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Rotten Tomatoes can make or break a film's success — is that a problem?

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Right now, members of the actors' and screenwriters' unions are still on strike, walking picket lines in Hollywood. But that hasn't stopped movie studios from pushing the content they already have out to the public. And that's how you get ads like these.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: "Oppenheimer" is magnificent. The New York Times calls it staggering.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Critics and audiences agree "Bottoms" is a hit. It's the best-reviewed comedy of the year.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It's pretty insane.

DETROW: And if you're trying to decide what movie to see - and sometimes that's a hard choice because ticket prices can be $20 or more - a film's biggest selling point might be this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Audiences and critics cannot believe what they're seeing - with a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: "The Phantom Of The Open" is the crowd-pleasing, feel-good film that will leave you cheering. And it's certified fresh from Rotten Tomatoes.

DETROW: Since its launch 25 years ago, the review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes has become the be-all, end-all for many people deciding whether or not to see a movie. If you told a friend they had to see "Oppenheimer," to help convince them, maybe you mentioned it had a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. It was fresh. Other movies, like "The Nun II," lurking at just 47%? Maybe not so much.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Like any form of traditional media, I think the role of the critic has changed as the power of the critic has changed.

DETROW: Eric Deggans is NPR's TV critic. He got into the profession during the days when one critic could sway public opinion, and he says those days are gone.

DEGGANS: You know, at least when you're talking about sort of marquee-name critics - the Roger Eberts, the Gene Siskels, you know, the folks who could determine the fate of a movie with a single review or at least a clutch of reviews - that isn't the case anymore.

DETROW: People use Rotten Tomatoes to get a consensus on whether or not to watch a movie or TV show, but there are flaws in the system. By combining and averaging reviews, it may be devaluing the voices it brings together. If you're over a certain age and you love movies, then there was definitely a point when you cared a lot about Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.

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GENE SISKEL: Now, what do these three very different films have in common? Each has played a key role in the development of two film critics. Their names - Siskel and Ebert. I'm Gene Siskel of The Chicago Tribune.

ROGER EBERT: And I'm Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times.

DETROW: They both started out doing movie reviews for newspapers, but it was their TV shows, "Sneak Previews" and "At The Movies," where the two Chicago critics developed the style of smart-yet-accessible discussions about film that became their trademark.

BRIAN RAFTERY: I think the thing that set Siskel and Ebert apart was that they were - from the minute you saw them on TV and from the minute you heard them arguing one another, they either reminded you of yourself, or they reminded you of someone you knew. I mean, they - sometimes, I watch them, and it's kind of like watching two versions of my dad argue with one another about movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SISKEL: Roger, my rebuttal of this film is you're wrapping yourself in the flag of children, and I'm saying, go see "The Black Stallion" instead. There's a film with little dialogue that's so...

EBERT: Hold on...

SISKEL: ...Much better.

EBERT: ...I'm not wrapping myself in the flag of children. You're wrapping yourself in the flag of the sophisticated film critic who's seen it all.

SISKEL: No, boredom. No, boredom - boredom...

DETROW: Brian Raftery is a journalist and podcaster based in Los Angeles. His podcast "Gene And Roger" examined their legacy, how they changed film criticism and how thumbs-up or thumbs-down became a part of the culture.

RAFTERY: I do think that Siskel and Ebert, by being so kind of accessible in their own ways, made you feel like you were maybe a little bit smarter about movies than you gave yourself credit for. And also, they covered everything. They were very egalitarian. They did not just cover sort of highbrow cinema. They covered junk, and sometimes they really championed junk.

DETROW: Raftery has thought a lot about what Siskel and Ebert would make of Rotten Tomatoes.

RAFTERY: I think the actual mechanics of Rotten Tomatoes in assigning a movie a number would probably drive Siskel and/or Ebert kind of crazy. But I do think that even they would appreciate the idea that a lot of different people are getting to chime in now about movies from different regions, from different vantage points, from different cultural backgrounds that only, you know, I'm all for. I'm all for as many movie conversations as, you know, the world and the internet can hold at one point.

