Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Anthony Kaufman
December 17, 2010 3:51 AM
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Fresh or Rotten Tomatoes for Film Culture: Discuss

A scene from Lucy Walker and co-director Joao Jardim & Karen Harley's "Waste Land."

Faced with the holiday avalanche of Oscar-bait titles and top-10 lists, film critics go into overdrive. But does all their critical sound and fury mean only a Tomatometer score?

It's been nearly a year since News Corp. sold Rotten Tomatoes to social networking site Flixster, which allows users to share movie ratings. Since then, Rotten Tomatoes' influence has only seemed to increase with press references ranging from the populist USA Today to the Wall Street Journal's digerati blog, All Things D. Cited in box office reports, used by iTunes in its movie store and syndicated in newspapers like the San Francisco Chronicle and the Houston Chronicle, Rotten Tomatoes has become a kind of shorthand for film-critical thinking. (When my 75-year-old father cites a film's Tomatometer score, millions of other moviegoers can't be far behind.)

In September, New York Film Critics Circle chairman Armond White threw, well, rotten tomatoes at movie-review aggregation sites in his New York Press essay "Discourteous Discourse." He attacked the sites as havens for "uncredentialed experts" who "multiply and flounder," declaring: "The social networking approach to criticism encourages anti-intellectual harassment and the excoriation of individual response. It may spell the end of critical habits altogether."

Melodramatic? Maybe, but there is a tidal shift in the way moviegoers, particularly younger audiences, discover movies they want to see. And one of the most powerful forces in that decision-making process is Rotten Tomatoes.

That's fine with Flixster President and COO Steve Polsky, who wants his properties to lead the way as consumers navigate their entertainment choices. He believes viewers' decisions are based on three factors: "The people you know are extremely influential, then there's a broader community of people who like the things you like and then there's an outer ring of what do the critics think," he says. "We feel we can pull all of that together to help people decide what they want to see."

Rotten Tomatoes editor-in-chief Matt Atchity acknowledges criticism that the website supplants thoughtful discussion of movies with a simple percentage point. "I understand it and I know there are people who just read the number," he says. "But ultimately, I think that we do good by exposing readers and users to criticism that they wouldn't otherwise have access to. We hope the Tomatometer is a launching point for a larger read of critics." [Full disclosure: indieWIRE's own "CriticWire" page, which aggregates critic-submitted letter grades for specialized releases, arguably functions in a similar way.]

However, the Tomatometer can often be misleading.

As Atchity notes, the site's younger, web-based reviewers can favorably skew ratings for films that appeal to an online or fanboy sensibility. For example, Zach Snyder's "Watchmen" lists on the site with a 64% rating. However, according to the less-visible "Top Critics" tab, which isolates reviews from prominent critics, the rating goes from fresh to a 44% rotten.

"We've got a bunch of people on the Tomatometer from a lot of the film sites like IGN and Bloody Disgusting, who are relatively younger, whereas the Top Critics pool is more experienced and probably more mature," says Atchity. "So with something like 'Watchmen' or 'Dark Knight,' sometimes you're going to see a generational difference."

Atchity also says not all of the site's reviewers are up to the highest standards. "I will admit there's a lot of people who got on in the early days who might not necessarily make the cut now," he says. However, there are no plans to cut any existing members.

A recent site redesign incorporated Facebook and users' friends ratings while reducing the visibility of the Top Critics' numbers and retaining the "Audience" rating, which is often considerably higher for mainstream movies.

"We figured that it would be confusing to see the all-critics score and the top critic score," says Atchity, who maintains that the difference between the two camps is generally no more than seven or eight percentage points.

However, a recent survey of the site yielded some sizable gaps. For instance, the default rating for "Jack-Ass 3D" reads 62%, compared with a 32% rotten Top Critics rating; "Red" drops by more than 10%, from 70% to 60%, and "Morning Glory" drops from 54% to a rotten 43%. (Readings can also go the other way; Top Critics ranked "Unstoppable" at 91%, five points higher than the overall critics' pool.)

While Rotten Tomatoes doesn't have a responsibility to spotlight smaller movies, its general reviewing body boosts the ratings of fanboy and mainstream fare as the site downplays the role of specialized art-house cinema. Some of the Top Critics' highest scores belong to specialized film titles, but the front page displays films organized by box office and opening date.
Atchity acknowledges that Rotten Tomatoes could stand to raise the profile of high-scoring titles. While the site does collect the year's best-reviewed movies (currently, the top titles are micro-release documentaries "Waste Land," "Marwencol" and "GasLand," followed by "Toy Story 3"), the list is three clicks away from the main page and nearly impossible to find. "It's buried now," admits Atchity.

