Spoiled Crowds: Is Rotten Tomatoes Good for the Movie Industry?
Is it better to trust the wisdom of crowds in deciding what to watch?
Rotten Tomatoes is a website that aggregates reviews and ratings across the internet for movies and TV shows to give general consensus ratings. It was started back in 1998 by Senh Duong with two of his friends from University of California, Berkeley, originally as a project to aggregate reviews from a new Jackie Chan film. It was a hit immediate after launch, and within a couple years was getting tens of thousands of visitors each day. Over the years, the website expanded to include audience as well as critics scores and began including results for television shows.
Rotten Tomatoes calculates its ratings by pulling reviews from major publications or other news sources. This can be challenging, as the RT team must determine who counts as a valid and qualified critic. It maintains standards which include source approval (e.g. a top 100 newspaper or magazine, or top ten entertainment publication or show in a top 10 market) or be a critic belonging to one of a handful of approved critic societies. Still, the RT team has some discretion of whom to include in their critic rankings.
Rotten Tomatoes also uses larger crowds for their audience ranking scores. These rankings are submitted directly through the Rotten Tomatoes website (RT scores an audience review “fresh” if it has a ranking of 3.5 or higher). While the critic scores are qualified and verified to come from a select number of sources, anyone can submit an audience ranking, occasionally allowing for some stark contrasts in tastes to be seen. In December of 2017, Star Wars: The Last Jedi received a 91% fresh score from critics while only a 48% from audiences. Netflix’s original Bright starring Will Smith, however, maintains a 27% critic score and an 84% audience score. Still, the majority of films and shows tend to be in more lockstep.
Rotten Tomatoes primary source of revenue comes from advertising on its site. Programmatic banner ads align most pages, many of which focus on new film releases and upcoming TV shows. To generate more traffic to their site, RT maintains an active news section as well, with industry commentary and entertainment columns. Other attempts at using the platform as a vehicle to launch content initiatives have mostly failed though. In 2009, The Rotten Tomatoes Show was launched on Current TV, but was cancelled a little over a year later. In November 2017, a new web series launched on Facebook entitled See It/Skip It.
Rotten Tomatoes impact on the entertainment industry has become a hotly debated topic in recent years. The ticketing website Fandango—which shares parent companies with Rotten Tomatoes—even integrates the tomatometer scores onto its platform, so movie goers are aware of general consensus before they see a movie.
Some film executives blame poor box office performance on a low critic scores on the site, complaining that the system that ranks a review as either fresh or spoiled eliminates the nuance of each review, and stops audiences from trying out new films. Others have gone further, even changing marketing and distribution decisions for upcoming releases to prevent any “Rotten Tomato effects.” Studios trying to create bandwagon effects have chosen to show certain films to select critics at first, attempting to build a better score before wider distribution. Others have even put entire review embargos on films before their release. In the summer of 2017, Sony prevented reviews of its animated feature The Emoji Movie until the day of release. Despite its spoiled score of 8%, it opening weekend sales totaled $24.5 million. Much of this was, so one theory holds, due to families making their weekend plans to see the movie before critical consensus of it being a failure had reached the mainstream.
But the bandwagon effects can enhance performance as well. Films like Baby Driver attempted to use its Rotten Tomatoes score in the high 90s to lure people to the film over the summer of 2017. Others have certainly tried as well, though to what extent they have been successful is debated.
Rotten Tomatoes has certainly impacted the way in which we think about which films to see. No longer do most people rely on one or two critics for an opinion on the quality of the films they see, but rather they rely on crowds, both audience and critical, to generate a consensus. Whether this is good for the industry in the long-run is questionable.
Student comments on Spoiled Crowds: Is Rotten Tomatoes Good for the Movie Industry?
It’s interesting to compare the Rotten Tomatoes approach to rating media to the rating methods employed by other media sites such as Netflix. Netflix does not leverage crowd ratings but rather assigns a “% fit” based on the other content you have previously watched. While this customized rating system has the potential to deliver better recommendations for users, it also creates the risk of bias; for example, Netflix can give their own original content higher scores, potentially unfairly. The crowd in the case of Rotten Tomatoes eliminates this bias but also creates an either virtuous cycle or a doom loop in which films that are rated well will get more viewers and more positive reviews and films that are rated poorly will not get viewers and thus ratings will stay low.
