In August of 1999, Senh Duong launched Rotten Tomatoes, a website that gives easy access to a variety of film critics and averages out their analysis on individual films to a single numeric percentage- deeming each motion picture featured either “fresh” (positive reviews are at least 60% of the pooled critics) or “rotten” (positive reviews are less than 60% of the pooled critics). Today, Rotten Tomatoes has grown from its humble roots (pun entirely intended) to become the biggest aggregate film-review website on the internet, garnering over 12 million viewers a month and drawing its percentiles from more than 450 online and print writers.
Though just a little over a decade old, Rotten Tomatoes’ impact on Hollywood is certainly evident as the scores they lay out can practically send some people running to or fleeing from the multiplexes and, for filmmakers, this simple website can be like an emperor at a gladiator game, holding out his thumb to either save or kill their careers. But, while some consider Rotten Tomatoes’ success to be a helpful aid to moviegoers and a proponent for society’s continuing need for film criticism, others suggest that the simplicity used in deciding a film’s quality and its grade-like final percentage score may just showcase the mold growing in the website’s own process.
Bad For Our Viewing Health
As its opposers have claimed, Rotten Tomatoes main issue seems to stem from its rather black and white way of delivering final judgment towards a film. Either “fresh” or “rotten,” there is very little room left for context or discussion to why one film might be better than another besides the final percent scores and even that is tainted by the fact that there is no standard amount of reviews to weigh everything against. This means one film can have a few reviews and another hundreds but, in the end, their scores compare them as equals. This hardly seems to make Rotten Tomatoes the great movie aid to the undecided theatergoer that it seems to be on the surface.
Also, actual film criticism doesn’t really factor into a film’s end score as they are based on the number of positive reviews a film has received and the critical strength of these pieces are ignored. This means a film could be “100% fresh” without gathering any real praise simply because it hasn’t received any outright damning feedback.
But, beyond the more technical aspects to why Rotten Tomatoes may not be as great as it seems, there is a ripple effect to what it accomplishes and this might just in fact ruin the entire film watching experience. For we must all ask ourselves, “Is it actually justifiable to rate any film with a single numeric entity and could this culminated score based on simple math actually make us critically lazy as a society or, at the very least, biased towards an opinion about a film well before its opening credits even roll?”
A Personal Take
For years I had been one to check up with Rotten Tomatoes before picking a film to spend my money on and, nine times out of ten, they’ve steered me right. There is a reason their formula is so popular. I could also be heard saying to friends who would defend the newest explosion by Michael Bay that I had no interest in his film simply because of its critically low “tomato rating” and that no other consideration was necessary. I was wrong. My use of Rotten Tomatoes had created an apathy towards actual film criticism and developed thought. All I needed was a final percentage score and I was eager to either cheer or jeer against any film in question.I even spoke of films as if they were on the stock exchange. “Did you see the tomato score for such and such? It went down three percent today!”
Somewhere along the line, I realized that my experiences at the theater were starting to feel different. Though I wouldn’t say I had a bad time at the movies, everything suddenly felt preprogrammed. I would laugh at a film not because it was funny, but because Rotten Tomatoes had decided it “fresh.” I stopped scooting to the edge of my seat if a thriller had been deemed “not that scary” in the small blurb Rotten Tomatoes puts with its scores. I had, in fact, stopped experiencing films altogether. For my opinions were now being handed to me before I had ever entered the theater. If a film was “fresh” I expected certain things and, if ”rotten,” a set of others. I had ceased to go in with a blank page and see what the film’s story wanted to paint on my brain- it had all become connect-the-dots.
So I gave it up. No more Rotten Tomatoes. Now this certainly didn’t mean I was suddenly in line for the next “Transformers.” My tastes for cinema had not changed they just weren’t defined by a percentage based on a website’s opinion about a critic’s thoughts. Now, whether a film was good or bad, I could now know my opinion was based on the information I had personally gathered about a motion picture.
So, does this mean film criticism isn’t necessary as we should base all our thoughts on what we ultimately experience? No. There are a few film critics whose opinion I take because I believe we share similar views and values when it comes to the quality of film as art or entertainment, but I treat these writers as I would any friend who had already seen the film before me. Listening to a seasoned movie goer’s opinion is one thing. Basing your feelings on a calculated percentile is another.
As a society, we must be wary of treating art as something that we can judge and label like a pig at the state fair. Though Rotten Tomatoes is certainly the largest offender, the website Metacritic is also guilty and the likes of Entertainment Weekly love to grade a film like its a pop quiz. The fact is all films, even the bad ones, deserve an audience who, in the end, think for themselves.
A Final Rotten Thought
In May of 2011, Rotten Tomatoes and its parent company Flixter were purchased by a little motion picture company called Warner Brothers. If that doesn’t rate as “rotten” I don’t know what will.