That said, specialized-film executives don't appear to take offense, with many embracing the site's "Certified Fresh" logo or the Tomatometer number in their marketing materials.
"It can be helpful for a challenging film, like '4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,' to put that 97% out there," says Ryan Werner, IFC Films' senior vp of marketing. "I think anything that draws attention to critics and reviews is not a bad thing."

Neil Marks, vp of marketing at Samuel Goldwyn Films, agrees. "When you have films that receives 90%+ favorable reviews, Rotten Tomatoes gives audiences the confidence that they’ll be seeing a strong film, which I believe positively impacts box office."

Sony Pictures Classics' Tom Bernard also doesn't believe the Tomatometer is an all-consuming critical arbiter. "If you're a consumer, I don't think that's your go-to place," he says. "Each city has its own matrix of information and filmgoers have designed their own systems to get it. They're up to speed and they know how to find what they like."

Adds Roadside Attractions' Dustin Smith, "The death of the local critic has been greatly exaggerated. Market to market, that review does matter." And Rotten Tomatoes' core demographic of 18-34 year-olds may matter less for indie movies, which often skew to an older audience.

But as Smith points out, "In 10 years, those people may be dead and the Rotten Tomatoes score will be the end all."

Polsky, however, says established critics remain fundamental to the overall picture. "It's important to have professional views to provide context," he says. "In a completely user-generated world, we might lose perspective."

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10 Comments

  • West Archer | December 25, 2010 3:21 AMReply

    Rotten Tomatoes really does cheapen film criticism. It appeals to the online fanboy generation as they are not interested in reading prose at all. Their lifestyles revolve around fast processing and a number percentage is perfect for them. I used to cite RT as an incentive to see a film, but these days I read Armond White, check out Piero Scaruffi's film scores, and/or check out Metacritic/indiewire aggregate scores. I leave RT to the fanboys that love Nolan, Fincher, Arronosky, and Kubrick. In a perfect world, I would be able to see the all the films myself and develop my own opinion. Unfortunately, I don't have the money to do so. And I will not DL a film online. This isn't based out of some morale issue - I simply don't want to watch a movie on my small little computer monitor.

  • Richard Mack | December 20, 2010 11:09 AMReply

    Back in the Dark Ages (i.e. the 1990's) the process of finding a worthwhile film was MUCH more difficult and frustrating for me than it is now with the help of Rotten Tomatoes. Back then I'd have to run down as many old fashioned newspaper reviews of a given film as I could find. The HUGE issue with this process was that as each writer would set up his or her review of the film (and its story), they would more often than not need to reveal one or two of the film's plot points. That was okay as all professional reviewers of course know NOT to give away too much of the plot. But what often happened was that different writers would reveal DIFFERENT plot points, so I would end up learning much more about most films than was necessary or desirable as I read 4 or 5 reviews in search of the CONSENSUS that R.T. readily provides me via their numerical rating.

    PLUS...I get pull quotes from the dozens of reviews posted for each film. So I can learn how well or badly a film is tracking WITHOUT knowing too much and thereby spoiling my future screening experience. I can read the entire review (or not) as I chose.

    Is the R.T. system perfect? Not at all and thank God that's the case. Putting a numerical value on Art? A dicey proposition at best. Spielberg's 2002 "Minority Report" is WAY over-inflated at 91%. Ditto 2009's "State of Play" at 84%. Tom Tykwer's "Perfume" is Rotten at 58? Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! That film should be at least 85 if not 90. My point is this: There's still plenty of wiggle room for different opinions, as there should be.

    Overall, I've found that R.T.'s aggregates trend to "about" 85% accurracy. The website has saved me all kinds of money, time and frustration over the years and I love them for it. Long Live R.T.!

  • Albert | December 20, 2010 5:59 AMReply

    "Rotten Tomatoes" and "Metacritic" are both skewed. As an example, "Rotten Tomatoes" gives Kenneth Branagh 's 2006 film version of "As You Like It" (sold directly to cable in the U.S.) a fairly low rating, based on the British reviews for the film. (The British critics, I've heard, hate Branagh's Shakespeare films.) On Metacritic, however, the consensus is based on American reviews for the film, which were quite favorable.

  • Sydney Levine | December 18, 2010 12:01 AMReply

    "As Atchity notes, the site’s younger, web-based reviewers can favorably skew ratings for films that appeal to an online or fanboy sensibility."

    This is what I dislike about RT. It is OK to aggregate reviews, but as the interested public becomes more sophisticated, readers should know how to analyze web-based reviewers vs. professional reviewers if only to increase their own vocabulary of articulation and discernment. Does one start with cheap wine and work up to burgundies? I don't know. I consider RT the cheap wine.

  • Christopher Campbell | December 17, 2010 9:42 AMReply

    I did always wonder how White can talk negatively about a system he is represented on. Eric makes a good point about how it's helped him, too.

