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Fresh or Rotten Tomatoes for Film Culture: Discuss

By Anthony Kaufman | Indiewire December 17, 2010 at 3:51AM

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?
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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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