Moviegoers scratched their heads this spring when Paddington 2, a children’s film about an anthropomorphic bear Citizen Kane on Rotten Tomatoes, cementing its sequel status as one of the top-reviewed films on the site. How is it that a movie with a CGI bear – albeit a great movie – has overtaken one of the greatest movies of all time? It seems to be a trend with Rotten Tomatoes; The site’s movie review scores have been rising for a decade, according to data compiled by News Gob.
“It’s puzzling. I don’t know what to think of it. I really don’t, ”says David A. Gross, who heads Franchise Entertainment Research, a film consultancy.
Films about Rotten Tomatoes earn a “Tomatometer” score of 100 percent based on how many critics rate the film as positive. For example, Cruellas 74 percent mean about seven out of ten reviewers on the site thought the villainous fashionista’s origin story was worth at least a look.
In 2009, the average Tomatometer reading for all broad publications was 46 percent, and was around that level for much of the 2000s. By 2019 this average value had climbed to 62 percent – an important milestone, because 60 percent is the dividing line between a “fresh” and a “lazy” film.
In fact, the average movie has gone from lazy to fresh in just 10 years.
For Gross, who has been following this trend for years, the higher scores fix a long-standing problem with the critics aggregator: it was unfairly critical.
For every 2000s, the average tomatometer readings fluctuated in the downright lazy low to mid 40s. If 60 percent is the dividing line between a good film and a bad film, it stands to reason for Gross that an undistorted average should be roughly in the middle.
“Your site is a service for cinema-goers,” says Gross. “If you had spoken to me 12 years ago, I would have said, ‘What on earth are you doing and why are you just devastating films?'”
The soaring scores can be confusing for viewers who use the site to decide what to watch. This spring is Godzilla versus Kong, a movie about a giant CGI monkey who was retired to fight a giant CGI lizard, had a score of 79 percent leading up to the opening weekend (since then it’s down to 76 percent). That’s a higher score than 14 best picture winners, including Forrest Gump (1994): 71 percent; gladiator (2000): 77 percent; and Brave heart (1995); 78 percent.
“I empathize with the films that get stuck with their scores,” says Gross. “I think it’s unfair to the old films.”
Are film studios to blame?
The rising results come because Rotten Tomatoes has developed close financial ties to the film industry. Founded in 1998 by three young Berkeley graduates, the website was bought by Warner Bros. in 2011. And in 2016, Comcast (which also owns NBCUniversal) acquired a 70 percent stake through a deal that moved Rotten Tomatoes into a division of ticket sellers Fandango. (These media conglomerates produce many of the films and television shows that are rated on the site.)
The company that once celebrated its outsider status now occupies a critical position in the film industry. His scores appear on the Internet on Google, iTunes, DirecTV and Fandango.
While moviegoer usage of Rotten Tomatoes has declined in recent years, the company estimates that roughly one in four moviegoers still use the site, according to a survey by the National Research Group.
“Rotten Tomatoes is very important, there is no doubt about it,” says Gross.
“Your numbers are flying around fast on the internet on the opening weekend.”
Montreal cinema manager Zachary Merovitz says positive critical voices can boost ticket sales, especially for high-profile but under-the-radar films like Nomad landthat may fall out of the reach of the general cinema audience.
“This one had extra business because it was a well-respected film.”
And while the exact effect Rotten Tomatoes will have on ticket sales is hard to see, the site can sometimes be the decisive factor for customers who haven’t made up their minds at the box office.
Occasionally, customers “check the score on their cell phone right in front of my eyes,” says Merovitz. “And when you see that it has a really terrible review, sometimes you don’t watch the movie.”
Indeed, the site’s potential as a marketing tool for film publicists is not being lost.
“If you are freshly certified on Rotten Tomatoes, you will definitely include that in your campaign,” says Andréa Grau, founder and owner of the advertising company Touchwood PR.
The close relationship between the world’s leading review aggregator and two of Hollywood’s largest film studios has raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest. Is it possible that business pressures from the website’s backers could explain the increasing results?
A theory that Joel Meares, editor-in-chief at Rotten Tomatoes, is quick to reject.
“What I can say is that [I] I’ve never felt the pressure to get higher scores for films released by our parent companies. “
It is not clear to Meares how Rotten Tomatoes or its business owners could affect the scores that films get.
“We take reviews. They’re either fresh or rotten. They go to a pool. The percentage is the percentage and it is what it is. “
But how exactly movie reviews are classified as lazy or fresh has never been an exact science.
“It’s this weird wild west about what’s fresh and lazy,” said Jason Gorber, a Toronto-based freelance film critic whose reviews on the site go back over two decades.