DETROW: To dig deeper into how Rotten Tomatoes has affected film criticism, studios and audiences, I spoke to Lane Brown, who kicked off another one of those conversations on the internet with a recent article for Vulture entitled "The Decomposition Of Rotten Tomatoes." I also talked to Jamie Broadnax, the editor-in-chief of the culture site Black Girl Nerds. I started the conversation with both of them by asking Brown what he thinks is wrong in the way Rotten Tomatoes makes decisions about what's good or bad and how it presents that information.

LANE BROWN: There are two main problems, in my mind, for - with the way the site works. And so the first one is to calculate a movie's score, it uses a really simple, really reductive formula. Every review for a movie is classified as either rotten or fresh - or positive or negative - and then to get a movie's overall score, the site just divides the number of positive reviews by the number of reviews. And so there's no attempt at all to distinguish between slightly positive and very positive reviews, and so a movie can get 100% based on just OK reviews. And so a mediocre movie can do really well on Rotten Tomatoes, and a movie that is great but a little challenging might lose points because it's not a total across-the-board crowd-pleaser. And so you'll find, you know, movies like "Paddington 2" will have a, you know, a 99% Rotten Tomatoes, which is, you know, 6 points higher than "Raging Bull," which seems slightly incorrect, I would say. So that's the first problem.

Another big problem with the site is that movies get a score after only a handful of reviews have been published, sometimes as few as five. And a movie's first score usually seems to set the tone for the way that movie is received. And so studios have figured out how to game this. And to get a high initial score, they'll just make sure that the critics who see their movies first are the ones most likely to give positive reviews. And so for a superhero movie, there's a whole universe of websites that, you know, now only write about superhero movies and tend to be kinder to them than, say, you know, the snobs that write for other outlets.

DETROW: Yeah.

BROWN: And so you'll often see a movie debut with a really high score because the studios have corked the bat. And then that score will fall by a lot once more critics have weighed in.

DETROW: So selectively having certain people review and publish those reviews at certain times. I'm specifically remembering this one - I forget who did it - his review of "The Flash" - this is the greatest superhero movie of all time. That gets out there way before I saw it. I can assure you it was not.

JAMIE BROADNAX: (Laughter) Facts.

DETROW: Jamie, there's a bunch of things I want to ask you about as a critic with this. Have you found yourself trying to navigate, as a critic, the world that Lane writes about of the ways that this site has swayed studio behavior of when and how they're trying to introduce certain critics to movies and get reviews published at certain times?

BROADNAX: How can I answer this without getting in trouble with the studios?

(LAUGHTER)

BROADNAX: Rotten Tomatoes is - become bigger than what it initially - the site was built upon. It was mostly just about film nerds giving their opinions about films and whether it was, you know, hot or not. Like, it kind of was a riff off of what Siskel and Ebert did with thumbs up, thumbs down. And now it has become this huge sort of marketing tool for a lot of studios. So, you know, I understand the importance for them to want to get the reviews on the site. But that being said, I just want to make sure that, you know, what we put on for Black Girl Nerds - our reviews - are always filled with integrity, are always true to what the critic actually, you know, is seeing and wants to put out there into the world about how they feel about the film regardless of our relationship with a studio. You know, whether they like it or not, that's going to be our review, period. And that's something that I educate to all of my writers is even if it's a superhero film or whatever genre it is, if you don't like it, you don't like it, and it's going to go up on Rotten Tomatoes regardless.

DETROW: Lane, I want to get back to something you mentioned and was a big part of your piece, and that's the ways that studios are now trying to time premieres to try and, you know, game the system here. And one example that you had of this actually working out really poorly was the decision of Disney to premiere the latest "Indiana Jones" sequel at Cannes, which you could see the big fancy reception, and you can - you could see why they did that on one hand. But then you have a whole bunch of highbrow critics come out and say, yeah, this movie stunk. And those early reviews were very bad, and they seemed to hurt the movie's opening first few weeks.

