Rotten Tomatoes was in the news this summer, as reports were made that the teams behind the Baywatch reboot and most recent Pirates of the Caribbean installment blame the critical aggregator for the films’ poor performance at the box office. Both films had tested well, and the studios believe that audiences skipping the films in light of their poor Rotten Tomatoes scores otherwise would have attended and enjoyed them. There is some evidence that the impact of Rotten Tomeatoes on box office earnings has in fact been minimal, but it’s hard to deny that the website has seen an increase in influence in recent years. There’s no longer any need to actively search for RT scores. If one simply Googles the title of the movie one is hoping to see, the RT score has pride of place at the top of the search results, along with the IMDB user score. When one logs onto the Fandango website or app to buy movie tickets, the scores are already listed along with the showtimes (Fandango owns Rotten Tomatoes). The same is true for Flixster, also owned by Fandango, and the home streaming app VUDU. There are smartphone apps available that let users quickly consult RT scores for a movie recommendation or even cross-reference the movies that are available on Netflix streaming with their RT scores. Rotten Tomatoes scores are now inscribed all over the technological landscape that mediates our access to film. It is very hard to avoid becoming aware of a movie’s RT score before seeing it.
One reasonable reaction is, “Well, good! The blockbuster used to be a beautiful thing, but now it’s all lazy, uninspired sequels and reboots. It’s a good thing that Rotten Tomatoes has created a mechanism that helps us avoid bad movies. Perhaps studios will up their game if they become convinced that that they can’t get away with this crap anymore.”
I think this reaction is short-sighted, and the growing influence of the Tomatometer is mostly a bad thing. There are many reasons, but the one I want to focus on is this: the aggregator doesn’t just punish bad movies, it also punishes bold and distinct movies. How would 2001: A Space Odyssey have fared if Rotten Tomatoes existed in 1968? Not well.
Alexander Nehamas writes, discussing the negative critical reaction that Manet’s Olympia initially faced:
Of the more than 3,000 works exhibited at the Salon of 1865, only a very few came up either for praise or blame. The Olympia provoked by far the strongest reaction among them: but, far from having caused it harm, the ferocity of its critics suggests that on some level they knew they were confronting something importantly different from the paintings to which they were accustomed. Harm was done only to the thousands that went, and have remained, unnoticed, outside the history of art…. [L]ove clashes less with hate than with indifference and beauty is less opposed to ugliness than to the nondescript. (Only a Promise of Happiness, 42)
I’m reminded of a trip to a brick-and-mortar DVD rental store back in New Jersey. I was considering a handful of rentals, including Gus Van Sant’s Béla Tarr homage, Gerry, which I had heard good things about. Realizing that I had made too many selections, I handed Gerry to the cashier and said “I don’t think I’m going to rent this one today.” She said, “Good call. It’s literally the WORST movie I’ve ever see.” I replied, “Nevermind, I want it.” Nothing against her, it’s just that the vehemence of her reaction told me that there’s something interesting going on with Gerry. No one says that a forgettable movie is the worst thing they’ve ever seen.
If one only watches movies that most RT critics like, much of what one sees will be inoffensive and benign. Bold, ambitious works are not apt to generate consensus. Often, a lot of people will hate them, especially when they are first unveiled. Distinctness breeds disagreement; innovation prompts backlash. This is not to say that early audiences always balk at groundbreaking works, but it’s pretty much a crapshoot. This holds true for the highbrow and lowbrow alike. Check out this list of movies that were booed when they debuted at the Cannes film festival (granted, some of them deserved it). And here are some of the movies that have been nominated for the Razzie award for worst film or worst director of the year: Cruising, Dressed to Kill, The Shining, Mommie Dearest, Scarface, Cliffhanger, Last Action Hero, Heaven’s Gate, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rocky IV, Cobra, Road House, Showgirls, Anaconda, Freddie Got Fingered, Alexander, White Chicks, Lady in the Water, Jupiter Ascending. What do these movies have in common? They have panache. They’re memorable. They’re not to everyone’s liking, but the world would be a much less interesting place without them. I bet you absolutely love at least a few of them.
If one systematically favors releases with a high RT rating, one perhaps mitigates the downside of the gamble one takes when one spends time and money on a movie, but one also tends to limit the upside. If one were making decisions this way in 1968, one would have likely skipped 2001. Plenty of movies that get very high Tomatometer ratings will be totally forgotten a few years from now. It’s often movies like 2001—movies that early audiences struggle to come to terms with—that prove to have the deepest and most enduring interest.
This is not to say that Rotten Tomatoes is useless. It gives useful information. We can count on the bulk of Tomato critics to have extremely nondescript taste, because very few publications want to employ outlier critics. Tomato critics characteristically overvalue method acting, landscape photography, and progressive messaging. They write things like, “I’d be more into Knight of Cups had it been a cohesive study of the human spirit, with actual character development that draws you into their struggles, desires and circumstances.” Sometimes it is good to know where the aggregate of these critics stands. If there is a new Jason Statham movie called Professional Thief or Racecar Driver or Escaped Convict, and the aggregate says 90%, I know I’m in for a good time. If the aggregate says 30%, I know that the movie doesn’t do a good job jumping through all the genre expectation-hoops that it’s supposed to jump through, but I also know that it’ll still be good, because every Jason Statham movie is good. If the new Oscar-bait prestige biopic is at 24%, I know it probably sucks, because this is the sort of thing that Tomato critics characteristically overvalue, and so if even they don’t like it, it’s probably just bad. But if the new Nicolas Cage movie is at 7%, I’m definitely in.
So should the film-goer who just wants to have a good time on their night out care about my argument?
There are surely some contexts where the most important thing is protecting the downside. Perhaps one is extremely anxious about a romantic date and just wants to make sure the movie one selects is not bad without caring about how good it is. Fine, I get that. But generally, it does not seem that most people want to think of themselves as especially risk averse when it comes to the aesthetic realm. Some people surely are very risk averse about aesthetic experiences, but we tend to think that these people suck. These are the people who insist on the Olive Garden’s soup/salad/breadsticks combo when they are visiting a new city full of exciting regional food options. Even if someone can only see a small number of films, wouldn’t most of us prefer a few extravagant disasters along with a few bold masterpieces rather than a steady diet of plain vanilla La La Land?
It’s worth taking an active effort to undercut the influence of Rotten Tomatoes. This certainly doesn’t entail limiting one’s consumption to titles that are Certified Rotten; it just entails taking care not to treat the aggregate as the default decider. If you’re short on time and need a way to separate the wheat from the chaff, find a few individual critics whose sensibility speaks to you. It’s worth the effort. Rotten Tomatoes is actually a decent place to start (if you’re up for it, also consider film social media sites like letterboxd.com). There are some very interesting critics included in the RT aggregate, often representing more specialized publications. Look for insights that resonate with you. I regularly read a number of critics from the aggregate, including Keith Uhlich and Ed Gonzalez. I very often disagree with them, but they usually have an interesting point of view that I find illuminating or at least entertaining. By reading these same critics consistently for many years, I have developed a sense of their taste and where it is likely to diverge from mine. I get way more information from their reviews than I do from the aggregate. If one of the critics I have an affinity for is head over heels about something, I’m going to see it, regardless of what the aggregate says. I certainly believe that this approach has worked out much better for me than default deference to the critical majority would have.