Rotten Tomatoes is a major resource for moviegoers, but is it responsible for tanking the 2017 box office? According to The New York Times, the famed movie review aggregate wevsite is the latest scapegoat for Hollywood studio execs looking to account for the paltriest summer box office since 2006. As Variety reported this week, the total annual haul is 6.5% behind 2016, and a total of 14.6% less than last summer alone. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Wonder Woman could only help so much.
As director and producer Brett Ratner said at the Sun Valley Film Festival this spring:
“The worst thing that we have in today’s movie culture is Rotten Tomatoes. 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…now it’s about a number. A compounded number of how many positives vs. negatives.”
As producer of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, perhaps the most publicly trashed blockbuster since Kevin Costner’s Waterworld, Mr. Ratner certainly has cause for concern:
“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.”
Though BvS grossed over $873 million around the globe, modern blockbusters are tacitly considered failures if they fall short of the billion-dollar mark. Could a shiny red “Certified Fresh” tomato have really made the difference between hundreds of millions of dollars in a movie that already featured the iconic Batman and Superman?
That’s a stretch, as is the growing blame Hollywood studios have fixated on the mere 36-person staff at Rotten Tomatoes.
To be sure, Rotten Tomatoes is an albatross around Hollywood’s neck. However “layered” the company’s review-aggregating process may be, the average consumer sees one thing: a percentage. It’s a statistic that boils down hundreds of disparate opinions into what Rotten Tomatoes calls the “Critics Consensus.” However artfully crafted these single-sentence summaries may be, they take on the role of judge, jury, and executioner. Those who thought Siskel & Ebert’s two-thumbs-up system was barbaric now have genuine reason to be concerned.
Indeed, the majority of these one-liners are written by the same Rotten Tomatoes veteran employee, Jeff Giles. It seems the esteemed fraternity of film criticism now has a bureaucratic overlord. In this Orwellian world, all movie reviews are weighted equally, but one review is more equal than others.
Rotten Tomatoes has been around for nearly 20 years, but it’s sudden explosion in relevance is perfectly symmetrical to our culture. Alongside the concomitant rise of Facebook and Instagram culture, the desire for popularity in media has never been more pervasive. If a movie gets a high score on Rotten Tomatoes, it becomes an added bonus or perhaps a leading reason to buy a ticket: "Dude, Dunkirk is slaying at Rotten Tomatoes. 93%. I think I really want to see it now."
Thanks to its integration on sites like Fandango, audiences can’t even reserve seats without first gazing at the movie’s numerical value.
As for the biggest irony of all, Fandango actually owns the majority of Rotten Tomatoes while Warner Bros. also has a significant stake. And who owns Fandango? NBCUniversal, the parent company over Universal Pictures. This may account for the presence of Fandango’s user-driven review star system which almost always gives movies a positive spin. Sitting conveniently above the Rotten Tomatoes score, the Fandango fan ratings have proven to give even critically-panned movies like Mortdecai (12%) and The Emoji Movie (8%) a fair shake with 3 and 3-and-a-half-star ratings, respectively.
It’s only fitting that the studio-owned Fandango would start pitting aggregated critical reviews against the protelariat. As always, the masses will have their way, as they swept up the critical tomato goo of The Emoji Movie for a $24 million opening weekend.
Rotten Tomatoes may certainly affect a film’s total performance, but is it responsible for the withering box office as a whole? Any studio that claims the review aggregator bears such responsibility is abdicating their responsibility to deliver a quality product.