Revisiting the Collective: The Problem with ‘Rotten Tomatoes’ and the Truth About Film Criticism


(CS: Mondays are always insane, so for now, I will occupy you with another repost of a Collective Publishing column along with some modern thoughts thrown in. This was originally posted in July 2014, and I'm curious how close my opinions on film criticism from then hold up with me today.)

The movie industry just like almost every entertainment business, such as publishing or music, has been drastically changed by the explosion of the internet as an almost essential part of daily life over the last decade. The obvious changes have been the emergence of video-on-demand as a major distribution tool for independent pictures (and if things go the way many streaming services and movie-goers would like, in the next decade should include major studio pictures legally streaming the same day as cinema release) (CS: The last two years proved this idea to be a flop, but the theatrical window for big studio releases has shortened significantly) and various social media sites used for viral marketing to engage fans. 

One major effect on movies that hasn’t been as acknowledges is reshaping of film criticism. Much like most forms of journalism, the new accessibility for anyone to write and find an audience has altered the perception of columns and even reporting. Newspapers don’t have the clout they once had, and many people digest their news through various online sites and blogs. (CS: This led to the rise of 'alternative' and fringe news being perceived by some as credible.) In the case of prose on movies, there has not only been an increase on output but also a diversity of styles and content. (CS: ACK! It is that word.) There are sites devoted entirely to horror movies and others designed to spotlight independent or foreign pictures, and of course many that try to blend both modern mainstream with classic movies.  

At one time a film critic’s only chance to really be read was to be hired by a newspaper or possibly a magazine. The internet hasn’t necessarily increased the opportunities to make money writing about movies, especially when it comes to film reviews. Most would actually argue it has made it harder for one to pay the bills by exclusively critiquing motion pictures. (CS: Though Chris Stuckmann and Jeremy Jahns have made a decent living as movie reviewers on YouTube.) But the variety of voices has definitely skyrocketed and more movie buffs have had the opportunity to showcase their reviewing skills. 

The positive is that the conversation and dialogue about movies has achieved a rapid growth. It has allowed for a wider variety of opinions to be shared. It has allowed a greater access to a diverse array of views. It has also allowed for lesser known filmmakers and movies to get recognition with bloggers and critics championing pictures and alerting their worth to readers. A more vibrant conversation has a chance to be unleashed while movies that could have been ignored years ago now have a better chance of being discovered thanks to an army of genre movie sites. (CS: The glut of entertainment options means that even studios and streaming services bury their smaller movies and series now.) 

I won’t argue against there being benefits derived from the internet for film criticism. But it has also created some disconcerting trends in the form that likely has been shaken out due to the increased opportunity for various voices and the easy access to overarching opinions of a particular picture. One of the sites that could possibly be charged for the negative impact on film criticism is Rotten Tomatoes. 

Now, I have to admit I love Rotten Tomatoes. It is a site that allows me access to countless reviews, especially reviews I wouldn’t normally read because I was unaware of a particular writer. It definitely allows for an increase in the debate and conversation about movies. It is also a very professional site that has hired some great writers and has some great content besides just that collection of movie reviews. (CS: Articles. The word I was looking for was articles.) Though admittedly, most people likely jump on the site to quickly glance at a particular movie’s percentage in order to see if the movie is either worth seeing or to have one’s view vindicated by the picture’s score.  

I’ve used Rotten Tomatoes to check out a picture’s percentage and get an idea if the movie is something I want to check out. This isn’t a problem. The problem comes from how much weight many put into the percentage garnered for a particular picture. (CS: Now, the site itself has done a lot to add to that misconception with their podcast 'Rotten Tomatoes is Wrong'.) Sites like Rotten Tomatoes compile the wide range of reviews in printed and online form, and then for each review decide if the critic viewed the picture as either rotten (don’t recommend) or fresh (recommend). Once again, doing that isn’t a problem and can be helpful for someone to get an idea on where critics stand on a picture. The issue is that often many will start seeing the practice as almost a science and hold up the percentage as an objective truth on a movie.

I’m not like some that decry Rotten Tomatoes as the death of film criticism. Many detractors of the site have argued that being able to jump on and quickly determines if a picture is fresh or rotten has cut out the need to actually read reviews. The belief is some now just look at the percentage rather than bother to figure out why a movie is considered good or bad, and so it has now knocked out the necessity to actually read reviews. I’m sure there are many people that don’t bother reading reviews and are only concerned in seeing the percentage and read the quick blurb that summarizes the general consensus from the reviewers. But I don’t see how that is all that different from reviews that have been in newspapers for decades and have been accompanied by a star rating. The fact is that many probably always just quickly glanced at the rating in the paper or looked to see if a picture was given two thumbs up. Not everyone cares enough to get detailed thoughts and analysis of a picture, and that sentiment existed long before Rotten Tomatoes rolled in. 

