Critics’. The criteria is relaxed slightly for limited release films.

Rotten Tomatoes determines itself who those top critics are, and it basically allows the service to make a weighted distinction between the film critic of the Los Angeles Times, and the film critic of the Billericay Herald. That said, with over 300 critics listed and growing, it would be fair to say that Rotten Tomatoes is a broad church, and that the critics it aggregates are of… well, let’s go with ‘varying quality’.

But here’s a crucial point: what Rotten Tomatoes looks at, in its calculations, is the number of positive reviews that a film or TV show has. Not how positive or negative: just whether the critic concerned like the film or show, or otherwise. Thus, if a film has six positive reviews and four negative ones, in theory, said score would be 60%.

That’s unlike Metacritic, which averages out the actual scores given to productions. With Rotten Tomatoes, how much a reviewer likes a film isn’t relevant. They might like it, it might be their favourite movie of all time, but it’ll still count as one homogenous positive when the calculation is made. With Metacritic, and I’m just using it as it’s the most obvious parallel example, if six critics give a film five stars and four critics give it just one, the score would be 68% (before any hidden weighting comes into play, and some suspect it does at Rotten Tomatoes too). More often than not, though, because of the way it calculates its totals, Rotten Tomatoes scores tend to be higher than Metacritic’s.

The key factor for the purposes of this piece: at Rotten Tomatoes, every film gets a score, and an icon, be it a splat, fresh or certified fresh image. And nobody at Rotten Tomatoes needs to see the film or show itself to determine that.

Why does it matter?

There’s a simple bottom line here: decisions are being made about films based on their Rotten Tomatoes score. They’re being made by audiences as to whether to see a film, by studios who use it as a metric to whether a movie is any good, and by people who write articles for websites as a similar indicator of some kind of hive mind. Furthermore, I’ve had anecdotal evidence that the Rotten Tomatoes score of a previous film is a factor – I’ve no idea how high – in getting a production company to even greenlight a future movie. I’ve had people involved with films quote their Rotten Tomatoes score at me, and in each case, both of us knew that it mattered to a degree. That’s whether we liked it or not.

I first got a flavour of the importance of Rotten Tomatoes a while back, when Den Of Geek was asked directly by the director of a movie if our review of his film was being uploaded to the service. This was back in 2013, and as it turned out, we’d given said movie a three-star rating, but that was higher than the majority of other reviewers. As such, if our more positive review was uploaded to the service, then we’d have edged his film closer to a coveted Fresh rating.

Such conversations are now not uncommon. Two important people in the marketing departments of major movie studios have been in touch with us direct in the last six months alone to ask our view of Rotten Tomatoes, and to specifically request we upload a certain review or two.

We didn’t, but for a reason. For in terms of this site’s relationship with Rotten Tomatoes, we’ve taken a look at it, but elected not to get involved. Den Of Geek US has signed up, and I fully understand why. I’m not playing prude or snob here, and maybe one day Den Of Geek UK will be a part of it. It really is a service with merit, after all.

It’s just that personally, I struggle with it. There’s already plenty of debate over the prevalence of star ratings in movie reviews, and whether they’re a good or bad thing. I believe star ratings are useful before you see a film, if you don’t want to read too much but just want to get some guidance. But, like most people who write about movies, I’d far rather people went with the words, rather than the star icons. Just as filmmakers would rather have a fuller response than a picture of some fruit and that aforementioned number.

After all, with an aggregated score, it feels too much to me like tens of thousands of words, of argument, of detail, and of discussion, are being boiled down to a number and a little picture. That, as we’ve seen with Suicide Squad, it becomes just about that one score. Suicide Squad has 33% on Rotten Tomatoes? It must be bad, goes the argument. Never mind that many individual critics are citing the performances of Margot Robbie and Will Smith, or the assorted merits of the film (I’ve not seen it as I write this, I should add). Just that the film’s been fed through the modern reviewing sausage machine, and critic democracy has determined it to be bad.

And maybe it is. But films aren’t black and white (well, some are, but I didn’t mean it like that), and film reviewing isn’t black and white (same). I’m someone who finds Rotten Tomatoes useful, certainly, but I’m also someone who shudders a little when I see it appearing on a graph or in a Powerpoint presentation, as if it’s a fixed determinant of what’s good or not. It’s worth reiterating that there’s little nuance to its scoring, and effectively it allows but three verdicts from individual critics: great, okay and terrible. It’s also worth noting that two movie studios have a financial stake in the service, although said stakes are so miniscule there’s no question that they’ve influenced the scores the site has generated.

One more thing, too: Rotten Tomatoes is another of the growing number of services that doesn’t produce the bulk of its material itself, rather that it stands on the shoulders of others.

But the question at the start: is Rotten Tomatoes good for movies? It depends, really. If it’s the line between a film getting made or not? I’ve got all sorts of alarm bells there. If it’s a help in choosing what to watch? It’s hard to grumble too much. But I do still suspect many people think that its score given to films and TV shows is an average total, when actually, that’s really not the case.

Going back to that petition, then: it’s clearly doomed to failure. But that it’s raised, indirectly, the issue of review aggregators and their influence in the first place is surely of merit. Feel free to rate this article a splat at your leisure…

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