Before I was a filmmaker, I was a film critic. I did that for a solid decade. I mention that an awful lot in interviews and pieces because it’s a part of my life I’m particularly proud of. I love the industry and a lot of the people I came up with who now run it. What I don’t often talk about is that Rotten Tomatoes played a big part in why I left. When that site first started to come together, I saw the writing on the wall and knew that it would change the way traffic to reviews worked forever – and that I might wake up one day to find there wasn’t a job for me anymore. What I didn’t see was how profoundly it would not only reshape the way film critique was digested, but how movies themselves opened.
With Rotten Tomatoes, the days of the critic-proof film (a film that even a sea of negative reviews couldn’t kill at the box office) were all but over. Even films that were simply below average often found their way to early graves at its hands. This summer I watched as a tentpole blockbuster with an A-list actor, tracking to make more than $50M its opening weekend, instead pulled in less than $20M. That tracking dropoff occurred immediately after the Rotten Tomatoes reviews and score dropped.
That’s real power. And wielded by a non-partisan entity fueled by a body of critics who care about film, that’s not exactly a terrible thing.
But what if it’s not non-partisan?
“Justice League,” which opens this weekend, not only had a very tight embargo placed upon it (reviews dropped less than 48 hours before the first screenings), but also, strangely, had its Rotten Tomatoes score held back to be revealed on Rotten Tomatoes’ new web show “See It/Skip It.” But that’s not what bothered me. What scared me, frankly, was that all of the film’s reviews were held back from the site as well. In an era when Rotten Tomatoes has become the go to aggregator — one so powerful and commonly used that simply googling a film also turns up its Freshness rating in Google’s general information box — websites rely upon exciting blockbusters like Justice League to drive traffic to their reviews, and discover their sites and writers. I, myself, use it every week to sift through and read a handful of both positive and negative reviews, usually by critics I trust.
But this week, mere hours before the first screening of the film, they weren’t there. As far as Rotten Tomatoes was concerned, there were no reviews posted for the film. Whatsoever. Despite hundreds of them having already having been posted online.
Important sidebar, because I feel this needs to be mentioned: I co-wrote the Marvel movie “Doctor Strange.” And there persists this idea out there, bouncing around social media, that the longtime war between fans of DC and Marvel comics somehow carries over to those who make and distribute them. It doesn’t. When it comes to comic book movies, a rising tide lifts all boats. When something like “Deadpool” catches everyone off guard and makes a dump truck of money, the industry doesn’t shudder and spit bile with jealousy. It does backflips. Great comic book movies make people hungry for more comic book movies. Bad comic book movies make people talk about getting burnt out on them. So, do I want “Justice League” to be good and succeed? No, I want it to rock my face off and make several dump trucks of money. Just like “Wonder Woman” did. Because I want to see (and maybe even make) a hell of a lot more great comic book movies.
So, I need to stress: my concern here isn’t about “Justice League” possibly gaming the system to make more money than it deserves. That’s not the problem here. My worry comes from asking: What happens next?
It is entirely possible that this really is an innocent, if tone deaf, experiment. Rotten Tomatoes wants to push their new show, so they went out to several companies asking if they would take part in it and hold back their Freshness ratings. And it’s possible those companies told them, politely, to take a flying leap. “Hide our Rotten Tomatoes score? Are you crazy? We need that to goose our opening weekend!” And since WB (which owns DC) is also a minority owner of Rotten Tomatoes, strings could have been pulled, and the company agreed to use this as a joint advertising push. And that push is why there was such a narrow embargo window. Nothing rotten in Denmark.
But what if it’s not that? What if it’s a test balloon. What if, from here on out, studios can buy a marketing package which includes featuring their film on “See It/Skip It,” which comes with the added bonus of holding your Freshness rating until the day of release? Consider for a moment being the filmmaker of a scrappy little film getting great reviews that must fight for every dollar at the box office it can. In this new environment, you’re rewarded for great reviews — fortunes are being made and lost at the hands of these united, aggregated critics. What happens when your film gets annihilated by a juggernaut of a stinker that would have been otherwise crushed because of its poor reviews — reviews that were brushed under the rug of the site that has become the Siskel & Ebert of its day?
This isn’t just about people getting sold a ticket to a bum ride, it’s also about the collateral damage to the types of films so many of us film lovers live for.
I’ve been in these two industries altogether for going on twenty years now. And I’ve seen shady things behind the scenes in both the movie business and journalism. So when something like this happens, it often makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. The only way an aggregator like this works is if it is entirely impartial. Rotten Tomatoes isn’t a cute gimmick anymore. It’s not just a helpful tool. It’s a guiding force in the industry. And it wields a lot of power. If comic books have taught us anything, it’s that — say it with me — with great power comes great responsibility. And as a film critic, filmmaker, but chiefly film lover, I want to see that this power is wielded properly, and impartially.
I hope I’m overreacting and being paranoid here; I hope that this was just bad optics that will quickly be corrected. But, either way, I thought this was worth bringing attention to.
C. Robert Cargill is the screenwriter of such films as “Sinister” and “Marvel’s Doctor Strange,” as well as a former film critic and published author. His new book, “Sea of Rust,” is available now.