Rotten Tomatoes, online movie and TV review aggregator, has been the subject of a media storm this summer. The website stands accused by traditional Hollywood bigwigs of ruining the summer box office with its withering scores, effectively persuading potential audiences to stay at home.
The summer season has traditionally been the most lucrative for the box office but we’re beginning to see a shift in fortunes. The US box office revenue for the summer season has trailed 2016 by 11% and it was predicted that the industry would end the summer down by up to 15%. Kyle Stock of Bloomberg wrote: “that’s a horror-film scenario that translates into roughly one in six American moviegoers choosing to stay home and stream Game of Thrones”.
Some of the most heated arguments have revolved around the credibility of the rating system offered by Rotten Tomatoes. Ratings which are often quoted by potential audiences either in their justification for boycotting a new release, or as a qualification for why a movie should warrant the ticket price. The Tomatometer® rating is, direct from the horse’s mouth:
“based on the published opinions of hundreds of film and television critics…a trusted measurement of movie and TV programming quality for millions of moviegoers. It represents the percentage of professional critic reviews that are positive for a given film or television show.”
Any film with a rating of 60% or more is deemed to be “fresh”, whereas those with 59% and lower are labelled “rotten”. Alongside the professional score, there is also an audience score which is a percentage of everyday users who rate a movie or TV show positively. It seems valid enough, right? However, Rotten Tomatoes has come under heavy fire from the film industry and box office analysts who have attributed a miserable summer at the movie theatre to “the Rotten Tomatoes effect”. If a movie earns a “rotten” score, the public is gifted with an excuse not to spend their money. What’s more, far from actually reading a review, Rotten Tomatoes affords the public the luxury of capturing the collected thoughts of the selected critics in a single number. Rotten Tomatoes is film criticism for the digital age of instant gratification.
I’ve got little to add to the discourse surrounding the responsibility of Rotten Tomatoes for the decline of box office figures. Instead, I mean to address the apparent assumption that film criticism has inherited a marketing role. I have always been reluctant to read reviews before seeing a movie for fear of ruining it, not just through blatant spoilers, but also in the warping of perception in response to another’s taste and opinions. Granted, if I have no intention of spending my hard-earned cash on an astronomically-priced London cinema ticket, I may just read through the thoughts of a trusted or entertaining critic. Perhaps some are content with this vicarious experience of film consumption as standard, but for a real gauge of a film’s quality or entertainment value, a fresh perspective is, in my opinion, the preferable condition for viewing.
So, what is the role of film criticism? Is it to advertise? To confirm opinion? To craft a better understanding? According to Pulitzer Award-winning journalist, John Hohenberg, the purpose of reviewing is “to provide information on a cultural work or performance of interest to the public, and to evaluate it for potential audiences” (1987). Would Hohenberg consider that a review is in a sense a billboard rendered in prose? A public service announcement? A blurb written for marketing purposes? It is reasonable to assume that “the more positive the evaluation of a film, the higher the reader interest in attending” (Wyatt and Badger, 1990, p.362), which is exactly where this summer’s debate stems from.
Positive reviews are, of course, wonderful news for film producers and marketing campaigns. The star-ratings of major news outlets and quotes from celebrity critics, even Rotten Tomatoes scores, if high enough, can be seen plastered across trailer material in the run-up to wide release. Indeed, the views of amassed critics have become so highly valued that the collected reviews of new mainstream films are broadcast by news outlets and pop culture websites almost like football scores.
Not content to settle with their role as advertiser and persuader, I took to Twitter to ask how people prefer to read reviews:
With a handy sample of just over 100 unknown voters in a period of 24 hours the result is pretty clear. It must be said that this data is neither 100% reliable, nor conclusive. Many of the people answering this poll may be discerning cinephiles who determinedly construct their own criticism. Some will be professional critics themselves who see films before anyone else gets a chance. Granted, 29% is not a small minority of people who do prefer to read reviews as a prelude to personal experience. However, with a 71% majority in favour of waiting until after seeing the film, we get a good picture of how most ‘people’ use film criticism.
Judging by this basic data collection, we can define film criticism as an informative evaluation designed to be engaged with having already experienced the media in question. Everyone interprets visual culture differently and we all pick up on small details others may miss. “Traditionally, media critics play a central role in the attribution of symbolic value to cultural products” (Verboord, 2013 p.921) and they continue to do so, helping audiences to build a greater understanding of what they have seen. More than once, I have needed leading into the deeper and more contextual interpretation of a movie or TV show that I have enjoyed but not fully comprehended. That is where film criticism is at its most valuable.
Yes, there is a place for spoiler-free confirmation of a film’s quality, especially when there is quite so much to wade through. But I don’t buy the power of criticism in influencing a movie’s box office takings in quite such a dramatic way as we’re being told. Some might say that this summer’s debate sheds more light on the fickle personality of Hollywood studios “who will blame everything except the fact that they greenlit, produced, and released a crappy movie” (Diaz, 2017). At the end of the day, as Paul Dergarabedian remarks: “[the] best way for studios to combat the ‘Rotten Tomatoes Effect’ is to make better movies, plain and simple”.
In the meantime, I shall continue to select the movies I want to see judging by the trailers, genre and director, read the film as best I can without the help of outside guidance until afterwards, when I may take to the papers and internet to see how my interpretation measures up. I’ll leave you with a top tip from the UK’s best-known critic and broadcaster, Mark Kermode:
When do you prefer to read reviews? What do you think their role is in popular culture? Leave a reply at the foot of the page if you fancy getting involved in the debate!
Diaz, Ruben. Film critic. 2017. Personal communication.
Honenberg, J. 1987, cited p.359-360 in Wyatt, R.O. and Badger, D.P. 1990. “Effects of Information and Evaluation in Film Criticism” [pdf] Journalism Quaterly, pp.359-368. Sagepub
Stock, K. 2017. “Hollywood’s Summer From Hell: The “Rotten Tomatoes” effect catches up with blockbuster bait, leaving critically acclaimed films in the money.” Bloomberg. 11th August 2017
Verboord, M. 2013. “The impact of peer-produced criticism on cultural evaluation: A multilevel analysis of discourse employment in online and offline film reviews” [pdf] New Media and Society, 2014, Vol.16(6) pp.921-940. Sagepub
“Studios Fight Back Against Withering Rotten Tomatoes Scores” by Pamela McClintock. The Hollywood Reporter.
“How Too Many Aging Franchises Wrecked the Summer Box Office” by Brett Lang and Seth Kelley. Variety.
“Box Office: Rotten Tomatoes Couldn’t Save ‘Apes’ From Franchise Fatigue” by Scott Mendelson. Forbes.