    One thing I feel fortunate to have discovered since RT's existence is how documentaries are generally treated in film criticism. As Anthony notes, the top rated films of each year include a lot of docs, most of which are up there because they're actually great, many because a lot of reviewers simply think all non-fiction films are great (or they only review those they agree with the topic on), and of course the fact that docs tend to only garner a few reviews each compared to other films, this often helps in their favor (some young movie bloggers outright acknowledge they disfavor docs in general, and if they had to review them, it might not be as pretty). That said, and not necessarily to seem like a contrarian in negative terms, but I'm glad I can go on RT and take some so-so docs down a notch through my Cinematical column/reviews. Okay, that does actually sound really negative.

    I can not do the same through Spout, by the way, and this brings up, on the other hand, my problems with RT. It has had a terrible history regarding the consistency and clarity of its membership rules. Back when I originally tried to get on RT five years ago, I was told I couldn't join unless I was a member of the Online Film Critics Society, which in turn told me I couldn't be a member unless I was already represented on RT. Catch-22! Fortunately, I discovered my name was already in their system thanks to a non-pro review site that reprinted some reviews of mine years earlier, and that was a time when RT let just about everyone on. Back to Spout, which has always been represented on RT but for a long while its reviews, even Karina's if I remember correctly, wouldn't show up on the film's aggregate of blurbs nor would it contribute to the Tomatometer score. Now at least her blurbs do show up, but not mine. I'm not bitching, just pointing out that it's odd that a writer's work can be viewed differently by the site depending on what outlet it's from.

  • BrandonJudell | December 17, 2010 8:35 AMReply

    One is getting the sense that Mr. Kaufman— who is a writer I greatly respect and hope to be like when I grow up— is buying into the premise of the "respected critic" as to the "unrespected critic." The respected critic in nearly all cases is the one who writes for newspapers, and the "unrespected hack" is the one that writes for the Internet. I believe this farcical thinking was torpedoed with great gusto by the establishment of indieWire itself, a site where some of the most stimulating film writing has been found during the past decade.

    As for Ms. Jenni Olson buying into this crapola way of thinking (see above comment), if she only wants MetaCritics to praise her work, I promise not to pen any more raves online of her future output. But let me just state, even if she wants to dismiss my hoi-polloi viewpoint, her "The Joy of Life" from 2005 is a masterful treat for both the mind and eyes with one of the best screenplays of that year.

    Moving on, having to read another ad nauseam quote of Armond White's rantings about how he is part of a holier-than-thou critical fraternity, may I cite a Mr. Tarantino on the matter: "I don't believe in elitism. I don't think the audience is this dumb person lower than me. I am the audience." Amen.

  • Armak | December 17, 2010 8:24 AMReply

    It's comedy gold when Armond White, one of the most laughably incompetent critics in the business, laments the end of his profession. If he quit, he'd do wonders for his own cause.

  • Caryn | December 17, 2010 6:55 AMReply

    Don't people use aggregation sites in very different ways? I often go to Rotten Tomatoes and other sites and jump off to read a full review. But even more useful, as a critic it's a fascinating way to see where -- and even why -- the gulf between reviewers and popular opinion shows up. If critics don't pay attention to moviegoers' reviews, they're being ostriches -- the reality is that "civilian" reviewers' opinions matter to moviegoers, too. They don't sway a good critic's judgment, but its unrealistic to pretend they don't exist. (Really admire this article, btw.)

  • Eric | December 17, 2010 6:17 AMReply

    Like most moviegoers, I routinely check the Tomatometer to see which movies are rising to the top or sinking to the bottom of critical consensus, mainly because I find that it's an amusing snapshot of critical reception that ought to be taken with a grain of salt (just like box office reporting). Ultimately, it's a fairly meaningless system, as any critic who has written a mixed review can attest.

    But does that mean Rotten Tomatoes has had negative impact on the state of film criticism? Hardly. It's not like reductive rating systems are anything new. In a column by Roger Ebert from 1972 (which I discovered via Movie City News this week), he referred to star ratings as "a ridiculous anachronism left over from certain ancient circulation wars." But, he added, "they're fun."

    It's interesting that Armond White is cited here. White, whose contrarian stances tend to "ruin" 100% ratings on the Tomatometer, has gained a tremendous amount of national publicity for his work as a result of this exact phenomenon. While reactions to White's opinions tend to be predominantly negative, I imagine that some people have discovered Armond through his Rotten Tomatoes presence and find his method fascinating, as readers have on a more niche basis in the past.

    I would be curious to know if Rotten Tomatoes has any particular strategy for encouraging visitors to click on links to actual reviews. If the site wants to stymie allegations that it's hurting criticism, that would be a good place to start.

  • JenniOlsonSF | December 17, 2010 6:00 AMReply

    Personally, I think MetaCritic.com is superior to Rotten Tomatoes in aggregating respected reviewers and compiling a cumulative rating. Check it out.