The issues have less to do with people not wanting to read reviews and more about how the percentage has created an inaccurate perception of what film reviews are really supposed to be. The increase of influence of a site that can draw a variety of readers to a specific (and often dissenting) review has also cultivated an unfortunate timidness and homogenization of the form. Sometimes reviews seem written more to avoid possible backlash when it comes to a movie with a devoted following like the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight series rather than crafting views that properly presents the critic’s authentic experience with the picture. (CS: I don't think this is or was as big of an issue as I'm trying to convey here.) 

A site like Rotten Tomatoes essentially starts posting reviews and tallying scores the moment reviews begin to be published. This means some critics can see reviews and get an idea of the general consensus of a movie before they’ve actually seen it. If you go back two decades, most people’s access to reviews (even critics) would have either been the local paper, a magazine that often didn’t get released until after the picture started screening, or the Siskel & Ebert show (also often shown once the movie came out). It was really hard to be influenced by other reviews, since the writer likely didn’t have access to any until after they’d already written their own. Today that is much different, as pictures often are released at different times throughout the world, such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 both came out in some international markets a week earlier than they did in North America. Even in Canada or the United States, some cities have their press screenings earlier than others, and on top of that, there are regional embargos that mean some critics have to wait until a certain date to post their reviews that sometimes other critics in another part of the country don’t need to follow. This means a critic could be influenced by reviews before they’ve had the chance to write their own. (CS: Again, not really convinced this is a serious issue among professional critics.) 

I’ve talked to a few critics that have admitted a Rotten Tomato percentage of a picture can at least subconsciously affect how they view a movie. If there is a movie that seems clunky with poor acting and odd pacing that is feeling like a drag for the critic but ended up garnering a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, the critic may fight harder and try to pay attention more and possibly attempt to dig deeper into the movie to try to justify the feeling of boredom as something profound. On the other hand, a movie that is stinging with a 10% may seem fun and entertaining, but the critic will be ready to tear apart and judge it much harder. (CS: But this is no different than also having preconceived notions with certain filmmakers or producers or actors. In all those cases, professional critics should be much better than that.) I’m not saying every critic does this. But the easy access to other reviews opens up for more subconscious herding of opinion on a picture and an idea of not wanting to break away from the pack.

The timidness of the critics and their writing comes from being less willing to be honest of their assessment from fear of the ferocious commenter ready to tear apart the poor writer. This comes from the unfortunate side effect of the internet allowing one be anonymous and then be a bigger asshole than they’d ever dare to be in the real world. It is easy to troll and flame when no one knows who you are and you also don’t see the writer as an actual person. The problem also comes from a complete misunderstanding of what is a film review. (CS: Tearing into someone because they have a different opinion is essentially what social media is now.) 

As I stated before, some erroneously view the Rotten Tomatoes as a scientific and objective calculation of a picture’s value. The mistake is to believe that 90% means a movie is great and that such a thing is indisputable rather than it meaning the majority of critics had a decent time with the movie and in some form recommend it. It also means that 10% of critics didn’t enjoy the experience, but that doesn’t make them wrong but rather just the figure responsible for stopping the essentially meaningless film score from reaching the perfect 100%. (CS: The erroneous belief that the score means anything to the value of a film is without a doubt the biggest issue with Rotten Tomatoes, especially when people try to use it as a way to make it seem their opinion has more value than the person who disagrees. Art is always subjective.) 

A film review isn’t scientific and definitely nowhere near objective. It is just one person’s experience with a picture and a written account of how they arrived to their feelings about it. A film critic that is experienced and seen decades of movies does have expert knowledge and insight to give the reader. They can give historical relevance and talk about a picture’s influence. They also should have some knowledge of the form and be able to talk about how the director framed a shot or used effects and music to elicit specific feelings. A critic is giving an informed account of how they feel, and it is their job to analyze the film and be knowledgeable of why they liked or hated a movie. But in the end, it is still all subjective. (CS: This is exactly the role of a film critic along with being a catalyst to the conversation about a movie.) 

The most important thing for film critics is to be honest. If the picture is schlocky and silly and filled with inane dialogue but it still connected and the critic had a fun time then this needs to be conveyed in the review. A critic is judging the quality, but the only way to truly do such things is to dig deep into one’s personal experience with the picture. Sometimes some reviews feel hallow and more like a writer just echoing thoughts that were elsewhere and writing a review that they feel fits with the masses. (CS: Something must have happened around this time to trigger this view of easily persuaded critics, but I have no memory of it, and it doesn't seem like 2014 Christopher is interested in providing the context.)  

