It was a bleak Summer for Hollywood, one where box office numbers were down, audience attendance plummeted and even the biggest films of the season struggled to meet lofty expectations. As you can imagine, this has sent a few executives into a tizzy, looking for someone or something to blame that has nothing to do with commissioning crap like The Mummy or Baywatch. It seemed inevitable that review aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes would fall under the harsh spotlight of blame once again, but nobody would have guessed Martin freaking Scorsese would be among those pointing the finger of guilt towards the site.
In a guest column with the Hollywood Reporter, laments the negative reception and weak box office showing of Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, a film that divided many and failed to find a wider audience (although in fairness it wasn’t a film that was ever built to sustain a 2500+ theatres wide release). Many critics adored mother! and felt it was inaccurately marketed and opened too wide too early, but further blame has been directed at Rotten Tomatoes as well as CinemaScore, where the film received the rare F rating. All of this made Scorsese very sad.
While he also decries the ‘bloodthirsty spectator sport’ he sees surrounding the box office reporting, it’s Rotten Tomatoes that receives the most focus of his ire. After saying they have ‘absolutely nothing to do with real film criticism’, he compares the site to rating ‘a picture the way you’d rate a horse at the racetrack, a restaurant in a Zagat’s guide, or a household appliance in Consumer Reports. They have everything to do with the movie business and absolutely nothing to do with either the creation or the intelligent viewing of film.’
These firms and aggregators have set a tone that is hostile to serious filmmakers — even the actual name Rotten Tomatoes is insulting. And as film criticism written by passionately engaged people with actual knowledge of film history has gradually faded from the scene, it seems like there are more and more voices out there engaged in pure judgmentalism, people who seem to take pleasure in seeing films and filmmakers rejected, dismissed and in some cases ripped to shreds.
Okay, so here’s the thing: Rotten Tomatoes is so frequently misused by people, but nowhere near to the extent that the industry believes it is. Review aggregate sites over a general, if simplified, overview of mainstream critical responses to films, but they also link to every review that’s included. It’s an invite for you, the reader, to check out the review for yourself, and most people do. We have critics we trust, others we know are less in line with our personal tastes, and those whose opinions we never agree with but we find their takes worthwhile. The rotten/fresh ranking given to the review, an arbitrary process that can anger some, can feel too binary but no more or less than Siskel & Ebert’s famous thumbs up/down system. That appeared on film posters and ads way more than Rotten Tomatoes rankings ever have, but I don’t see a lot of think-pieces or industry scapegoating around that.
So much of the Rotten Tomatoes hate seems rooted in an implicit mistrust of audiences. Clearly, those chumps aren’t smart enough to comprehend an Aronofsky movie without a cartoon tomato ranking to tell them if it’s good or not. I found myself quite uneasy with some of the elitism that came from many critics over the under-performing of mother! False marketing campaigns and an obtuse approach to promoting to tiny demographics received less blame than the average film-goer who may like a challenging movie now and then but simply didn’t like this one, or didn’t see it because they had no idea what was on offer. A lot of the Rotten Tomatoes anger refused to accept that maybe, just maybe, some audiences are smarter than they think. An aggregate score had nothing to do with The Mummy flopping. Sure, bad reviews may have played their part - funny how reviews are meaningless when a major blockbuster makes cash but they’re destructive forces of evil when they flop - but let’s not pretend the thing keeping audiences away from Baywatch was Rotten Tomatoes.