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. Continue reading