Is Rotten Tomatoes Rotten?

September 16, 2017 in BFCA, BTJA, News

By Josh Board, Fox 5 San Diego.

Five is the magic number. After the 5th person called or texted me to ask my opinion about the stories on Rotten Tomatoes, I figured it was time to add my two cents on the subject.

The New York Times did a story (Attacked by Rotten Tomatoes), and many other publications were talking about how this year has seen some record lows in box office receipts, and the speculation is that RT is to blame. I call BS. Now, that’s not to say I don’t have some problems with RT. For starters, they use a lot of reviews from little rinky dink websites that nobody has ever heard of. Publications/websites like: Creative Loafing, One Guy’s Opinion, Den of Geek, Mark Reviews Movies, Matt’s Movie Reviews, Screen Crush, Killer Movie Reviews, Fat Guys at the Movies, Punch Drunk Critics, Film School Rejects, Black Girl Nerds, Mara Movies, etc. Sure, they have a lot of the big publications, but also stuff like that. No disrespect intended for the people reviewing movies for any publication. If they do it, I’m sure they love film and are probably good at their job; but if it’s a website that has 15 people reading it, who really cares? I know of one place that had a local DJ doing movie reviews, and they didn’t know the first thing about film. Richard Roeper, a critic I often disagree with, got his job as Roger Ebert’s partner because he was a columnist at Ebert’s newspaper! No prior film review experience.

I’ll admit, I’m a tad bitter. I wanted to be part of the Rotten Tomatoes aggregate, but by their own admission, they’re looking for younger more diverse voices. When I heard that statement, I thought the same thing I thought when I heard that dopey statement from Cheryl Boone Isaacs of the Academy Awards. It implies that the other voters are just a bunch of old white dudes that can’t appreciate movies geared toward younger crowds, or with an African-American cast. Last I heard, we all loved Hidden Figures. And most of the Academy liked Fences (which I can’t figure out, because it sucked).

Let’s start with those movies to defend Rotten Tomatoes. Hidden Figures was a great film, and it got 92% on RT. I’m guessing that score, and the critical praise, is what really helped it at the box office. Certainly on paper, a movie about African-American women working at NASA, with Kevin Costner as their boss…doesn’t have blockbuster written on it.

Fences was an awful movie, but it had three things that garnered it critical praise. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are two. They’re among the best actors working today. The third thing it had going — critics felt they had to like it. It was by a well-known playwright. It dealt with racial issues and alcoholism. It had an abusive father, and…who cares?!!! The movie was bad.

RT critics often like artsy movies that are garbage. I’ll give you an example. The following is a list of movies that came out last year. I didn’t like any of them, yet they all scored in the 90% or above on RT. That list includes: Love & Friendship, Tower, Paterson, Little Men, The Witch, The Lobster, Elle, Our Little Sister, Loving, Toni Erdmann, Aquarius, Gimme Danger, Hail, Caesar!, Everybody Wants Some!!, Barbershop: The Next Cut, Florence Foster Jenkins.

And for those of you that think that I may just be a critic that doesn’t like anything, I watched these movies with my wife, and she’s in agreement on each of them being bad. I have two other friends that are movie lovers and see everything that comes out, and they agreed on these films, too. Yet they got great scores on RT.

Other movies get overly praised by the RT critics. Take for example the sci-fi movie Arrival. It got 94%. I thought it was okay, but nowhere near as good as a score like that would lead you to believe.

Moonlight was an okay movie, hardly great. Yet it got 98% on RT.

In the New York Times story, director/producer Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, Red Dragon, Hercules, Tower Heist) is bitching about how the box office numbers are down because RT scores hurt a movie before it has a chance. He produced the Warren Beatty picture Rules Don’t Apply, which got 56% on RT. It was awful. I know 10 people that saw it, and they all agreed. But guess what? Some critics interviewed Beatty, and perhaps they were kind to him. I certainly wanted to be, as nice as he was to me and the attendees at the San Diego Film Festival. Other critics may have liked seeing old Hollywood. So Ratner can’t blame the critics on that one.

I’d like to ask Ratner where he could blame critics. The Emoji Movie got 8% on RT. That may be the lowest rated of the year. I didn’t see it, but as my colleague Chip Franklin on KGO 810 AM in San Francisco has always said, “You can review movies based on the trailers alone, and usually be accurate.”

I think the title of that movie alone sunk it at the box office.

A movie that got double that score with a low 16% was the Adam Sandler movie Pixels. And when we all saw the commercials showing video game characters coming from space to attack humans, we cringed at how bad it looked (it was bad; I sat through it all). But guess what, Mr. Ratner? The movie made $244 million in the U.S. alone (I’m too lazy to Google the numbers in Japan, where Pac Man is still huge). How come the low RT scores didn’t affect that?

Now, using just one actor as an example (and I use the term “actor” loosely), Adam Sandler’s movie Funny People got 68% on RT. It made $75 million at the box office. Punch Drunk Love got 79% on RT, and made a mere $25 million. It seems RT has the opposite effect. The better the reviews for Sandler movies, the less they made (side note: I liked those last two Sandler films).

Just that example should be enough to prove wrong the theory of bad reviews on RT sinking a film.

Speaking of sinking — Titanic got 88% on RT. It was an okay movie. I would’ve guessed it got a lower score. Yet with it becoming the biggest money maker in film history, you would’ve guessed it got 100% on RT.

Sinking boats made me think of another RT incident I remember. I loved the Woody Allen movie Cassandra’s Dream (Tom Wilkinson, Colin Farrell, Ewan McGregor). It got 46% on RT.

