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Attacked by Rotten Tomatoes

Hollywood had a horrible summer.

Between the first weekend in May and Labor Day, a sequel-stuffed period that typically accounts for 40 percent of annual ticket sales, box office revenue in North America totaled $3.8 billion, a 15 percent decline from the same span last year. To find a slower summer, you would have to go back 20 years. Business has been so bad that America’s three biggest theater chains have lost roughly $4 billion in market value since May.

Ready for the truly alarming part? Hollywood is blaming a website: Rotten Tomatoes.

“I think it’s the destruction of our business,” Brett Ratner, the director, producer and film financier, said at a film festival this year.

Some studio executives privately concede that a few recent movies — just a few — were simply bad. Flawed marketing may have played a role in a couple of other instances, they acknowledged, along with competition from Netflix and Amazon.

But most studio fingers point toward Rotten Tomatoes, which boils down hundreds of reviews to give films “fresh” or “rotten” scores on its Tomatometer. The site has surged in popularity, attracting 13.6 million unique visitors in May, a 32 percent increase above last year’s total for the month, according to the analytics firm comScore.

Studio executives’ complaints about Rotten Tomatoes include the way its Tomatometer hacks off critical nuance, the site’s seemingly loose definition of who qualifies as a critic and the spread of Tomatometer scores across the web. Last year, scores started appearing on Fandango, the online movie ticket-selling site, leading to grousing that a rotten score next to the purchase button was the same as posting this message: You are an idiot if you pay to see this movie.

Mr. Ratner’s sentiment was echoed almost daily in studio dining rooms all summer, although not for attribution, for fear of giving Rotten Tomatoes more credibility. Over lunch last month, the chief executive of a major movie company looked me in the eye and declared flatly that his mission was to destroy the review-aggregation site.

Kersplat: “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” got a Tomatometer score of 28 — anything under 60 is marked rotten — and audiences stayed away. After costing Warner Bros. at least $175 million to make, the movie took in $39 million at the domestic box office. In total.

The 36 people who work for Rotten Tomatoes hardly seem like industry killers. The site’s staff occupies a relatively ordinary Beverly Hills office complex — albeit one with conference rooms named “La La Land” and “Oz” — and includes people like Jeff Voris, an easygoing former Disney executive with graying hair who oversees operations, and Timothy Ryan, a former newspaper reporter who is a Rotten Tomatoes senior editor and lists “Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide” as favorite reading.

The employee with the pink mohawk is Grae Drake, senior movie editor. She does a lot of video interviews and lately has been helping to fill a void created when Matt Atchity left as editor in chief in July for a bigger job at TYT Network, an online video company.

Jeff Giles, a 12-year Rotten Tomatoes veteran and the author of books like “Llanview in the Afternoon: An Oral History of ‘One Life to Live’,” writes what the site calls Critics Consensus, a one-sentence summary of the response to each film. (Disney’s latest “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie was summarized as proving “that neither a change in directors nor an undead Javier Bardem is enough to drain this sinking franchise’s murky bilge.”)

“Everyone here sweats the details every day,” said Paul Yanover, the president of Fandango, which owns Rotten Tomatoes. “Because we are serious movie fans ourselves, our priority — our entire focus — is being as useful to fans as we absolutely can be.”

Hold on a minute. Fandango?

Yes. In an absurdist plot twist, Rotten Tomatoes is owned by film companies. Fandango, a unit of NBCUniversal, which also owns Universal Pictures, has a 75 percent stake, with the balance held by Warner Bros. Fandango bought control from Warner last year for an undisclosed price. (All parties insist that Rotten Tomatoes operates independently.)

Mr. Yanover said it was silly for studios to make Rotten Tomatoes a box office scapegoat.

“There is no question that there is some correlation to box office performance — critics matter — but I don’t think Rotten Tomatoes can definitively make or break a movie in either direction,” he said. “Anyone who says otherwise is cherry-picking examples to create a hypothesis.”

He cited “Wonder Woman,” which was the No. 1 movie of the summer, with $410 million in ticket sales. It was undoubtedly helped by a strong Tomatometer score of 92. “Dunkirk,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” all received high scores and drew huge crowds. Other films did not do well on the Tomatometer (“The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” “The Emoji Movie”) but still managed to find audiences.

Some filmmakers complain bitterly that Rotten Tomatoes casts too wide a critical net. The site says it works with some 3,000 critics worldwide, including bloggers and YouTube-based pundits. But should reviewers from Screen Junkies and Punch Drunk Critics really be treated as the equals of those from The Los Angeles Times and The New Yorker?

Mr. Yanover rejected those complaints, pointing to the site’s posted requirements. (“Online critics must have published no less than 100 reviews across two calendar years at a single, Tomatometer-approved publication,” for instance.) He also noted that critics at traditional outlets tended to be white men and that Rotten Tomatoes wanted to include female and minority voices.

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