BROWN: Yeah, it was funny. It's a - they had this big spectacle at the Cannes Film Festival. It gets a five-minute standing ovation. Harrison Ford is weeping as they present him with this, you know, honorary Palme d'Or for, you know, lifetime achievement. And, you know, in the olden days, that kind of spectacle might have actually sort of translated into sort of warm early buzz - but not in 2023. And so now the only thing that really matters to come out of a film festival like this is that Rotten Tomatoes score. And so, yeah, you show it to a bunch of snobby critics at Cannes. And, you know, it translates to a 33% Rotten Tomatoes score which sort of instantly sets the tone for that movie's reception. And they just had this low Rotten Tomatoes score sitting out there for a month before the movie arrives in theaters. And so a lot of people just didn't turn out in theaters, and so you have this movie that cost $300 million just because it had a, you know, bad word-of-mouth, you know, via that early Rotten Tomatoes score.

DETROW: Jamie, I wanted to broaden this out to you. I think one reason why this - Lane's article jumped out to me is that - 'cause this is a trend in the world of criticism, but it's a trend in so many other things right now - news, politics, many other things. And that's, like, the broader democratization of the world of movie critics, right? This is not an elite handful of people swaying opinion across America anymore. It's so much more of a broad pool. When you think about that trend, do you think there's more good there or more bad there? Like, what do you make of where we are compared to 10 or 20 or 30 years ago when it comes to the world of movie criticism?

BROADNAX: I mean, I think it's a good thing. I - you know, I want to be careful where, you know, we criticize or we're diminishing the work of, like, small online creators, people that don't have large platforms or work for trade publications - that somehow they're not seen as worthy of being a film critic as someone who works for The New York Times or writes for The Guardian because we, as smaller bloggers and journalists, really love and appreciate film just the same. And we're a part of accredited film organizations and guilds that - we work hard to be a part of those and watch tons and tons of films throughout the year and vote on those films respectively. So we we have a lot of subject matter expertise in this line of work. So just because our audience isn't at the same capacity as those bigger publications doesn't necessarily mean that our work is, you know, not as valuable. So I say all of that to say that it's important that the pool is wider.

However, I do have concerns, and I think Lane's article touched on that, that there are critics out there that are willing to accept payment for having their articles put on Rotten Tomatoes. So I think it's probably the onus is on the platform to really vet harder who they're bringing in to their pool of critics and making sure that these are people that are in it for film criticism, that these are people that are in it because they're passionate about films, because they love film. I mean, a lot of us do this for a living. I do it for a living. But also, you know, you do it because you love the work as well. But yeah, to kind of answer your question - I know I'm taking the scenic route - but I think it is important to widen that pool because there was a very, you know, there was a time that wasn't so long ago where it was only, you know, a few group of people that were allowed to criticize films, and those people did not look like me.

BROWN: To Jamie's point, I think it is important that Rotten Tomatoes vets a little bit more carefully than they have been. And I will tell you, one person who absolutely should not be a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic is me, and yet, somehow - I never asked for this and didn't even realize that I was a Tomatometer-approved critic until about three days after I published my piece - but apparently, I am. They added me to the site. They turned a whole bunch of blog posts that I wrote 15 years ago into reviews. They weren't actual reviews.

I'm not a critic, never claimed to be a critic, don't want to be a critic. The world is a worse place for having my stupid opinions in it. And yet, somehow, my vote is - you know, on Rotten Tomatoes - is the - exactly the same. I've just as much voting power as Jamie or any of the other critics on there, and that just seems ridiculous to me.

I - so I think that, you know - they - it's certainly better that the pool is wider. There is more great criticism happening now than there has ever been. It's coming from all different places. But I do think Rotten Tomatoes, you know, the platform - the onus is on them, as Jamie said, to vet and make sure that everybody who's on there should be on there.

DETROW: That was Lane Brown, a feature writer for New York Magazine and Vulture, and Jamie Broadnax, film critic and editor-in-chief at arts and culture site Black Girl Nerds. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
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