As of early Thursday afternoon, the film’s 43% score was still not even on the Rotten Tomatoes website, and the “Justice League” page was still not showing any links to individual reviews (the data was uploaded around 3pm EST). And if that’s not maddening enough, the situation comes with a cherry on top for all the conspiracy theorists out there: Warner Bros. owns a minority share of Fandango. There’s very little chance that the studio is using that to its advantage (Coley and Oduolowu eviscerated “Justice League”), but there’s no use obsessing over someone gaming a broken system.
Besides, moviegoers stand to lose a lot more than Warner Bros could ever win. Rotten Tomatoes may not have a quantifiable impact on a film’s box office, but it has earned an outsized impact on film culture as a whole; particularly insofar as casual moviegoers engage with it. Cinephiles comprise a small sliver of the general audience, and Ratner is right that the multiplex hordes are more likely to consult a single number on Rotten Tomatoes than parse the thoughts of a particular critic. And when the embargo for a huge blockbuster is withheld until the day before its release, everybody knows the score: It means the studio thinks the movie is shit. If “See It / Skip It” leads Rotten Tomatoes to conceal the Tomatometer ratings for everything from “The Last Jedi” to “The Greatest Showman,” it will completely normalize the notion of a movie remaining unvarnished until the 11th hour, resulting in a small but significant victory for purveyors of crap.
Sure, there’s a chance that this idea could backfire on Rotten Tomatoes. There’s a chance that people won’t have the patience to see how a new film is faring, that they might pop over to a rival service like Metacritic or — God forbid — google the title of a new movie + the word “review.” But Rotten Tomatoes has spent the last 10 years ensuring that won’t happen; you can’t expect Rotten Tomatoes to inspire consumers to put in the effort when the entire point of Rotten Tomatoes is to make it so that consumers don’t have to put in the effort.
Whatever their intentions, the site trained readers not to seek out individual critics, and now they are taking full advantage of that. In a valiant attempt to get ahead of the situation, Coley acknowledged the furor at the top of the most recent “See It / Skip It.” “We hope everyone understands that the only thing we’re trying to do is add context and conversation around the Tomatometer,” she said, “and not just give a number.” Unfortunately, that’s exactly what the site is doing.
Perversely — and this has been a source of great debate within the critical community for a long time — Rotten Tomatoes has enlisted film critics to contribute to the conditions that endanger their relevance. The site is fueled by critics — the scores have to come from somewhere! — and it rewards them with traffic. Even if only a tiny fraction of visitors care about the individual reviews, a tiny fraction of a huge number is still a lot. For smaller sites, it can be the difference between life and death. Now, their fates are being held hostage.
It was only a matter of time before Rotten Tomatoes seized control of that symbiotic relationship, and it’s hard to hate the site for that; we’re still in the primordial days of the digital world, and such delicate arrangements tend not to last very long (just wait until Uber rolls out the self-driving cars). It’s the nature of the beast, and everybody is trying their best not to be eaten alive.
Rotten Tomatoes is trying to figure out how to build out its brand while still serving its core purpose, and that process is inevitably going to involve a lot of trial and error. Moreover, it’s not altogether terrible that it’s continuing to eventize the act of film criticism; marginalizing individual critics in order to inflate the profession’s collective value is a dicey proposition, but it’s one that we have to work with. With a few important tweaks, “See It / Skip It” could turn on a punitive situation into a win-win.
Until then, blank pages for major blockbusters will only be proving Brett Ratner right: Film criticism will have literally disappeared. And there’s something very wrong about Brett Ratner being right.