What Could Be Greater than a Film Aggregator? Reassesing the Role of Rotten Tomatoes

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Last week, copywriter Ken Lowery — best known for co-creating the popular Fake AP Stylebook Twitter feed — took to his personal Twitter to rail against Rotten Tomatoes, a salvo later compiled by Jonathan Poritsky. It's worth reading in full, but the salient points are:

A) Online film buffs who get overly agitated over Rotten Tomatoes' average scores for releases become "foot soldiers for the studios," gaining a false sense of solidarity and self-worth when they get angry at critics seemingly trying to sabotage deserved financial success by withholding good scores from popular movies, sometimes sight unseen.

B) Rotten Tomatoes attendantly devalues criticism, providing a platform for using successful box office returns as the ultimate anti-critic cudgel; financial brawn trumps egghead disdain.

C) The blame for this attitude originates with Harry Knowles' Ain't It Cool News, launched in 1996 and "INSTRUMENTAL in getting sentimental nerds turned into street machines for movie PR machines."

If you're not familiar with Ain't It Cool, this "Hollywood Reporter" story from earlier this year does a decent job outlining the site's rise, fall and fluxing levels of influence. Ain't It Cool initially served as a conduit for production development updates and reviews of test screenings, but it had the secondary mission of agitating for what would come to be considered generic "fanboy culture." At the time, it mostly seemed kind of charming that Knowles thought he was continuing in the legacy of a publication like Forrest J. Ackerman's "Famous Monsters of Filmland," preaching the good word on behalf of Ray Harryhausen, Errol Flynn and other totems of classic Hollywood and genre weirdness. The "Lord of the Rings" trilogy's financial success was crowning empirical proof that the nerds had been right in claiming their entertainment was the best possible kind, a claim also validated by the superhero action movie's emerging commercial dominance.

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A year after the site launched, Rotten Tomatoes founder Senh Duong penned his own site history. The starting impetus was Duong's "favorite all-time actor" Jackie Chan and the desire to draw attention to his films. Another goal "was to create a site where people can get access to reviews from a variety of critics in the US," he wrote. "The idea was that if the majority of critics who has already seen a movie recommend it, then it must be pretty good." Duong talked about providing a solution to the difficulties of finding a newsstand that was stocked with a variety of different opinions — an obsolescent concern at this point — but his other basic goal was simple and plausible: to be useful in a consumer reports sense by presenting a critical average that can help people decide whether or not they want to see a movie. This is the exact opposite of the dynamic Rotten Tomatoes actually offers, which is to allow even those who haven't yet seen a film to catcall critics both by name and as one lumpy generic mass.

Duong's product was meant to serve as an almost objective survey of the critical field. The scores have certainly been taken that way by many people: it's not hard to find articles that use average-rating numbers as the starting point for statistically-minded graphs that try to derive meaningful patterns from plotting the success of movies/actors/etc. against their RT scores. These tenuous conclusions aren't of much interest, but they serve as a reminder of the pseudo-objectivity RT is sometimes reflexively granted. Wikipedia isn't the ultimate in well-ordered encyclopedic editorial judiciousness, but note that its official style manual for writing film articles advises that "commentary should also be sought from reliable sources for critics' consensus of the film. These will be more reliable in retrospect; closer to the release, review aggregation websites such as Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic are citable for statistics pertaining to the ratio of positive to negative reviews."

So who are the people whose opinions are taken as meaningful (either as consumer guides or representative samples of average criticism)? In 2010, Rotten Tomatoes editor Matt Athchity conceded to journalist/critic Anthony Kaufman that the site was initially indiscriminate about who to give a voice to ("I will admit there's a lot of people who got on in the early days who might not necessarily make the cut now") but said there were no plans to cull the most disreputable voices. Rotten Tomatoes did introduce a "Top Critics" section, meaning that for every movie you'd get two averages: one from the so-labeled group of critics composed mostly of established print veterans, regardless of their analytical/writerly acumen, and another average from the total voting pool. The operating assumption in both categories is that credibility can't really be measured except through circulation. With an average score for critical response thus methodically derived, the Average Viewer has an objective target to pick a bone with.

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Things get hairy when Rotten Tomatoes readers get really aggrieved that some writer has disliked a film that's otherwise well-reviewed and profitable, placing them numerically perversely far from where they should be: hollow but still unnerving death threats to those dissing "The Dark Knight" and "Man of Steel" get sent out in response. Some directors have also taken the site very seriously: Duong recalls Ron Howard asking someone from Universal to call in every day with concern about the horrible aggregate score for his 2003 western "The Missing," but also that Alexander Payne called in to give personal thanks for the box-office boost he perceived as the result of 2004's "Sideways" getting a perfect 100% freshness rating.

While the ratings may not be as relevant for "critic-proof" blockbusters, they can be a boon to smaller releases, as noted in 2010 by IFC's then-senior VP of marketing Ryan Werner. "It can be helpful for a challenging film, like '4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,' to put that 97% out there," he noted. "I think anything that draws attention to critics and reviews is not a bad thing." Even at its most positive in the service of tough-sell products, Rotten Tomatoes is part of the marketing campaign rather than a boost to draw attention to individual examples of film criticism. The site is a commemoration to the idea of deriving vicarious satisfaction from someone else's fiscal success, a new paradigm for film fandom.