This is yet another reason to respect legendary critic Roger Ebert who never cared about the masses, and often raved about pictures that most other critics disliked (such as the Nicholas Cage starring thriller, Knowing) or panned pictures considered classic by most others (like the surreal Blue Velvet). He also often mentioned having a little disdain for the star rating system even though it was the four star version that was always a part of his reviews and he also invented the even easier system of thumbs up or thumbs down. He thought reading the reviews were the most important part to truly get perspective of a movie. (CS: This is hundred percent true. A star rating or recommendation means nothing without the context of the review to explain how the critic arrived at this position. The meat of the review is the point.) He also didn’t believe that his ratings meant each movie was being reviewed against each other, but rather a film was held against what it was trying accomplished and how it fits into its specific genre. (CS: This is really important, because a four stars for Face/Off is very different than a four stars for 12 Years a Slave, because I am expecting and looking for very different things from both movies.) A horror picture like Oculus wouldn’t be reviewed against The Grand Budapest Hotel, but rather how it compared to a movie like Paranormal Activity. This stance has influenced how I review movies, and I feel it is the only fair way to give every picture a chance. (CS: Judge a movie based on what it is trying to be.)

A review should be much more than just 800 drawn-out word that can be summed up to be either “yes, see it” or “no, don’t see it.” It should dig deep into what made or didn’t make the movie work. It should be entertaining and poetic and even revealing about the writer. It should enhance the movie going experience by adding context and giving the viewer shots and scenes to look for that would have possibly been missed. It should give the reader an understanding of the themes and messages and purpose. Sometimes a critic can show how the movie reflects our modern times or apply some social context. A review can be informative and open up the reader to film history. It should be enjoyable but also nourishing. A good film review is more than just letting one discern if they should see a movie, because otherwise, there isn’t any point. (CS: I aim to nail all these things with my written movie reviews and The Movie Breakdown, and I'll leave it to my audience how often I succeed.) 

This may make some wonder if I’m actually oblivious to why one reads a review, which is to learn if a movie is worth seeing. I think one can still get a recommendation for a movie while also feeling like they learned more than they expected and maybe were even moved by some prose. Some of the best reviews are personal, and allow for a peak into the soul of a writer. Once we understand the writer, we know how they view and watch movies. (CS: That is a crucial part. If you know the writer's tastes, then you have a better idea of knowing if their stance will resonate with you. I am sure there are some listeners that gravitate towards Scott's opinion over mine and vice versa.) 

A good film review can be incredibly personal and be about one’s own experience but still alert someone to if they want to see a movie. A really good film review is one that either adamantly recommends or thoroughly pans a picture, but through the reading, a person can suspect they’d have an opposite response. Ebert stated that he always tried to write reviews in a way so that even if he hated a movie that some of his readers could decide that they’d like to see it.  

This is what makes some of the modern perceptions of film reviews so troubling. I’ve read reviews that have beautiful prose, bring incredible insight, and allow me a thorough understanding of the writer’s experience, yet commenters will write, “A terrible review, this movie was good/bad.” Essentially, it feels like the commenter just reads reviews to have their own feelings and experience justified. (CS: This was written pre-Batman V. Superman, so I was naive to how bad this kind of thing would get.) A review is deemed bad, just because it goes against what the reader felt. Essentially the reader is not saying the review was poorly written, but only poor due to the fact the critic dared to disagree with them. It is a ridiculous notion, and one that again comes from the idea a review has to be objective rather than subjective. (CS: I called out a commenter on Roger Ebert's Texas Chainsaw Massacre review who said it was a poor review. It is actually a wonderful review that clearly states Ebert's experience, but I just happen to disagree with Ebert as I think the movie is a classic. That is the cool thing about art, you can have your own opinion.) 

The internet can spur and create great conversations and debate about movies. It can only happen if the majority realizes that views on art no matter how informed and intelligent are still just opinions. The value comes from how one backs up their opinion and the quality in the framing and creation. We must encourage dissenting opinions in arts, because a lively debate can give new perspective and fresh readings on works that may have initially been dismissed. It encourages us to rewatch a movie to try to see if one can capture the experience someone else found and decide if they unfairly dismissed a picture the first time. (CS: The dirty critic secret is our opinions can change and over time a panning can become a praise.) I’m a fan of critics like Ebert, Richard Roeper, James Berardinelli, and Matt Zoller Seitz because not only are they strong, informed, and entertaining writers, but they dare to be honest in their assessment of their viewing experience. I often disagree with each of these critics when it comes to their final verdict on a movie, but I find value in every single one of their reviews and always find myself having a richer experience for reading them. (CS: My hope is that I continue to grow as a critic and bring more value than just if I liked something or not.)