Why Movie Fans Need to Stop Paying Attention to Rotten Tomatoes Scores
It’s June 1989. A young Darth Gandalf, age 10, gleefully walks into the multiplex with his father, mother, and kid sister in tow. Their destination: the movie theater. Their mission: bask in the glory of Ghostbusters 2. Two hours later and mission accomplished, DG skips out of the theater content and happy.
Flash forward to Saturday March 26, 2016. An older, larger, grayer, and (hopefully) wiser Darth Gandalf strolls into the local AMC this time with his wife at his side. It’s date night. Their destination: the cushy recliners with the cup holders big enough to support a Big Gulp. Their mission: enjoy a nice evening in the warm embrace of The Dark Knight and The Man of Steel. Two and a half hours later, DG shuffles out of the theater in a glass case of emotion (sans glass) next to a wife who insists he’s never picking the date night movie again.
Although nearly twenty-seven years passed and a multitude of personal, economic, and social circumstances had come and gone, there was one technological development that fundamentally caused these two movie going experiences to be completely different: the Internet.
The movie going experience of 1989 differs immensely from 2016. And no I’m not talking about the astronomical ticket prices. When Ghostbusters 2 hit theaters on June 16th, 1989 the world was still a few years away from the Interwebs. Spoilers? Almost non-existent. Social media? Nothing to tweet about. Angry nerd bloggers? Still in their parents’ basements playing Oregon Trail.
The 2016 cinema experience couldn’t be more different from Adam West and Ben Affleck’s incarnations of Batman. Rumors, leaked scripts, on-set drama, casting and directing changes–all of these occur months, sometimes YEARS, before a movie comes out. Then there’s the murky morass of Reddit where anonymous trolls can bitch, rant, and complain about every little nitpicky thing under the Death Star. And of course you have social media. If Reddit is a murky morass, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook are fetid cesspools when it comes to movies, comics, fandom, et al. All you need to do is research the recent experiences of Leslie Jones and Daisy Ridley to conclude that.
And when it comes to judgment calls on movies there is of course the mother of all aggregators. That towering vegetable (fruit?) bastion that hands down scores from its garden laced tower. The font from which flows the movie choices of so many fans. I’m talking of course about Rotten Tomatoes.
Just in case you’re living under a rock the size of Krypton, Rotten Tomatoes is a film review aggregator, founded in 1998 by Seth Duong. It encompasses both movies and television, and serves as a place where both accredited critics and fans alike can post their thoughts and scores regarding a particular movie or television program. In the eighteen years since its inception, the site has grown in popularity yearly. It’s become so entrenched in the cinematic world, that major television providers like DIRECTV have Rotten Tomatoes scores attached to a particular film showing on the guide.
I think it’s safe to say that Rotten Tomatoes scores have a decided influence on what films individuals select, whether it’s in the multiplex or Video On Demand. Too much in fact. When your sole determination is based merely on whether something is Certified Fresh or Certified Rotten, there’s a clear disconnect. And it’s not about being a numbers based society, although that is a factor. No what we’ve become is an instant gratification society. Our world exists on the plane of “right now” where almost every conceivable bit of information is at our fingertips via smartphones, tablets, and laptops. As such, we’ve come to revere the 0-10 score or the number of stars critics attribute to a movie, and dismiss the actual content behind it. Who has time for those pesky paragraphs when we can just scroll down and see THE NUMBER.
There’s an inherent problem with this line of thinking however. One is statistical, the other is content driven. Let’s start with statistical.
I might as well cut through all the bullshit and pick Suicide Squad as an example. The critic reviews were mostly negative, although Gfunk thought it was enjoyable. Based on the current statistics, Suicide Squad holds a 26% Certified Rotten score on Rotten Tomatoes. This is based on 268 critic reviews. Keep in mind those last two words: CRITIC REVIEWS. These are actual accredited movie critics not your neighbor’s twelve-year-old son. Thankfully for us peons who didn’t go to film school, there’s also an Audience section that rates Suicide Squad at a 71% Certified Fresh score. Here’s the main difference: the Audience side is out of 95,690 ratings. That’s a gargantuan gulf between critics and your lay moviegoer. And this isn’t even taking into account the millions upon millions who have already seen this movie and NOT contributed to the site. So from a purely mathematical standpoint if you combine the two numbers (268 and 95,690) you get a grand total of 95,958. Of that 95,958 only .02% makes up the critic side of things. .02%.
