Rotten Tomatoes threatens movie criticism

Rotten Tomatoes is a review aggregation website that Americans trust as the model for their movie consumption, but its binary approach to criticism undermines the values of the film industry.

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Ahead of the Justice League premiere in November, Rotten Tomatoes withheld negative reviews until the debut of its See It/Skip It series the night before release. The stunt was a conflict of interest between Warner Bros.’ web show promotion and the unflattering reception of its DC Extended Universe. This instance says everything about how a simple score can profoundly influence people when choosing a movie and therefore the current movie marketing predicament.

The website approves a few thousand active and professional critics whose reviews are tagged as “fresh” or “rotten” based on its own rating system or further clarification between the two. The percentage of positive and negative reviews are calculated and an overall score is assigned; 59 percent or below is rotten, and 60 percent or above is fresh. For movies with at least 40 reviews, five of which are from designated “top critics,” a seal of freshness is applied to movies with a score of 75 percent or higher.

Most critics practice a five-star rating system, but even they recognize the fact that film as an art form is principally interpretive and exists outside the boundaries of ratings and scores. The website says slightly positive or praising reviews and slightly negative or scathing reviews are the same. It reduces an entire critique into the words “yes” and “no.” Rotten Tomatoes complicates the business by surgically removing nuance and mystery from the film experience, as if the goal is to turn us into mindless robots incapable of critical assessment.

Blind faith in the percentage-obsessed Rotten Tomatoes can be attributed in part to the increasing polarization of the media and the public’s desire to definitively “like” or “dislike” something no matter how arbitrary and destructive. Not only does the website rob potential ticket buyers of critical description, evaluation and interpretation, but it threatens the personal expression of industry professionals.

The problem facing distribution companies today is that the promotional elements of movies such as trailers, advertisements and merchandising cannot withstand the power of an aggregate score, so many accept it as truth when it pops up under their Google search results. Who wants to go see a movie with a bad score?

The latest installment of the Star Wars franchise has a 91 percent “fresh” reviewer score and a 49 percent “rotten” audience score, prompting actual discussion and divide between fans who don’t know what to make of an entry unlike all the others. This is the kind of debate every movie deserves as there is no absolute and conclusive analysis of a movie whether or not it leans positive or negative.

It is a strange reality when movie culture ruins movie culture, so let The Last Jedi be a calling card for entertainment consumers who want the most emotional satisfaction and intellectual stimulation from the movies they watch and live with.

Edited by Claire Colby | ccolby@themaneater.com

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