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What's in a number? The insidious influence of Rotten Tomatoes

Rotten Tomatoes and review aggregation have influence – you can’t punch an algorithm. Will we see a change in movies to ensure critical and financial success? And would this actually be a good thing?

This article was originally published on Hunter and Bligh

What's in a number? The insidious influence of Rotten Tomatoes

Critics love to tell stories about the times filmmakers got back at them for their reviews. Beloved Australian critic and one half of the ABC’s At the Movies David Stratton recounts with smug pride the time Romper Stomper director Geoffrey Wright splashed him with a glass of wine, after Stratton refused to give his film a rating. British radio critic Mark Kermode is less proud of getting punched in the arm by Benedict Cumberbatch, after calling attention to Keira Knightley’s wooden acting by calling her ‘IKEA Knightly’.

Critics and their reviews have always irked the people who actually take the time to make the things dismissed by the critics, but, generally, filmmakers and studios have little to worry about. After all, how could a bunch of articulate movie dorks ever hope to threaten a multi-billion dollar industry riding on a good hundred years of proven profits?

Enter Rotten Tomatoes

Over the past few months, the media has been sounding alarms about the potential for Rotten Tomatoes to sink a movie at the box office. Vanity Fair covered studio executives’ responses to movies like Baywatch, Pirates of the Caribbean 5 and The Mummy all underperforming, their low numbers coinciding with their ‘rotten’ ratings on the review aggregate website.

Rotten Tomatoes compiles reviews from critics on the internet and in print, using them to determine a movie’s overall critical reception. The site’s editors comb through thousands of reviews to determine whether a movie is ‘Fresh’ (60% or higher) or ‘Rotten’ (59% or lower) and summarise the reviews with a critical consensus alongside the overall score.

Since that VF article, we’ve seen movies like The Dark Tower with its abysmal 16% rating tank at the box office, currently having scraped in almost $20 million below its budget. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets could have used better word of mouth from critics, too. Currently sitting at a rare 51% on both Rotten Tomatoes and another review aggregation website Metacritic, Valerian hasn’t even pulled in quarter of its $180 million budget. All this while Dunkirk, at 93%, has moved comfortably past its budget and is sitting at around $170 million in the US alone.

Review aggregation is so far the most effective way to harness the sheer volume of opinions, professional or otherwise, on the internet. Most of the panic among studios generated by the influential website is just a bunch of executives freaking out about the latest trend, but already those executives are talking about how to get around the Rotten Tomatoes effect. Talk of eliminating critics’ screenings ahead of wide releases, of trying to convince audiences their movie is for the fans, not the critics, is beginning to sound like the panicked cries of a mismanaged business’ boardroom in hysterics.

The point stands though, that Rotten Tomatoes and review aggregation have influence – you can’t punch an algorithm. If the trend continues, will we see a change in movies to ensure critical and financial success? And would this actually be a good thing?

Gaming the algorithm

While the simple solution seems to be ‘make better movies’, I’m willing to bet studios would tell you it’s not as simple as all that. Audiences have so many options for entertainment nowadays and with TV increasingly producing the most exciting things in visual entertainment (how many of your pop culture conversations were about TV instead of movies in the last week?), plus a a significant decrease in cinema attendance, every movie, especially one outside of a franchise, is a risk.

Superhero franchise movies make for ideal examples of low risk ventures. The screenplays often have multiple writers and several redrafts, with comedy writers often being called in to spice up the script with extra jokes. Hired directors usually only have one or two other projects to their name and suddenly they’re managing a $150 million project starring some of the biggest actors in the world today. A young, inexperienced director isn’t likely to push back against what the studios have planned. Edgar Wright (Baby Driver, Hot Fuzz) famously left Ant-Man (2015) because, as he said, ‘They didn’t want to make an Edgar Wright movie’.

Few of Marvel Studios’ movies fall under 70% on Rotten Tomatoes, a number likely to persuade audiences a movie is worth their time and money. But with the way the site’s algorithm works, a movie only needs to lean slightly towards a positive review for it to contribute to the movie’s overall rating. Matt Rosza, reviewing Spiderman: Homecoming for Salon, spends most of the review discussing the film’s issues with diversity, but his review is counted as fresh because he gives it a pass as a ‘light-hearted superhero film’. Hardly the song of praise you’d expect for a film with a ‘Certified Fresh’ 92% rating.

Who is Rotten Tomatoes really for?

If studios want to eliminate the Rotten Tomatoes algorithm as a potential negative influence, they don’t have to make great movies or break the tradition of reboots and franchises and give creative control to controversial and fresh new filmmakers (the way TV and streaming services are). They just have to make passably good movies whose reviews are the equivalent of an it’s-worth-seeing-if-you’re-into-that-kind-of-thing recommendation.

Appeasing the Tomatometre doesn’t appear to be a win for diversity either. While Wonder Woman holds 92% rating and has taken massive numbers at the box office, female-led and directed films are still viewed by Hollywood as a risk, and a whopping 73% of credited reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes are male. This shows the Rotten Tomatoes consensus is hardly an accurate representation of the incredibly diverse moviegoing public, and its increased influence could mean further catering to a narrow selection of moviegoers.

We’re living in a world increasingly saturated by data and suggestions based on algorithms, especially in the world of entertainment. Picking a movie often means spending upwards of $20 here in Australia where ticket prices are some of the highest in the world. If checking a number online is all you need to do to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth, it can’t hurt to look into what that number really means.

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