Thanks for writing! I’m not too sympathetic to movie studios (e.g., Sony and Emoji Movie example from above) who complain about reviews diminishing demand – bad products shouldn’t “deserve” to make money just because there was money spent producing it. Movie studios also benefit plenty from positively reviewed films, which to me makes any stance against reviews somewhat hypocritical. On the crowdsourcing element – I’ve always been curious why users post reviews onto these sites (RT and IMDB). What specific incentives are being offered, other than the opportunity for people on the internet to view your opinions?
This is an interesting take on the role of reviews. I would say one thing that a platform like Rotten Tomatoes fails to offer is the different utilities of a film. RT aggregates reviews in a fairly standardized process, hoping that the wisdom of the widest crowd possible will be a proxy for taste. But this has left a lot of white space for verticals and those who curate content to a niche audience. For example, it’s easy to s*** on emoji movie because it lacks depth and everyone can be a movie critique, but the ‘job to be done’ for a family that weekend may have been to entertain a group of kids on a saturday afternoon. Only the most sophisticated reviews take this wholistic approach in separating utility of the film. Personally I trust the r/Movies subreddit on what films I should see more than RT because when I look at that subreddit I believe the taste of the aggregated crowd is more in line with my own taste. As more films and TV are made and option fatigue becomes a serious reality, I think RT will struggle to be the expert curator for niches leaving tons of room for new trusted channels.
I find the model of Rotten Tomatoes an interesting one. As you mention, they leverage external sources and crowds to generate a rating. My concern is that people do not need much time in order to see a rating, especially if they are not looking for specific reviews but just for an aggregate number. Thus, I assume the time users spend in the platform is low, which diminishes the company’s ability to generate revenues from advertising to a certain extent. From the company’s perspective, I would try to increase the value I generate for users within the website in order to keep them engaged. As you mentioned, they have an active news section, but I question if they have been able to create enough awareness and credibility in this to truly engage customers.
There’s also the question of what this does to the art of criticism. There used to be far more movie critics, employed by most local papers, but with consolidation of newspapers, and the ability to syndicate the opinions of a few critics, there’s a significant decline. Beyond just the recommendation of “watch this, skip that,” critics provide a valuable service in not only assessing, but analyzing and expanding on a movie’s themes. Reviews can be used as service journalism, but the best of them build on the dialogue a movie (particularly a good one) starts. Some papers, like the New York Times, even eschew ratings at all, providing only prose reviews of movies with the occasional “critic’s pick” marking. I love Rotten Tomatoes (and check it every time I go to the theater), but I really hope it doesn’t destroy the very crowd it aggregates.
I had a similar reaction to your article. What is the “Rotten Tomatoes Effect” on movie critics? I could see how group-think can creep into movie criticism as a result of Rotten Tomatoes. For example, some critics may try to avoid going against the trend and recommending a rotten film, or criticizing a fresh film, since it might impact their credibility or reputation. Also, Rotten Tomatoes might distort reviews for movies with politically or socially sensitive messages, for fear of backlash from special interest groups (it’s easy to sort reviews on RT by “fresh” or “rotten”. In the end, I wonder if we’re heading towards a polarized fresh/rotten movie world.
I also check Rotten Tomatoes before I go to any movie. And I’ve been dissuaded from going to a movie due to a rotten rating (I’ll wait for it to be released on the long-haul plane flights). But for me, I avoid prose reviews of movies prior to watching. Reading them before watching seems to impact my experience of the movie… it’s almost like a non-plot spoiler.
Thanks for this! With regards to embargoing reviews, I wonder if there are any market norms or deals in place to regulate this action? In theory any movie scared of bad reviews could embargo, weakening the role of RT, at least for a while.
Separately, I wonder if there will be a world in which the Academy adopts a crowdsourcing model for their awards. Other entertainment products, notably the All Stars for sports leagues, include at least some component of fan engagement (not that these are brilliant examples given the ability for fans to vote myriad times). This could increase movie viewership and revenues, but would risk diluting the “art” of the review as Peter mentions above.
Super interesting, great post! One way to see if Rotten Tomatoes is actually affecting movie sales would be to look at the Rotten Tomatoes scores for movies that came out before the site existed (many still have scores that were added after the fact), and see if the correlation between scores to box office is the same as what we see today.
Thanks for writing this post. Ultimately, by aggregating some much data from crowds with different perpsectives, Rotten Tomatoes should, in most cases, provide an accurate picture of both quality and enjoyability of any given movies. Rather than complaining about the impact Rotten Tomatoes might have on a movie release, it would seem that studios should focus on improving the quality of their product to ensure that Rotten Tomatoes, and similar services, act as an endorser of their product.