About half of all reviews added to Rotten Tomatoes are self-submitted, which means that the reviewer or the publication will indicate whether their review is fresh or lazy by any criteria. Gorber thinks any movie he rates C + or higher is fresh. For another reviewer, that threshold could be a C or a B or 2/4 stars.
Other critics, says Gorber, “have never logged into Rotten Tomatoes”.
For these critics, the company employs a team of seven curators who read hundreds of reviews every week and mark them as fresh or rotten based on their interpretation. If the review is still open they will be read by multiple curators and if it is really unclear they will turn to the reviewer for clarification.
Is it news agencies to blame?
Meares didn’t come up with the numbers himself, but speculates that if the tomatometer readings have risen, it may be due to wider shifts in the media industry.
“In the last 20, 15 or even 10 years, the way criticism has worked in the world has changed.”
When Rotten Tomatoes began in the late 1990s, most professional film critics were full-time employees of major publishers. Think of Siskel and Ebert.
Today the industry is dominated by freelancers, who are increasingly writing for independent online publications, and so-called influencers, some of whom have no industry experience – and often have no knowledge of film history or trends.
All critics rely on studios for access to advanced press screenings. Longstanding critics of large publications don’t have to worry about that. However, access to the press is by no means guaranteed for freelance critics.
Jason Gorber explains that freelancers may hesitate to make a movie for fear of drawing the wrath of the studio.
“If, for legitimate reasons, I keep popping a particular series of films from a particular studio, I may no longer be invited by that studio,” says Gorber.
And it’s not just film studios that freelance critics have to be on the lookout for. In the age of social media, angry movie fans have also become a force to be reckoned with.
“I made a movie I saw in Toronto two years ago and ended up receiving death threats,” says freelance film critic Danielle Solzman. “There’s nothing like coming back from a film festival and going to the police straight away.”
“In retrospect, I think that made me a little more generous about what the star ratings were for. concerns Wonder Woman 1984because I just didn’t want to deal with the death threats, ”says Solzman. “With some films you definitely have to think twice. But at the end of the day, if I don’t like a movie, I don’t like it. “
Diversify, diversify, diversify
As film audiences become more diverse, film criticism has long been dominated by white men. Looking at the Top 100 Movies of 2017, a USC Annenberg report found that 82 percent of Rotten Tomatoes reviews were written by white critics and 78 percent by men.
Male critics are consistently tougher than women when it comes to reviewing films starring women, according to an annual report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.
“When I’m excited about a movie and haven’t seen it, the last thing I want to read is 80 reviews from old white men,” says Solzman.
Shortly after USC Annenberg released its results in 2018, Rotten Tomatoes revised its criteria for recognizing critics. Over the next two years, the company would add over 825 new reviewers to its website, more than half of whom were women, including about 20 percent people of color. Most of them were also freelance writers.
In 2020, the company announced similar changes to its Top Critics program.
“It’s about making sure that a diverse cinema audience is reflected in the diversity of our pool of critics,” says Meares.
Appearance on the website can also be helpful for critics who are finding it difficult to gain a foothold in the industry.
“Getting into Rotten Tomatoes definitely helped with the press lists,” says Solzman, who notes that gatekeeping is a real problem in the industry.
Gorber believes the increasing variety of voices on the site helped blunt some of its sharper edges.
“We have more and more different voices. I don’t just mean racial and ethnic diversity. I just mean literally different people who add to this bigger conversation, ”says Gorber. “Some negative voices are drowned out in the larger cacophony.”
It’s all about that user base
More critics on the site have resulted in more movie reviews adding to the score of each film. The top 10 grossing films in 2009 had an average of 278 reviews per film. By 2019, that number had risen to 445 reviews per film.
If you are feeling extra busy working and want to browse the 541 reviews on this makeup Avengers: Endgames With a 94 percent rating, you’ll find that many of the critics come from niche online publications aimed at a specific audience. Some like SciFiNow, and ComicBookMovie.com, narrowly on a genre. Others like Movies4Kids, are aimed at a subset of moviegoers.
Meares believes the increase in internet reviewers writing for specific audiences could potentially help explain the soaring Rotten Tomatoes scores.
“When a horror movie comes out, more genre-specific experts will be reviewing it,” says Meares. “I’m not saying they take it lightly, but maybe they have a different relationship with a third horror sequel than someone at the top of a big imprint who reviewed every movie that came out every weekend 20 years ago had to. ”
If you’re a critic writing a review for horror fans, Meares explains, you’re more likely to judge the movie by how it appeals to that particular audience.
All these changes in the industry have contributed to the fact that the publicist Andréa Grau sees a more positive attitude of the critics.
“You rarely see film reviews like 20 years ago that only destroyed one project.”
She sees a media industry geared towards celebrating cinema rather than attacking it.
