Is Rotten Tomatoes Ruining the Art of Film Criticism?

Hollywood is blaming Rotten Tomatoes for its rotten summer – but do they actually have a point?

Rhys Graeme-Drury

The northern summer just gone has been one filled with quality cinema; from filmmaker-driven fare such as Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver to franchise films like Wonder Woman and Spider-man: Homecoming, audiences have been treated to some excellent tentpole films, not to mention some smaller original films such as Logan Lucky, Wind River and The Big Sick. In short, there has been plenty of good stuff for cinephiles to gorge on

And yet, despite this, domestic box office takings for major Hollywood films are down. The last weekend in August drew so few people to the theatre that you’d have to go back to September 2001 to find a weekend where fewer people made the trip to the theatre. The blockbuster season of 2017 raked in approximately $3.8 billion in the United States, which roughly translates into a 15 per cent decline from the same span last year.

So, even with the aforementioned films in theatres, what has caused this marked decrease? Could it be that people are strapped for cash? That the theatre experience is increasingly eclipsed by home formats and streaming? That for every quality film there are five crap sequels, reboots or remakes?

Even though all of these, and others, are likely contributing factors, major industry figures and filmmakers are pointing the finger squarely at review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, according to a recent op-ed from The New York Times.

Yes, believe it or not, the combined might of Hollywood’s studios have supposedly met their match, and it comes in the form of a website. Back in May, director Brett Ratner (best known for X-Men: The Last Stand and Rush Hour) was of the opinion that Rotten Tomatoes is a persistent pain in the ass for filmmakers and the main reason fewer people were making the effort to see films in the theatre.

“The worst thing that we have in today’s movie culture is Rotten Tomatoes,” Ratner said. “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.”

Does Ratner have a point here? In a sense, I can see what he is getting at. Rotten Tomatoes’ metric – the way in which it calculates a score for a film – is inherently very black and white. The website essentially asks every reviewer to boil their overarching sentiment towards a film into two camps ­– fresh or rotten.

If 200 reviewers submit a review for a film and 120 of those deemed the film ‘fresh’, said film would be furnished with a 60% score on the website. Even if they felt the film was only worth three stars or 6 out of 10, a fresh rating is a fresh rating, the same as if they felt the film was worth five stars or 10 out of 10. There is no room for shades of grey. A glowing review is afforded the same weight as a so-so one; a scathing review no less damning than one that presents both sides.

This is where things can go awry. If said film were to receive 200 reviews of precisely three stars, it would be heralded as perfect by the Rotten Tomatoes metric – 100 per cent. Except, this is a wholly inaccurate appraisal of a film that 200 critics felt was merely good and only worth three out of five.

This must be incredibly frustrating for filmmakers like Ratner. That you can spend upwards of a year toiling away on a film only for an increasingly popular website to slap it with a 30% ‘rotten’ score must be a real kick in the teeth.

In foregoing nuance, Rotten Tomatoes is oversimplifying film criticism. In our increasingly digital world, sites like Rotten Tomatoes are presented as the go-to destination for film appraisal. Just as one would skim through user reviews for a restaurant on Zomato or a bedsit on Airbnb, filmgoers cast a glance towards Rotten Tomatoes when seeking a verdict on this week’s slew of new releases.

Though I concede Rotten Tomatoes does indeed have its merits, I can’t help but feel a little bummed that more and more people are relying on a system so fundamentally simplistic as their primary means of engagement with film criticism.

So even though it might be a touch harsh to pin all of Hollywood’s woes on one website – I mean, if they just made better films, this wouldn’t be a problem, right? – I do think there needs to be a greater understanding surrounding Rotten Tomatoes and how its scores aren’t necessarily the be all and end all of film criticism.

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures / Inglorious Basterds 

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