Earlier this year, Brett Ratner declared that “the worst thing we have in today’s movie culture is Rotten Tomatoes,” an argument that seemed petulant and self-serving even before we learned that one of the worst things we have in today’s movie culture is actually Brett Ratner. “I have such respect and admiration for film criticism,” continued the director of such critically-maligned efforts as “X-Men 3,” before arriving at a rather baffling example. “Now it’s about a number… And that’s sad, because the Rotten Tomatoes score was so low on ‘Batman v Superman,’ I think it put a cloud over a movie that was incredibly successful.”
After correctly identifying the great tragedy of our time, Ratner ended his rant by lamenting that “Film criticism has disappeared.” Such noble words from the man whose company co-finances the films of D.C.’s expanded universe — if only the Justice League had room for another superhero!
It goes without saying that Ratner was being extremely disingenuous, that he was more worried about his next paycheck than he was about losing out on the next Pauline Kael. It also goes without saying that film critics weren’t falling over themselves to thank the guy for his support — sorry, Brett, but nobody wants to hear the owner of a garbage company complain about his own stench. For their part, Rotten Tomatoes was swift to counter Ratner’s claims by insisting that the site is dedicated to bridging the gap between critics and consumers: “At Rotten Tomatoes,” a spokesman said, we completely agree that film criticism is valuable and important, and we’re making it easier than it has ever been for fans to access potentially hundreds of professional reviews for a given film or TV show in one place.”
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Sounds great! And yet, even though a study has now shown that Rotten Tomatoes scores have no effect on box office numbers, the not-so-acclaimed director of “Tower Heist” wasn’t entirely wrong. Ratner may be a thing of the past, but recent weeks have proven his grievances to be strangely prescient. While there has always been some truth to the idea that Rotten Tomatoes is doing more to harm film criticism than it is to preserve it, the website’s actions over the last few weeks may have significantly tipped the scales against them.
Earlier this month, Rotten Tomatoes took a big step in its increasingly awkward transition from being an aggregator to a content-provider/ticket agency by launching a weekly video show called “See It / Skip It.” Streamed through Facebook and edited for short attention spans, “See It / Skip It” initially doesn’t appear to be much different than any of the innumerable other programs that have tried to bring Siskel and Ebert into the 21st century. The professional caliber of its production, however, stands out right away: The set looks great, the graphics are crisp, and hosts Jacqueline Coley and Segun Oduolowu are engaging and articulate. Best of all, both of them are fiercely opinionated, which goes a long way towards dispelling the corporate vibe of the whole thing (in the span of just three episodes, Oduolowu has championed “Suicide Squad” and favorably compared “Rush Hour” to “Thor: Ragnarok”).
But this is the internet, and being watchable doesn’t necessarily entail being watched. You’ve gotta have a hook. And woof, does “See It / Skip It” have a hook.
Each episode builds towards a dramatic moment where the hosts exclusively reveal the Rotten Tomatoes score for a hotly anticipated new movie (or, in one inexplicable case, the Rotten Tomatoes score for a 40-year-old TV show). In the premiere installment, Coley and Oduolowu vamped for more than six minutes before unwrapping “A Bad Moms Christmas” with a 28% splat, the show only surviving the first of its many inevitable Geraldo moments because its hosts were completely unfazed to be the bearers of such bad non-news. Of course, there’s no reason why it should be awkward for a review show to announce that a movie called “A Bad Moms Christmas” is not the masterpiece we all expected. But something about the situation didn’t sit right. A lot of things, actually. And they all came into focus this week when “See It / Skip It” turned its attention towards “Justice League.”
For starters, Rotten Tomatoes is owned by the movie ticket service Fandango, an arrangement that’s just corrupt enough to make sense in Trump’s America. Every time “See It / Skip It” pans a movie, Fandango is essentially spending its money to convince potential customers not to spend their money. But the company hasn’t fooled themselves into thinking that their fledgling Facebook program is going to wield that kind of influence. No, the show’s true impact hits on a subtler and more sinister level.
“See It / Skip It” airs at 9pm PST on Wednesday nights, just 24 hours before most studio titles enjoy their first public screenings. The show only reveals the RT score for one movie each week, but it naturally reserves that honor for the highest-profile new release (a tough break for anyone hoping to see the hosts breathlessly unveil that Hong Sang-soo’s “On the Beach at Night Alone” clocked in at 95% fresh). Of course, in order to reveal the score, Rotten Tomatoes first has to keep it secret. That’s a dangerous proposition at a time when studios would rather cancel press screenings than try to make good movies.
So while it was already worrisome that Warner Bros. didn’t let critics review (and predictably demolish) “Justice League” until the day before the film hit theaters, Rotten Tomatoes did the distributor one better by hiding its miserable score until just a few hours before the superhero extravaganza was scheduled to start playing on screens across the country. In other words, a site “dedicated to making it easier than it has ever been for fans to access potentially hundreds of professional reviews for a given film or TV show in one place” is now actively withholding the information it exists to share with its readers.