How Hollywood created its own worst enemy in Rotten Tomatoes

Hurts, doesn’t it?
Hurts, doesn’t it?
Image: Screenshot/Warner Bros.
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Rotten Tomatoes, which scores movies on its Tomatometer based on the share of critics on the site who gave “good” or “bad” reviews, is the go-to barometer for US films. And Hollywood encouraged it all—until things got rough.

Fairly recently, the review-aggregation site’s Certified Fresh seal of approval adorned DVDs, trailers, and other marketing materials for major movies. Its scores were featured prominently in film advertisements, just as superlative-laden blurbs (“a masterpiece,” “the best movie of the year”) quoting legendary film critics like Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, and the New York Times’ A.O. Scott were used to sway audiences to see one movie over another.

That changed this year.

Studios, producers, actors, and industry insiders turned their backs on the site. Film director and producer Brett Ratner, of the Rush Hour films, called Rotten Tomatoes “the destruction of our business” in March. One major movie-company chief told the New York Times (paywall) last month that it was “his mission was to destroy the review-aggregation site.” A few studios, like Sony, withheld reviews until just before a film’s release to lessen the impact of Rotten Tomatoes scores on the opening-weekend box office. And others quietly shunned the scores and pulled them from their marketing materials or gave them less prominence.

During the summer, lots of would-be blockbusters that were slammed by critics, like Baywatch, The Mummy, The Dark Tower, and King Arthur, bombed at the box office. It was the worst-attended summer movie season (paywall) in the US in 25 years. And returns—measured from the first Friday in May through Labor Day weekend in the US—fell 15% from last year to $3.8 billion, the lowest-performing summer since 2005, according to comScore data.

Rotten Tomatoes has become a scapegoat for Hollywood’s problems. But it was Hollywood that gave Rotten Tomatoes its enormous influence over moviegoers to begin with.

From the dorm to Fandango

The review-aggregator was started in 1998 as a side gig by Senh Duong, who founded a design firm that created websites for movies and TV shows with his college buddies Patrick Lee and Stephen Wang. Duong was a movie buff and avid reader of film reviews. While hunting for reviews of a Jackie Chan film—ironically, right around the time the actor starred in Ratner’s Rush Hour—it occurred to Duong that it’d be easier for people decide what movies to see if reviews—both good and bad—were available from a variety of critics all in one place.

Most reviews weren’t on the internet then. Duong spent his spare time combing through newspapers. He and the team compiled every quote they could find in advertisements and other parts of the papers on the site that became known as Rotten Tomatoes when it launched.

The name and use of decomposing fruit to illustrate critical consensus harkened back to the days in which irate audiences would take to throwing whatever they could find at the stage to express their displeasure at the theater. The site took off almost immediately. But it was attention from Hollywood that convinced Duong, Lee, and Wang to pursue the business full-time. Lee told Tech in Asia:

Pretty soon after the launch, we noticed a big spike in traffic. It was the day that A Bug’s Life came out. And when we looked into the IP addresses, we realized it was actually coming from Pixar. From what we could tell, someone at Pixar probably found our page, sent it to everyone else at Pixar, and they were just refreshing like crazy to see as we added more reviews.

…We were like, ‘Hey, you know, people in the film industry are actually using the site. Maybe we should run this as a business?’

After raising about $1 million, the site officially launched in 2000 with the goal of being the thumbs up or thumbs down of the movie world. In 2004, it sold to IGN Entertainment, which owned a string of entertainment sites about TV, film, and gaming. After IGN’s ownership changed hands, Rotten Tomatoes was sold to Flixster in 2010. When the site was bought by Warner Bros. a year later, Rotten Tomatoes became a subsidiary of one of the very movie studios whose films it scored.

By this time, the review-aggregator had partnerships with brands like MSNBC, the video-on-demand service Vudu, and most notably Apple, which incorporated the Tomatometer into iTunes, giving the review-aggregator more reach and notoriety. The media also began reporting on Rotten Tomatoes’s Tomatometer scores and using the site as a barometer for critical consensus.

Other studios and filmmakers took notice as Rotten Tomatoes drew larger and larger audiences. “I know that almost everybody in the industry is checking our site,” Matt Atchity, Rotten Tomatoes’ editor-in-chief, told TheWrap in 2012. “I know that filmmakers are checking our site the day a movie opens, because they’ll challenge any review that they think is borderline.”

Like Duong used to, Rotten Tomatoes staffers scour the web (paywall) for movie reviews and determine whether they are mostly positive or mostly negative. Films with at least 60% positive reviews are illustrated with a fresh tomato. The others are deemed rotten. And those that regularly receive at least 75% positive reviews earn the coveted Certified Fresh badge. It’s not a perfect system, and sometimes filmmakers and reviewers push back.

Viewers have risen up against the site, too; fans of DC’s Suicide Squad, who didn’t seem to realize the site was previously owned by DC parent-company Warner Bros., called for its closure last summer after the movie was “unjustly” panned.

In the industry, the move to integrate Rotten Tomatoes into the ticket-buying site Fandango may have been a catalyst for the about-face on Rotten Tomatoes that had been simmering. Things may have come to a head when Comcast, which owns studio NBCUniversal, took the reins of Rotten Tomatoes in February 2016 when its subsidiary, Fandango, bought Flixster and integrated the Tomatometer into its ticket-buying site. (Warner Bros. took a minority stake in Fandango as part of the deal.)

Suddenly, Rotten Tomatoes scores could directly influence not only home-video purchases on places like iTunes and Vudu, but box-office returns. A Rotten score next to a buy button could subtly undermine a purchase, while a positive score could reinforce it—at least that was the thinking among Hollywood insiders. (Never mind that a data scientist recently found Rotten Tomatoes scores have had no noticeable impact on box-office returns.)

‘Your Opinion Sucks’

The industry says Rotten Tomatoes eliminates the nuance in film criticism and boils everything that is good and bad about a movie down into a simple percentage. The Tomatometer score also conflates reviews from established critics with those from the average joe who publishes a review on a blog. Its rival, CBS’s Metacritic, meanwhile, takes a more high-brow approach that gives more weight to reviews from professional critics.

Rotten Tomatoes, for now, doesn’t seem too fazed by the push-back from its own industry. It has continued to grow, adding TV reviews and developing original content like the aptly name web-video seriesYour Opinion Sucks. But the site did suffer a 26% drop in US traffic this August, compared to last summer, comScore data showed.

Fandango did not immediately return Quartz’s request for comment on what led to the drop.

Perhaps Rotten Tomatoes, as integrated into Hollywood is it is, is also subject to the same forces that stunted the US box office this summer—waning interest in new releases driven by Hollywood’s reliance on staid sequels and reboots, and greater competition from TV and streaming services.