Rotten Tomatoes isn’t actually responsible for Hollywood’s woes, a data scientist finds

Hollywood may need a new scapegoat for the summer not even The Rock could save.
Hollywood may need a new scapegoat for the summer not even The Rock could save.
Image: Paramount Pictures/Frank Masi
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Some Hollywood studios blamed Rotten Tomatoes for sinking their terrible movies this summer.

Critically panned titles like King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and Baywatch tanked at the US box office early in the season and set the pace for flops that followed, like The Mummy and The Dark Tower. Meanwhile, movies that critics loved like Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Dunkirk soared at cinemas.

It gave the impression that Rotten Tomatoes, a movie-review aggregation site that takes a thumbs-up/thumbs-down approach to criticism—could make or break a Hollywood movie. It prompted some filmmakers to lash out at the review site and studios to consider holding off on reviews until closer to a film’s release date to stave off the effects of rotten scores, like Sony did with The Emoji Movie.

But, as it turns out, Rotten Tomatoes may not be the box-office buster some believe it to be.

Yves Bergquist, a data scientist at the University of Southern California’s Entertainment Technology Center, analyzed the critics and audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes for the 150 titles that grossed more than $1 million in 2017, and those since 2000 that grossed more than $2 million worldwide. He found that Rotten Tomatoes scores have never driven theatrical performances, either positively or negatively, and still do not, he wrote in a Medium post.

So why did many of the worst-reviewed movies of the summer also perform poorly at the box office, while some of the best-reviewed movies excelled?

While there was no real connection between Rotten Tomatoes scores and box-office returns, Bergquist did notice an increasing correlation between the way critics scored films on Rotten Tomatoes and the way audiences scored them. Since 2013, audiences and critics have had surprisingly similar opinions on the top-grossing films. Based on the data, they’re getting better at sensing the good and the bad on their own.

“When Hollywood executives complain about Rotten Tomatoes scores,” Bergquist wrote, “they actually complain about their audiences’ tastes, because it’s almost the same thing.”

That’s a far bigger problem for Hollywood than Rotten Tomatoes. Movie studios have become woefully out of touch with US audiences, which make up the world’s biggest box office. It could be why Hollywood had such a bad summer. The formula for making hits is broken, and studios have to innovate to connect with audiences.

Interestingly, critics on the site seem to have judged newer films more favorably in 2017 than in years past. The median Rotten Tomatoes score increased significantly from 46.5% positive reviews in 2015 to 71% in 2017 for movies that grossed over $2 million, the study found.