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Rotten Tomatoes Debate: Critics Discuss Whether the Service Hurts or Helps Their Craft

How does the biggest movie review aggregation site sit with the people whose opinions it represents? We asked them.

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: In a recent article, box office analyst Tom Brueggemann writes that Rotten Tomatoes has ruined film criticism. Now it’s your turn to weigh in: How do you feel about Rotten Tomatoes and other aggregation sites? Do they hurt or help the state of modern film criticism

Alissa Wilkinson (@alissamarie), Vox

Yes, aggregation sites can be frustrating, because they keep people from actually reading criticism and understanding the nuances of a critique; not all of my opinions on movies can be reduced to fresh or rotten, and even if the ones that clearly fit one category or the other really need five minutes of reading to understand why. It’s not as simple as “good” or “bad,” because films are art.

On the other hand, aggregators can be useful if you’re in a hurry. But their use is limited. I wish everyone would pick a few critics they like or find interesting and read them, instead of looking at aggregators.

What really scares me, though, is how aggregation sites turn movie reviewing into politics: this movie “wins,” or this person is bad because they’re not on its “side.” That already happens during awards season, and seeing it happen with ordinary reviews of ordinary movies frustrates me — or, at the least, lets me know who to mute on Twitter.

Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker

The state of modern film criticism is exceptionally good — better than ever. There are more knowledgeable, insightful, imaginative, and curious critics around now than there have been since I started reading critics in the late seventies; at the very least, there’s much more good criticism readily accessible now because it’s on-line. I don’t worry about Rotten Tomatoes; no one who’s reading the many good critics would skip a worthwhile movie because of a Rotten Tomatoes rating—and no one would avoid reading those critics because of a rating, either.

What’s more, Rotten Tomatoes has the merit of putting reviews by critics who write for smaller outlets alongside those who write for more prominent ones, which is all to the good. Brueggemann unfortunately perpetuates the stereotype about “people writing about movies, often without journalistic or cinematic education” and frets that they’re gathered alongside the professionals; what’s far more common is people writing about movies on the basis of knowledge, curiosity, passion, and cultivated taste, often without steady gigs, and Rotten Tomatoes gives at least some of them the prominence that they deserve.

In any case, professional status as a critic is no guarantee of useful ideas or perspectives, and a glance at some of the reviews by nominal “top critics” proves it. The cavalier dismissal of good movies by prominent critics of limited curiosity and taste is a much greater problem than the aggregation of reviews by Rotten Tomatoes.

Joshua Rothkopf (@joshrothkopf), Time Out New York

Ruining criticism? That may be a little extreme. The only people that can ruin criticism are critics themselves: by writing poorly, failing to provide context, not being honest to their personal reactions or skimping the reader on passion (both negative and positive). Essentially, the aggregators deliver our reviews to curious fans. Even if those people don’t click through, that can’t be a bad thing. I’ve often chafed at the binary nature of Rotten Tomatoes (Metacritic works at a finer grain), but I feel that’s a small price to pay when considering the larger mission: italicizing the importance — and the fun — of reacting to art.

Max Weiss (@maxthegirl), Baltimore magazine

Some version of this argument has been going on for time immemorial: Thumbs up/thumbs down are bad. Star ratings are bad. Capsule reviews are bad. My general opinion is that people who want to read film criticism read film criticism. Most people just want a general idea of “will I like this?” or “do critics mostly think it’s good?”. Rotten Tomatoes is deeply flawed, of course. It promotes a shallow relationship to film criticism and to film itself. And it’s often misunderstood (a 100% “fresh” rating doesn’t mean a film is perfect, or even great—it just means that all critics agree it’s at least good). But it’s a handy tool. I could even make the argument that it’s good for film criticism—it provides links to reviews and introduces readers to writers they may not have found otherwise. I did a little happy dance when I was finally included among its ranks.

Tomris Laffly (@TomiLaffly), Freelance

Confession: I am a little tired of the “Is Rotten Tomatoes bad for criticism?” discussion. My short answer is, no. When people condemn RT or Metacritic, they usually assume, a) audiences who used to take criticism seriously no longer have any use for individual reviews, since they now only care about the shorthand score or Fresh/Rotten rating, and/or b. people who come to RT or to Metacritic for summarized ratings only used to be routine consumers of serious film criticism.

Well, I think neither is the case.

I think those who only look at shorthand ratings (or make decisions based on thumbs up/down) never truly engaged with criticism to begin with. (In that case hey, I’d much rather have them take a film’s RT rating into account than, say, its imdb rating.) And I really don’t think serious readers of criticism now dismiss reviews because of sites that bother to collect various published pieces in one place. Before I started pursuing criticism myself, I used RT just to get a rough feel of the response to a film, but I still read the reviews of critics I was interested in without exceptions. Plus, the aggregator site introduced me to voices I didn’t know of before. It’s been a good thing for me as a reader—it broadened my perspective. I find it helpful to see most reviews in one place and have a quick way of accessing articles you might have a harder time finding otherwise. And as Brueggemann notes in his piece, there is the “Top Critics” feature for those seeking more established voices only.

Plus (and this part is perhaps a little selfish), RT is helpful for freelance writers like myself. It’s been very useful to me to have one place where I can collect all my reviews for the various sites I contribute to. This is of course a side note, but I feel most freelancers will agree with this statement.

Is Rotten Tomatoes perfect? Of course not. No “consensus” system is perfect. For starters, I really wish they had something between a Fresh and Rotten rating to take mixed reviews into account a bit more accurately (Metacritic does a better job with this). And their “Top Critics” system is questionable, as it focuses on publications as opposed to individual writers and voices. So a freelancer can be a top critic with one review but not with another written for a different outlet. I just think they need to revisit that process to focus more on individuals as well as refresh their list of sites they consider legitimate. But I have to say I value RT’s inclusiveness: as we all know, women and PoC have a harder time breaking into the field. Even though they have a lot more work to do in this regard (and I mean a lot), you certainly can discover more diverse voices in Rotten Tomatoes than in Metacritic.

Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse), Freelance for Nylon, Vulture, the Guardian

Saying Rotten Tomatoes has “ruined” film criticism is a little dramatic, but it’s definitely not helping. Rotten Tomatoes, with its insistence on dichotomizing all reviews into “good!” and “bad!” so that they may form a clear-cut approval rating, reinforces the troubling notion that film criticism exists chiefly as a consumer recommendation system. The ambitions of criticism should be, must be, and have always been more expansive than “see this, don’t see this,” and Rotten Tomatoes wipes away a lot of that nuance. More worrisome still is this idea of standardization in our appraisal of art, that I can take a film of one genre and easily identify it as, say, 14% superior to a film from another genre, tradition, or era. This is, of course, insane. To be completely frank, I’m opposed to the idea of appending any sort of concrete rating to movies. It’s so absurd, to read 800 beautifully argued words about a film, and to think that they can be reduced to something as meaninglessly simple as “3/5” or “C-.”

What is the best movie currently in theaters? “The Big Sick”

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