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In Defense of Rotten Tomatoes

July 4th, 2017

Transformers: The Last Knight

I’ve seen a lot of people attacking Rotten Tomatoes recently saying it is bad for the movie business. Some even point to Transformers: The Last Knight as proof that the site can ruin a film’s box office chances. Besides that charge, the other two main complaints I’m hearing over and over again are A.) Rotten Tomatoes is a very shallow site, especially the Tomatometer. And B.) It is killing in-depth critical examination of movies. I’ll tackle those claims below.

First of all, what is the Tomatometer? Rotten Tomatoes takes all the reviews it uses and simplifies them to positive or negative and the Tomatometer tells you what percent are positive. I’ve seen people say that this is reductive and shallow and leads to extreme ratings. The last one is a fair point. It’s not that uncommon for a film to earn 0% positive reviews, but it would be nearly impossible for a film to average 0/10 across even a small number of reviews. So yes, Tomatometer does lead to more extreme ratings, but this isn’t some nefarious scheme designed to create numbers that people will yell about, thus giving Rotten Tomatoes free publicity. They use a binary positive / negative, because the Tomatometer is designed to give you the percent chance you will like the movie enough to recommend the film to someone else, assuming your tastes match that of the average critic. If you are the average moviegoer who just wants to see a movie on the weekend, this is exactly what you want. If you want to know if a movie is worth seeing and the answer is no, it doesn’t matter if the movie is bad, or abysmal, you are going to skip it either way. The Tomatometer might not be useful to you personally, because you want more details than that, but in this case, the reviews are right below. As for the score being shallow, that isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. A lot of people complain that too much information is given away in the trailers, so it makes sense these people would want to avoid getting even more information from the review. A lot of the time, you can figure out if you’re interested in a movie based on the genre, cast and crew, etc., and sometimes you just need a number to tell if the execution was good. In these cases, the Tomatometer Score is ideal. I know I’ve used the site for this purpose more than a few times.

That’s not to say I’m against in-depth analysis, far from it. I spend a lot of my time watching videos in the background while I work. For example, Bob Chipman, a.k.a. MovieBob, does both reviews of movies that try to avoid any major spoilers, as well as really in-depth analysis that get into the nitty-grity of why a movie works so well, including major spoilers, influences, etc. Lindsay Ellis is in the middle of a series that looks at Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise from a film school point of view. Dan Olson has dissected both The Last Airbender, Suicide Squad, and other movies mostly from an editor’s point of view. Movies with Mikey looks movies both new and old with an incredible eye for detail. I watch these YouTubers so often that combined they usually take up about half of “Watch Again” recommendations. That said, if someone asked me where to go if they were looking to watch a particular movie, I wouldn’t give them a link to an in-depth analysis of that movie. The in-depth analysis is something you watch after you’ve seen the movie. The large number of YouTubers who create tons of videos going in-depth on movies shows that Rotten Tomatoes isn’t killing critical analysis and this type of analysis is thriving online. They occupy two different areas and are not competing with each other for views.

Finally we get to the complaint that started this recent round of attacks. Rotten Tomatoes is ruining the box office chances for many films. This claim is based on spurious logic. Granted, being able to collect one hundred or two hundred reviews in one place does make it easier for reviews to be seen and makes it easier for word-of-mouth to spread. However, Rotten Tomatoes has been around for nearly 20 years. If it had such a massive negative effect on movie box office numbers, then we would have been seeing this effect for years and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen wouldn’t have made $400 million domestically with 19% positive reviews. You find countless examples of terrible movies that made a lot of money at the box office. Granted, there have been a lot of recent big movies that earned terrible reviews and then bombed in theaters, but this isn’t Rotten Tomatoes fault. In fact, I don’t even think it’s the reviews fault. Before Alien: Covenant came out, there were reports that there were three more prequels planned for the franchise. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was reportedly the first of a trilogy. The Dark Universe had ten films planned before the first review for The Mummy was released. There were rumors that Transformers: The Last Knight was setting up at least one more direct sequel, a prequel set in King Arthur’s day, a Bumblebee solo movie, not to mention a Hasbro combined universe with G.I. Joe. It’s no wonder moviegoers decided to pass on these films. Franchise fatigue is a much bigger culprit for the poor box office numbers we’ve seen recently.

I’m not saying Rotten Tomatoes is perfect and there are legitimate complaints to be made. Perhaps you don’t like the Tomatometer Score and prefer the weighted average Metacritic uses, but this is personal taste and not a flaw in either site. The drop-off in the number of reviews TV shows get after the first season makes the seasonal Tomatometer Score misleading in a lot of cases. Then there’s the technical issues. Out of all of the sites I use regularly to do this job, Rotten Tomatoes is the one that gives me the most troubles, by far. (It sucks up the most memory causing my browser to crash, the search engine breaks frequently, database errors lead to dead links, etc.) However, looking at the evidence, you can’t claim it is hurting critical analysis of movies, nor can you blame the site for the recent string of box office misses.

Filed under: Analysis, Alien: Covenant, The Mummy, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Transformers: The Last Knight, Alien, Transformers, G.I. Joe, Dark Universe, Michael Bay