Rotten Tomatoes is about to get a lot more diverse. The popular review aggregation site announced today that it is launching new guidelines for its critics criteria that focus more on the merits of individual critics than publications. The site is also taking the radical step of expanding its definition of reviews to include podcasts and video reviews onto the site. While current Tomatometer-approved critics will not lose their status, they’ll have a lot of new company: The site reports that it has already added over 200 critics to the Tomatometer in recent months and plans to add many more in the coming weeks.
The announcement follows several major developments in the history of the 20-year-old site, which was acquired by the Comcast-owned Fandango in February of last year. The site has been swept up in a national discussion about the lack of diversity in the field of film criticism, with a recent study by USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative reporting that only 22.2 percent of 2017 reviews for the top-grossing films were written by women, while critics from underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds represented only 18 percent. That news was followed by announcements from both the Toronto and Sundance festivals pledging to increase underrepresented critical voices at their festivals by 20 percent.
Representatives at Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes said their own movement toward diversifying voices on the site predated these other developments. “We really wanted to pay attention to who critics are and where criticism is going,” said Fandango president Paul Yanover in a phone interview from Rotten Tomatoes’ offices in Los Angeles. “As relatively new owners to these assets, we’ve been paying attention to where we want to take it. We’re really thinking about how the internet has gone beyond the written word. Younger audiences have a real hunger for movie reviews composed in many different ways.”
The changes are designed to reflect a shift in the marketplace for film criticism that has been ongoing for quite some time — namely, the dearth of staff positions. “One of the key things we’re observing is that as media has changed, the balance of full-time employees and freelance contributors who make up the profession of movie critics has changed,” Yanover said.
One of the site’s hires following the Fandango acquisition was Jenny Jediny, a former film publicist who now serves as the critics liaison for the site. In the process of canvassing working critics, she said, it became clear that Rotten Tomatoes’ tendency to prioritize print publications had limited the potential to represent the critical landscape as a whole. “We felt this was creating obstacles for people who felt they couldn’t meet our guidelines,” she said. “We’re still looking for high-quality criticism. That’s always been our number one priority. We want to expand to voices and the kind of reviews.”
The changes may come with some growing pains. Not every film-focused podcast constitutes a film review, and not every first-rate critic is active enough to generate the volume of reviews that might qualify for the Tomatometer. Nevertheless, the changes mark a significant shift in Rotten Tomatoes’ willingness to engage with working film critics and improve the metrics for representing discourse surrounding any given new release. A team of review curators will examine an open-ended set of possibilities when determining a critic’s eligibility. “We’re examining people on a case by case basis to see how they reach their audience,” Jediny said. “Maybe they have a small number of followers, but if they’re engaging with their audience, they could be having a really great conversation.”
The curation team is putting a greater effort into representing television reviews on the site and beginning to explore a more international approach. Rotten Tomatoes currently lists several Spanish language reviews, but Yanover said it was aiming to incorporate a greater international representation with time. “We really want to reflect a global audience,” he said.
Rotten Tomatoes is also developing initiatives to help more critics attend film festivals, in the hopes that early Tomatometer ratings for films that premiere at festivals will reflect a broader set of voices. The site has established a $100,000 grant program, and will allocate $25,000 of those funds to the American Friends of TIFF fund for the Toronto International Film Festival to help send several critics there in September. “We hope we’re enabling critics to gain more access,” Jediny said. “The whole industry acknowledges this is an issue.”
The site is also planning on launching demographic studies to generate a deeper understanding of the backgrounds that comprise the critics in its network. “Our goal in presenting this criteria is to broaden our pool as widely as possible,” Jediny said. “That includes every kind of critic and additional platforms.”
The changes to the site may not be evident overnight, but they will certainly grab the interest of studios and distributors that have grown used to relying on the Tomatometer to market new releases. Yanover said that wasn’t a concern. “We have a real sense of church and state here,” he said. “At the end of the day, our goal is truth and creating transparency for consumers. This isn’t about changing the influence of the Tomatometer. It’s pretty egalitarian. What we’re doing is increasing the pool. More reviews are better for everyone.”
The list of eligibility requirements for Rotten Tomatoes critics is available here.