Hollywood is struggling through a particularly rough financial patch at the moment, and it’s throwing blame in every direction. Its favorite target over the last ten years has been technological disruption. Netflix, home theaters, and MoviePass have all been cited as box office grim reapers. The latest target, Rotten Tomatoes, is the dumbest excuse yet.
The New York Times recently spoke to the staff of the popular movie review aggregation website on the record, and numerous cowardly movie executives who didn’t want to be named for “fear of giving Rotten Tomatoes more credibility.” In a nutshell, Rotten Tomatoes has reportedly increased its traffic by 32 percent over the past year, while the summer box office dropped off by about 14 percent this season. The argument is that because Hollywood produced so many low-rated turds this year, and more people were reading that those turds were the subject of withering criticism, the criticism is the reason people didn’t go to the movies.
First of all, Americans hate movie critics. Here’s a list of “50 movies that critics really hate but normal people love.” You get that? Movie critics aren’t normal people. The Critic was an entire show about what loathsome and bizarre people movie critics tend to be. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a film and movie critic. And I’m a weird person with unpopular opinions.) So when studio executives complain to The New York Times that the “Tomatometer hacks off critical nuance,” they know as well as we do that critical nuance has never amounted to shit.
In fact, the argument about critical nuance has traditionally been one made by film critics. Before the Tomatometer, Roger and Ebert had two thumbs, and their colleagues often complained that audiences just wanted to know if those thumbs went up or down. Critics also complain about stars and numeric ratings because they just want you to read their opinions on mise-en-scène. Some people care about that sort of thing but most don’t. What people care about is wasting their time at a movie that is enjoyable to watch.
Of all the complaints about simplistic ratings or “amateur” critics being included alongside the old white men of The Atlantic or the New Yorker, there is one technological development that executives have a point about. That’s the fact that Rotten Tomatoes scores are being integrated into Google search results, iTunes purchases, and Fandango checkout buttons. It’s not that the notoriety of the Tomatometer score is having some huge impact on attendance, it’s that this mass consolidation is one example of the fact that we live in a world in which opinions are everywhere.
This is the whole idea of Rotten Tomatoes. It’s bringing top critics, lesser known critics, and audience opinions together in one place because there are a lot of freakin’ opinions to deal with right now. Social media brings even more opinions to the table. And maybe you were one of those people who liked to read the nuanced opinions of your favorite critic, but these days you’ll lose those precious couple hours of your week to wading through opinions about our psychotic political environment. [Shoutout to our current Treasury Secretary, producer of the rotten Suicide Squad movie.]
Hollywood execs aren’t afraid of the Rotten Tomatoes rating system being poorly weighted, they’re afraid that it’s designed too well. They’re afraid of opinions because the movies they’re making suck and are too familiar. Yes, Wonder Woman is the biggest movie of the summer, and it has a 92 percent fresh rating. It also offered up a comic character that hasn’t been seen on the big screen, had an award-winning director at the helm, and recognized that there are a lot of women who’d go see the right superhero flick. It also didn’t suck. Suicide Squad did huge box office, and it has a 25% fresh rating. Still, that movie had a bunch of characters that haven’t been in theaters and a different approach to its story—the bad guys are good guys. The Emoji Movie sucked, and it was a hit. Be honest, weren’t you the least bit curious what an Emoji movie would be like? The point is, there are a lot of reasons movies do well and critical consensus rarely tops that list.
Audiences just want something relevant and well done. Hollywood has almost always hit on those two factors by accident rather than design. It will continue to blame technological innovation like Netflix for its decline, and proclaim that new tech like 3D will be its savior. The real answer is to give people entertaining movies made by smart and talented people—movies that seem familiar, but are a little bit different. To paraphrase a mediocre hit movie about a guy building a baseball field in the middle of nowhere so that he can magically hang out with his dead dad, “If you make it, they will come.”