Do you see the inherent problem here? 268 critic reviews is just not a large enough sample size to fully judge (in so far that you can “judge” a subjective topic) a film. How can you trust an arbitrary number from one website to be the determining factor on whether or not to see a movie? The short answer is you can’t. I mean does anyone really think Thor: The Dark World was even a 66%? Or that Iron Man 2 rated a 72%? I’d honestly watch BvS before either of those two movies.
Now listen, I’m not one of these tin foil hat conspiracy fans who says Marvel Studios are paying critics to give DC films bad reviews. That’s ridiculous. DCEU films right now are flawed due to a number of factors including marketing. However, I am saying a negative score on Rotten Tomatoes can adversely affect a person’s movie going choices. That’s an argument you can’t dismiss out of hand. And unfortunately the math behind it doesn’t justify basing one’s movie decisions solely on a Rotten Tomatoes rating. For God’s sake Out of Africa has a 53% Certified Rotten score and it won the Academy Award for Best Picture! The point here is the mathematical numbers for Rotten Tomatoes are a fallacy. The fact that The Monster Squad has a 53% on RT doesn’t make me think the film is any less awesome, just like Looper having a 93% approval doesn’t make me think the film is anything more than an overrated and cumbersome science fiction film.
Lest you think this article comes across pedantic and condescending, let me assure you that I’ve fallen prey to the RT score demon too. And not years ago either, I’m talking May. I let poor RT scores of X-Men: Apocalypse stop me from going to see it in the theaters. When I finally saw it I could have kicked myself for giving in to a simple aggregator because I like the film a lot. I missed out because my sole determining factor for seeing the movie was based on one aggregate score.
A second factor to examine is content. I mentioned that people are too obsessed with the score. Instead they should be focused on the actual review itself. Why does the author find the film compelling or repulsive? Did they discuss the acting, the set design, the special effects, editing, or any other of the plethora of factors that compose a piece of cinema? Click on the links to various writers’ articles on Rotten Tomatoes rather than just looking at the percentage. As an avid moviegoer myself, I glean more about my interest in a film from the actual reviews. There are multiple critics on multiple sites that I frequent whose reviews I trust. They tend to be highly detailed and range in style and format. Some don’t even give scores which while I respect, is something I could never do.
I also make it a point to read bad reviews of a particular movie. Again how can I base my movie choice on authors who only parrot back to me what I want to hear? It’s disingenuous and just as bad as ultra-conservatives who only watch FOX News because it reinforces their already established beliefs. I want different approaches and various view points. And it often works. Case in point: Swiss Army Man. On the surface the concept sounds incredibly ridiculous and I had zero interest in seeing it. However, I read multiple reviews that made me change my mind. Although I haven’t seen the film yet, my level of interest has gone up considerably just because I chose to read others’ thoughts on the film.
There’s also one last reason that you shouldn’t use Rotten Tomatoes scores alone. It’s a factor that no aggregator can ever quantify: You the viewer. I hate the cliché “trust yourself” but in this instance it applies. Long before I became a movie critic or started reading online reviews, my only determining factor for watching a movie was if I watched the preview or television spot and thought either, “Man I gotta see this movie!” or, ” Wow does that look like it sucks.” Don’t discount your own intuition.
Rotten Tomatoes critics’ scores only account for a small percentage of moviegoers. The site is a film aggregator. Nothing more. Don’t get caught up in a mathematically disingenuous score on one website. If you do you could be throwing your hard-earned cash away. Or even worse, you might miss out on something great.
You can follow me on Twitter at @DarthGandalf1