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Studios Are Right: Rotten Tomatoes Has Ruined Film Criticism — Opinion

IndieWire's box office analyst hates the movie aggregation site as much as the studios do — but for very different reasons.

Some RT critics have backend access that allows them to input their own reviews and determine a custom rotten/fresh ranking, so to a degree the score can be a result of the critics who choose to participate in its creation. However that does little to address one of the most essential RT flaws: It conflates the validity of critics with their conclusions, rather than the process by which they’re reached. The only way to determine expertise, insight, and context is when readers engage with the writing, not the tomato.

READ MORE: ‘Get Out’ Star Lakeith Stanfield Slams Critic Who Ruined Film’s 100% Rotten Tomatoes Score

That’s not often what people do. Cultural criticism is performed in a never-ending stream of 140 characters; of the hundreds of entertainment websites, few offer real commitment to criticism. Meanwhile, the number of newspapers and magazines continue to drop, as do their revenues. In the face of cutbacks, staff critics can be among the first to go, with publishers preferring to utilize freelancers whose work they can syndicate throughout their properties. That in itself is a disregard, and a kind of aggregation — and with it, a loss of the opinions that might be specific to a community.

Studios also resent that conflation, but for entirely different reasons. The currently wretched RT score for “Transformers 5” is nearly identical to the 19% earned by “Transformers 2” in 2009, but that film had a $129 million five-day opening weekend (adjusted). That could suggest the franchise has lost 50% of its domestic value, and studios suspect RT is to blame. While the scores and methodology were the same eight years ago, audiences now treat the site as a thumbs up/down in itself.

(Studios need a lot more people like this guy.)

Ultimately, criticism — or even reviews — is not the point at Rotten Tomatoes. It’s owned by Fandango, which is co-owned by NBC Universal and Warner Bros. (and by extension, Comcast and Time Warner). Fandango is one of the three major online movie ticket sale web sites, and every page of RT provides multiple opportunities to check showtimes and buy tickets (with a $1.35 surcharge for each ticket sold).

Everyone needs a business model, but this one deprecates the review to the point of being nearly invisible. Click on a title and you’ll see a page with the movie’s score, a link to the trailer, and links for ticketed showtimes. Actually seeing a review (or rather, the 35-words-or-less used to represent a critic’s opinion) takes a lot of scrolling down the page; you might think they weren’t there at all. And for RT, that makes sense: Reviews, critics, and criticism are not the point.

READ MORE: ‘Suicide Squad’ Fans Launch Petition To Shut Down Rotten Tomatoes In Response To Bad Reviews

I prefer another review aggregation site, Metacritic, because I feel it provides a more refined look at the reviews and favors serious critics. They limit their critics to established publications that parallel Rotten Tomatoes’ “Top Critics.” Metacritic editors assign each review a score of 0-100, and assign an overall score that’s weighted by the critic. They then divide those ratings into five categories, from universal praise to overwhelming dislike. And the site is centered on the reviews, which are far easier to find and actually read.

It’s not the ideal format to disseminate criticism, but I find it much less problematic than the noisy, simpleminded, and self-promoting Rotten Tomatoes. That said, while Metacritic has an Alexa ranking of 714 among the most popular sites in the U.S., RT crushes it at 154 — and that number is rising. In a world where politics are reduced to “sides” with little room for qualification or degrees of support, that discrepancy reflects a world with increasing disdain for nuance. Binary criticism is the antithesis of informed criticism, and participating critics cut their own throats. [Editor’s note: IndieWire participates in Rotten Tomatoes, as well as Metacritic.]

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