And that, right there, is the only flaw with RT. Sometimes the total of all critics can be misleading. For example, the 46% of the critics that liked it, could’ve praised it wildly. They could’ve said this is the best, dark Allen picture since Manhattan Murder Mysteries. The 54% that didn’t like it, may not have hated it. They might have said, “It’s good, but Woody has been down this path before,” or they might say that they don’t give any Woody Allen picture a good review based on him marrying his stepdaughter.

Siskel & Ebert once said they hate when they see “Two thumbs up!” on a movie poster or in a commercial, for a film they really weren’t all that thrilled by…but that had enough to keep them interested, and they gave it a marginal thumbs up. Although they hated it more when a movie they gave a thumbs down to, took the one positive thing one of them said about the movie, and put that sentence in the commercial. They conveniently left out the “thumbs down,” just the quote that said, “It’s great to see Michelle Pfeiffer back on the screen…”

Now, on the subject of Siskel & Ebert, there was talk when they were around that they could make or break a movie with their thumbs. With those guys, and RT, I think it’s really only a one-way street. They can help an indie or foreign film that most people wouldn’t have heard of, due to a limited budget. Their praise of the basketball documentary Hoop Dreams (one naming it the best movie of the year), did wonders for it. If the critics praise it, that certainly helps. I’m not sure how much, because one of my favorite movies this year (Good Time with Robert Pattinson), got 88% on RT, and has just barely made a million dollars at theatres.

If anything, critics talking about movies only helps the industry. Five movies Roger Ebert hated were all very successful: Charlie’s Angels, Tommy Boy, Deuce Bigalow, Armageddon, and The Usual Suspects (how he disliked Usual Suspects is beyond me).

I remember as a kid hearing that blank cassette tapes were going to ruin the music business. The thought process from the studio heads was — one person would buy the Pink Floyd album Dark Side of the Moon, and then all his friends would use blank cassettes to record it. Then they wouldn’t have to purchase the album. Well, Dark Side was released in the early ‘70s and it stayed on the Billboard charts for something like 30 years. So, the amount of people recording it didn’t hurt sales, and in fact, record sales only improved after cassettes became popular. You know what finally hurt record and CD sales? Downloading music. And something similar is what my guess is on what is hurting the movie business. There are just too many ways to watch movies now. You can stop at Red Box when coming out of VONS and pick up a flick. You can use Netflix, On Demand, Amazon Prime, and so many other ways to just order movies on your computer or TV and watch them at the convenience of your home. No crying babies to deal with (unless they’re yours). No ringing cell phones or blue lights. You don’t have to pay $8 for a popcorn, and $5 for a soda. If you want to go to the bathroom, you can pause it. And that’s not even talking about the $15 you pay for your ticket (more if it’s in 3D or IMAX).

The Ghostbusters remake was considered a failure, since it cost $144 million to make. Yet nobody could blame the critics. On RT, it got 73%. That baffles me, because it was awful. I would’ve guessed it was going to get a 37%. Yet all these goofy fan boys went on a campaign to rally against this movie before they had even seen it.

When I was at CinemaCon in Las Vegas this year, theatre owners were talking a lot about this aspect of the business. As a movie lover, it’s discouraging. There’s something about the communal experience of watching a movie on a huge 40 foot screen. So often I’ll laugh at some subtle thing nobody else cared about, or a reference nobody else in the theatre got.

Other times, my wife and I roll our eyes at everybody laughing at an unfunny or predictable joke. Yet there’s something still so enjoyable about the experience, and it would be a shame for that to disappear.

We’ve already had to deal with drive-in theatres biting the dust. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen to the movie houses.

Brett Ratner has a net worth of close to $100 million. The film industry has made him very rich. Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler — both so funny on Saturday Night Live — continue to make bad movies, but make bank. Murphy has a net worth of almost $100 million, and Sander is at almost $350 million. So excuse us if we don’t have sympathy for all you people complaining about the lackluster numbers at the box office this year. If the movie studios want to improve their numbers, perhaps they don’t just remake movies, reboot super heroes, and comedies with few laughs. Stop producing crap, because…if you’re asking a couple on a date to spend over $50 (assuming they also buy popcorn and drinks)…you’re going to be hearing a lot more of the phrase “Netflix and chill.”

2 responses to Is Rotten Tomatoes Rotten?

  1. Well Josh, welcome to the “Snubbed by RT Club”. I have applied four times over 15 years — even during my six year tenure as a critic for a large Canadian TV station and was still dismissed. Maybe because I’m known for reviewing from a parent’s perspective? (Funny, two of my competitors are in the tomato patch.) I’d get emails saying things like, “We are in the midst of a major editorial change. We’ll get back to you.” Yeah, right.

    Statistically RT has a major issue with its binary judgements. Many movies with a 90%-plus score are mediocre films with “B” grade or 3 1/2 out of 5 star reviews. And if every critic comes in at “average” (below the 60% threshold), a film is rotten. That means divisive films with reviews that are polarized are often misrepresented.

    Adding to this is a populace with the attention span of a housefly. RT trains them to like or dislike without a moment of critical thought.

    My greater concern is if Hollywood can’t keep RT on a leash, they will go to the source: And that’s all of us — whether we are a member of the tomato elite or not.

    • I’m surprised RT hasn’t accepted you Rod. I submitted when I was with Gannett, so I have a lot of reviews on the site, but I don’t do it any longer. Frankly, I found uploading reviews to be more trouble than it was worth. Often, these aggregation sites get the better end of the stick.

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