The Justice League reviews are out, but we won’t learn the Rotten Tomatoes score until the Thursday before release – a near 36-hour delay. This is a very worrying move, one that could have some very serious repercussions for film criticism at large, and it gets worse when you look at who could be behind it.
Rotten Tomatoes are breaking from the norm of having a rolling Tomatometer (an averaging out of the positive/negative reviews to give a percentage score, with 60% and higher Fresh, 59% and lower Rotten) that adjusts as more reviews come in for Justice League, instead holding back for a full reveal on Thursday. This is, ostensibly, to get eyes on their new online show See It/Skip It, where at the end the hosts reveal the score. As we’ve covered previously, that this is happening with Justice League is no accident; the practice started with A Bad Moms Christmas a couple of weeks ago to avoid complaints of singling out movies, but for the DCEU film it feels like a purposeful move to get people to watch.
However, the real story goes deeper than a single movie. Rotten Tomatoes isn’t just confusing the already well-covered debate of how we should actually use the Tomatometer and how it treats a subjective medium with false objectivity; it also brings with it some serious corporate risk.
Rotten Tomatoes Is No Longer What You Think It Is
Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t exist in a void. Originally it was just a fan-run enterprise, sure, but in 2010 it was bought by Flixter, a film-focused social media site owned by Warner Bros. Then, in 2016, it was sold on to Fandango, owned by Comcast (who are also own Universal), with WB retaining a stake in the company. Far from just being a lone aggregator, Rotten Tomatoes is part of the biggest ticket seller around, itself owned by two major studios.
Traditionally, of course, this doesn’t matter too much. Intrinsically, there’s not much that Fandango or its owners can do to impact how the site represents any films; because it’s based on outside data, they have no more power over the Tomatometer’s readout than any other related company. This has been crucial in the recent debate between fans, critics and filmmakers about the site – while the DCEU got a drubbing in 2016, that was no indication of any foul play, and Brett Ratner rallied against the site despite at the time working for Warner Bros. (before sexual assault allegations saw him fired). Besides, giving everything a fair shake felt like a big part of Rotten Tomatoes brand, so oversight was deemed unnecessary.
However, editorialization has changed that. There’s always been Rotten Tomatoes-related extra content – they’ve had multiple web series in the past and non-aggregator-related content has been on the rise for years – yet it’s now beginning to dominate; at the time of writing, all of the eight article links in the main box on the homepage go to stories mostly disconnected from the Tomatometer. This shift marks Rotten Tomatoes out as more an outlet than aggregator and allows it to present its own viewpoint while also masquerading as a partisan source of raw data. The current editorialization is rather inoffensive, with a generic, positive, retrospective spin on news mixed with social media reactions, but things are changing; indeed, just before the Justice League delay the site started fostering the fan/critic divide with targeted tweets.
See It/Skip It continues this trend, with peppy hosts who offer their opinion while keeping on the company line. But tone is one thing; it’s what’s going on underneath that’s suspect. For starters, they treat the percentage at the site’s heart as sacrosanct, buying into the myth that many have worked to dispel – the Thor: Ragnarok reviews begin assessing if the Tomatometer score is “accurate” in the most “this is 100% objective” way possible. Although that’s nothing on how they’re holding back a metric that, for better or ill, has become an institution. It’s brand cynicism to the extreme (and, thanks to articles like this, is evidently working, at least in an “all publicity” kind of way).
When we know who owns it, all of these changes take on a different form. Obviously, corporate backing brings with it targets and mandated creative decisions, but when we’re talking about these companies with this power, the potential for abuse isn’t far away.
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