Earlier this week, Lane Brown of New York Magazine did a comprehensive investigation into the influence and inner workings of now-omnipresent Bay Area-born movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. In doing so, Brown confirmed what you already likely knew deep in your heart: that Rotten Tomatoes is garbage. Its scores are routinely gamed by studios, fail to properly quantify mixed reviews and are inherently flawed in every other aspect:
“Its math stinks. Scores are calculated by classifying each review as either positive or negative and then dividing the number of positives by the total. That’s the whole formula. Every review carries the same weight, whether it runs in a major newspaper or a Substack with a dozen subscribers.”
This isn’t gonna be another thinkpiece about the death of thoughtful film criticism. I grew up with critics like Gene Shalit and Leonard Maltin, and I do not lament their waning influence on the greater discourse around the art form. Maltin was a real tightass.
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But Rotten Tomatoes represents a convenient way for studios and filmgoers alike to avoid ANY discourse around movies and moviemaking. If I ever click through on a Rotten Tomatoes blurb, it’s only for a movie that I’ve already seen, with me seeking validation for my hatred of “Tar” among the 9% of “critics” there who disliked it. Or it’s for a movie that won’t be released for weeks but already has a few advanced reviews up, the majority of them fawning and untrustworthy. Many of those reviews are planted by PR departments, be it directly or through more subtle means, all for the sake of Tomatoflation. I understand this, so when I click through to some random Australian fanzine called OiGeek! gushing over “Spiderman: Home Schooled,” my radar instantly knows that I’m reading a load of s—t. So I use Rotten Tomatoes more as a way of dicking around post-movie than as my moviegoing north star, guiding me to cineplex for a matinee showing of “Batman Goes On A Beer Run.”
But not everyone has that radar. Not everyone shares my age, my lifetime watching movies, and my list of critics that I’ve grown to trust, even when I don’t agree with them. More important, not everyone CARES if they have that instinct or not. It’s much easier to let Rotten Tomatoes do all that labor for them, especially in a time when professional film critics barely exist, and when the tyranny of choice makes figuring out what to watch on any given night — even if you’re just scrolling around on Netflix — a burden on us spoiled couch potatoes. Rotten Tomatoes makes those choices easier, it prevents you from seeing spoilers, and it absolves you, the viewer, of buyer’s remorse after the fact. You can watch a movie, hate it, and then excuse your two hours wasted by telling yourself, “Well s—t, Rotten Tomatoes told me it was good! I’ve been had!”
And indeed you have. What you’re seeing in an RT percentage is essentially an average review score on Expedia, with you disregarding any personal taste in your choices and instead letting a number do the heavy lifting for you.
I understand the temptation. I’ve given plenty of my life over to the machines, especially when I drive anywhere new. But it’s one thing to rely on an algorithm for directions, which are almost always more a matter of speed and not taste (other dads reading this may disagree). It’s another to turn over your cultural preferences — your very artistic identity — to one. Rotten Tomatoes encourages you to ignore your gut instincts on what to watch, and even to ignore having your own opinion of the final product. Instead, it lets you crowdsource all of that, and we have enough groupthink in this world already (RT if you agree!).
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In fact, Rotten Tomatoes can even make you afraid to have your own taste. For example, I loved Guy Ritchie’s “Operation Fortune.” Did I check the Rotten Tomatoes before I saw it? No, because I know that most people do not appreciate the bro-iest parts of Ritchie’s film catalog the way that I do. Did I check afterward, as I did for “Tar”? Again no, and do you know why? Because I didn’t want to feel ashamed for hating the things I hate. If you hated a movie of your own accord, it can be hard to reckon with your own opinion when that same film gets a 101% Tomatometer score from people you do not know. The site can make you feel like your opinion is wrong, in a way that old school movie reviews didn’t.
Because it used to be fun to defy critics. Here were a bunch of urbane arthouse fartsniffers who I knew didn’t share my taste in movies. I could smell a movie critic movie — like “Tar”— from a mile away, and then easily disregard the critics’ consensus endorsement of it. Hating critics was FUN, rebellious even, because I knew the enemy. And movies thrive on this kind of conflict between filmmakers, tastemakers and customers. The more thoughtful opinions on a film that are out there, the more everyone has a chance to personally influence one another, which is ultimately good for art.
But Rotten Tomatoes has replaced that dynamic with readers picking movies based solely on an arbitrary number spat out from a nebulous blob of newspaper critics, plants, fanboys, indie movie bloggers and other random assholes. Combined, this slipshod collective is too ambiguous to be worth hating, and it has no practical voice of its own, certainly not one that you have anything in common with. My favorite movie critic in the world, Vince Mancini, wrote about this disconnect at length two years ago:
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“Every awards show, every RottenTomatoes ‘score,’ every ‘critics say…’ blurb or listicle — they’re all … based on the same common misconception: that a group can react to art as an individual can. … A film that receives 98 of the mildest positives with two vehement pans still scores better than one that changed 90 critics’ lives and ruined 10. And I think most of us would agree that the latter would be better art. Metrics like RottenTomatoes scores and awards voting simply aren’t equipped to deal with that.”
You, however, are equipped to react to art like an individual, because you are one (unless you’re still a Marvel loyalist, in which I deem you a lost cause). Many of you are already wising up to the steady decline in movie quality, and the profit motives responsible for it. With that in mind, go ahead and erase that Rotten Tomatoes bookmark from your browser. If you want to know what movie to see, simply watch the trailer, or check to see if you like the director or cast, or consult someone whose opinion you trust. A REAL person, be it a critic or a friend. Ask them for help, and then watch a movie for your sake and no one else’s. You’re entitled to have your own, unpopular opinions about movies. Both you, and the future of movies, will be better off for you having them.
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