“We’re all in this industry together and we all want to make sure we continue to support filmmaking. And I think film critics are one of them. “
Scores more stable for Metacritic and IMDb
News Gob also looked at the average movie reviews for broad releases on Metacritic, a competing online review aggregator, and IMDb, an online database of movie and television information.
Between 2009 and 2019, the average Metacritic scores for broad publications that assume 100 increased from 49 to 56, or 7 percent. In contrast, the values of Rotten Tomatoes increased more than twice as much over the same period.
Films now regularly do worse at Metacritic than at Rotten Tomatoes. This spring is Quiet place part II is currently 91 percent for Rotten Tomatoes, but only 71 for Metacritic.
It might seem strange that two websites that both claim to aggregate the opinions of critics could end up on two completely different ratings for the same movie, but each website uses a different method of calculating their ratings.
“It’s like comparing apples to cars,” says Gorber.
Metacritic converts each rating to a score between 0 and 100. It then uses a closely guarded formula to create a weighted average of all ratings.
With Rotten Tomatoes, on the other hand, the Tomatometer Score is nothing more than the percentage of critics who thought the film was worth watching.
According to Gross, Metacritic is also more restrictive on the criticism it accepts and relies primarily on traditional media organizations. The company was previously owned by CBS Corp. and was sold to Red Ventures in 2020.
Anyone can vote for a film on IMDb, which is owned by Amazon. Despite the potential for abuse, IMDb ratings for broad publications have remained relatively stable over the past two decades, deviating little from their 6.2 out of 10 average. Between 2009 and 2019, the values on the platform increased by three percent.
Rotten Tomatoes also hosts audience reviews, but these are not part of our data.
Since News Gob carried out the analysis independently, it is difficult to comment on our results according to Meares of Rotten Tomatoes.
While Meares hasn’t denied our data, a company spokesman claims he doesn’t have a comparable internal analysis showing that Tomatometer readings rose for broad publications between 2009 and 2019.
“We see ups and downs,” says Meares.
Meares acknowledges that 2019 was a strong year for the tomatometer, but notes that historically there are other years with high averages, such as 1939 and 1982. News Gob only looked at dates from movies made after the site was launched were released in 1998.
Even anecdotally, the realization that there are more and more fresh films on the site does not seem to be the subject of discussion among employees.
“That’s not necessarily an issue,” says Meares. “We tend to live in everyday life.”
Without a full set of accounts from Rotten Tomatoes, which has more access to its own data than any third party, it’s impossible to know exactly why the data shows the site scores are rising.
It’s more than just notes
Anyone old enough to remember Siskel & Ebert & the films can remember how many times the two critics used to be at odds. Two critics, five opinions, as the old joke says.
Now imagine trying to get 500+ critics to reach a consensus. That is exactly what the tomatometer tries to do.
Gorber believes that a lot of nuance is lost in reducing all of these conflicting opinions to a single number.
People often assume that an 80 percent on Rotten Tomatoes movie is an A-movie, and when it’s 70 percent it means it’s a B-movie. And that’s not the case 100 percent, ”says Gorber.
“Some of the greatest movies ever made are 50 percent on Rotten Tomatoes because half the audience really loved it and half the audience hated it. And sometimes these are the most exciting works in cinema of all time. “
On the other hand, he notes that a mediocre movie can easily hit 80 or 90 percent on the platform if most of the critics who saw the movie thought it was okay.
Gorber warns against making television decisions based solely on a film’s score. He believes Rotten Tomatoes is best used as a starting point for exploring the criticism, discussion, and debate surrounding a film.
“If you decide not to watch a movie because of its Rotten Tomatoes negative score, I strongly recommend that you watch some of those negative reviews and read (or at least scan them before worrying about spoilers) and make up your mind to join the conversation instead of just discarding it. “
While the company was founded during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, the name “Rotten Tomatoes” has its roots in 19th century theater.
Ever since aspiring Long Island actor John Ritchie was relentlessly tossed off the stage in 1883 by a deluge of rotten tomatoes previously distributed among the crowd, food has been the weapon of choice for the disgruntled audience. And while the Rotten Tomatoes website offers a level of sophistication this mob of bloodthirsty New Yorkers could hardly have expected, the explanatory power of these delicious, if perishable vegetables, may be limited.
News Gob downloaded every available movie review since it started cinema from Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and IMDB using the OMDb API. We limited our analysis to the past 22 years as Rotten Tomatoes has existed since 1998. It is possible that the website may use a different method of collecting reviews from older publications, which would make comparisons prior to 1999 difficult. Based on the suggestions of David A. Gross, we have also limited our analysis to broad releases, which we define as any film that, according to Box Office Mojo, has been released in at least 1,000 theaters in the United States. We checked our data for correctness and added missing values. Our results roughly agree with those of Gross, who has been independently following the average Tomatometer values for years under broad publications.