Rotten Tomatoes: Enemy Of Cinema, Or Scapegoat By Circumstance?

Another day, another attack against movie-review-mecca Rotten Tomatoes. “The death of cinema and film criticism,” some say. Those who believe such doomsday speak view the website as judge, jury and executioner; one that keeps audiences at home when movies fail the Tomatometer test. But is this solely the fault of Rotten Tomatoes? Do these angry congregations have a right to be seeing red? Is Rotten Tomatoes still a certified-fresh hub for critical discourse? “No,” “yes” and “it can be” – but first, a brief introduction.

While recently speaking at the Sun Valley Film Festival, director and producer Brett Ratner voiced his concern about RT’s stranglehold on film criticism. His company – RatPac Entertainment – helped finance Zack Snyder’s powerhouse Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. As many of you know, the Dark Knight’s square-off against Superman was not well-received among critical outlets. Suffice it to say, it seems like Ratner’s wounds still haven’t healed from the lashing – and he blames Rotten Tomatoes for a shadow of negativity cloaking Warner Bros. blockbuster DC team-up.

According to Ratner, “The worst thing that we have in today’s movie culture is Rotten Tomatoes.” Yikes. He goes on to explain:

“I think it’s the destruction of our business. I have such respect and admiration for film criticism. When I was growing up film criticism was a real art. And there was intellect that went into that. And you would read Pauline’s Kael’s reviews, or some others, and that doesn’t exist anymore. Now it’s about a number. A compounded number of how many positives vs. negatives. Now it’s about, ‘What’s your Rotten Tomatoes score?’ 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.”

To Ratner’s credit, can you argue his frustration? According to Box Office Mojo, Batman V Superman grossed almost $900 million worldwide on a $250 million budget – yet people only want to talk about its 27% Tomatometer score (63% Audience Score, fyi). Financials don’t negate critical reception, but do challenge the stigma of failure. Providing further detail:

“People don’t realize what goes into making a movie like that. It’s mind-blowing. It’s just insane, it’s hurting the business, it’s getting people to not see a movie. In Middle America it’s, ‘Oh, it’s a low Rotten Tomatoes score so I’m not going to go see it because it must suck.’ But that number is an aggregate and one that nobody can figure out exactly what it means, and it’s not always correct. I’ve seen some great movies with really abysmal Rotten Tomatoes scores. What’s sad is film criticism has disappeared. It’s really sad.”

I know what you’re already thinking and no – this isn’t going to be a Ratner takedown by some film critic he obviously thinks little of. Instead, I’d like to use this as an opportunity to change how we view Rotten Tomatoes, the Tomatoemeter and reviews in general. Ratner makes some very sharp points that deem discussion (“an aggregate that nobody can figure out,” specifically), no matter where they’re coming from. It’s time to take ownership of an issue and pose a solution on how we fix it.

Plainly put, it’s not you who’s “ruining film criticism,” Rotten Tomatoes – it’s us. Your audience.

First off, this assessment is coming from a young critic who has seen nothing but positive outcomes since appearing on Rotten Tomatoes. My experience is night-and-day from Mr. Ratner’s. I went from reading my favorite critics to being listed alongside them, as traffic on my reviews took an uptick and accreditation brought me a tad bit more notoriety (my grandma thinks it’s great!). Here I am, part of this massive website that collects film reviews from around the world and stores them in one easy-to-find location. A database of critical musings at your very fingertips, so varied in the voices you can learn from, enjoy and connect with. How did this become an enemy of cinema?

Simple – we’re using the Tomatometer wrong.

In today’s culture, we want everything in the smallest dose possible. Why read a dinner recipe when I can watch another instructional BuzzFeed Tasty video that’s over in 2 minutes? Everything is about the least effort possible, so we’ve turned Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer into this divine proclamation that spells either success or tragedy. When you rent/buy a movie on iTunes (or even some cable providers now), a little icon sits right above user ratings that displays a film’s RT score. When you go into your Flixter app, boom – Tomatometer score. Even televised movie commercials are using Tomatometer scores when reviews are overwhelmingly positive, adding to its almighty power. We – the people – are feeding into a false God that is the Tomatometer, and that’s not the fault of Rotten Tomatoes.

While it is a tremendous tool that gives a snapshot of critical reception, it’s just that – a shortsighted glimpse. Movies cannot be reduced to a simple statistical score. If you want to start there, fine. But then, once you’ve seen the score, you should be scrolling downward for further investigation. Peruse the critics who are influencing the meter. Find those who align with your tastes. Click on actual reviews to see why, for example, Kristy Puchko thinks Colossal is “a film so strange it’s very existence seems a miracle.” I disagree with Mr. Ratner’s suggestion that film criticism has lost its artistic value, because I know too many talented writers who’ve established unique, eloquent voices that bring inquisitive, thought-provoking life to simple movie reviews. “What’s sad is film criticism has disappeared.” No it hasn’t, we’re just too lazy to look nowadays. Or even worse, acknowledge it.