The last few weeks have been a coronation for Rotten Tomatoes, the 19-year-old review aggregation site owned by Fandango. Faced with would-be blockbusters that received a collective shrug from the audience, studios have been shaking their fists at what they view as RT’s undeserved and unchecked power. The latest would-be victim is Paramount’s “Transformers: The Last Knight,” which sits at a 16% RT rating and current estimates have the film’s five-day opening weekend at $60 million domestic — a record-breaking low for a franchise that’s accustomed to $100 million or more.
However, RT’s corporate parents must be thrilled: They own a property that’s poised to replace the star system and has already become the shorthand for critical response. No wonder it engenders fear and loathing from Hollywood’s most powerful players.
Credit: Paramount Pictures/Bay F
And in the six and a half years I’ve reported box office analysis, my policy has remained unchanged: I don’t mention them. I have no issue with review aggregation, but I do have serious objections to their methodology, their degradation of the critical process, and how they communicate their ratings. Those aren’t the same reasons that studios (occasionally) might wish them dead, but the studios and I are united in our belief that Rotten Tomatoes is a negative force for film.
When the site launched in 1998, the concept of reducing reviews to positive/negative was already familiar. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert began using the system as part of their popular TV partnership that began in 1975 on a local Chicago station and eventually went nationwide with the Disney-syndicated “Siskel & Ebert.” Of course, the centerpiece of their show wasn’t their thumbs; it was the passionate discussion that preceded their up/down judgments.
Siskel and Ebert were part of a critical continuum that presumed readers came with their own intellectual curiosities about the work being discussed. Today, that’s turned on its head as the overwhelming majority of movie reviews used by readers as a simple buying guide — and with the audience rallying cry of “no spoilers,” the less said about the movie, the better.
Rotten Tomatoes has taken that proposition to its most reductive point, providing only two understandings of a film (three, if you count the “certified fresh” subset). There’s no allowance for isolating a strong performance, or for recognizing a strong element within a flawed film. It reduces criticism to judgment and attitude without discernment.
The methodology tips toward the negative, with films requiring 60 percent or more positive reviews to avoid being labeled “rotten.” The site’s name comes from the legend that in the 19th century, rowdy theater and music-hall crowds would show disfavor by throwing spoiled vegetables at the stage. It reflects an attitude of cheering for failure — a film isn’t good or bad, but “rotten” or “fresh” depending on the percentage of unfavorable to favorable reviews. And there’s an audience for negativity.
RT includes reviews from hundreds of critics, with print and broadcast critics requiring two years of employment as a critic at an approved outlet; online critics need a minimum of 100 reviews over two years at a single publication that receives at least 500,000 visitors a month. While those are valid standards, it also includes an array of reviewers with limited audiences and variable expertise. The internet age created an explosion of people writing about movies, often without journalistic or cinematic education. But on RT, all opinions are created equal. (There is a “Top Critics” subsection, although it receives little attention in media or the films’ marketing.)
Next page: Why Rotten Tomatoes may have destroyed 50% of the “Transformers” franchise value.