2017 has been a rough year for Hollywood. Although we've had some wonderful surprises, such as Wonder Woman and Dunkirk, the reality is that this summer has seen a 16% drop on last year's box office. You have to go back 20 years to find a slower summer in the multiplex.
Naturally, Hollywood executives are looking at the stats rather gloomily, trying to work out who to blame and what to do about the situation. Director Brett Ratner set the tune back in March, declaring review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes to be "the destruction of our business." By all accounts, studio execs are agreeing with him. New York Times journalist Brooks Barnes reported that the chief executive of a major studio looked him in the eye and declared that his mission was to destroy Rotten Tomatoes.
You can see why it's tempting to blame Rotten Tomatoes for the bad box office performance. Baywatch bombed after a score of 19% and King Arthur and the Legend of the Sword grossed only $39 million in the domestic box office, after a score of 28%. Surely there's a correlation between a poor Rotten Tomatoes score and the box office takings?
Until now, we'd only been able to argue on point of principle. Now, a new study has finally given us some solid analysis that suggest Rotten Tomatoes isn't to blame for declining box office sales.
Let's Do The Number-Crunching
As director of the Data & Analytics Project at USC’s Entertainment Technology Center, Yves Bergquist is no stranger to number-crunching. Intrigued by the debate, he's decided to do the math. After all, it's pretty easy to plot the relationship between two variables, in this case a Rotten Tomatoes score and box office takings. Bergquist took two approaches; first he did a long-term analysis, looking at figures from 2000 through to the present. Then, he looked at figures for 2017 to date.
Both times, Bergquist found the same result; there was no meaningful correlation between Rotten Tomatoes scores and total box office gross. There was even less correlation when he checked these figures against each film's opening weekend. Bergquist concluded that Rotten Tomatoes simply doesn't influence the box office to any significant extent. As he pointedly observed:
"It’s unclear how much of some creative executives’ opinions related by The New York Times reflect actual belief that critics are hurting the top line, and how much they reflect the need to scapegoat Rotten Tomatoes."
A Critical Analysis — How Reliable Is This Assessment?
It's worth stressing that Bergquist's work is only a first step in testing the stats. The most notable gap is the fact that he compared global box office takings with Rotten Tomatoes scores. A deep-dive into 2017 figures will immediately point to a growing disparity between foreign and domestic markets. Take the example of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, which grossed only $172 million in the domestic box office. The film's fate was saved by a strong overseas performance, though, earning $621 million internationally. Is it possible that Rotten Tomatoes influences the U.S. box office more than it does the international one?
That's a valid argument, but it's actually unlikely given the U.S. market remains the dominant one for the film industry. Bergquist would still be seeing some sort of correlation, albeit a weaker one, but found no trace of that.
So What Does It Mean?
Let's be honest: Rotten Tomatoes is just a convenient scapegoat. It's easier for studio execs to blame the review aggregate site than it is to ask certain difficult questions. After all, if Rotten Tomatoes is not to be blamed for this summer's box office takings, it instead means that it's the studios who are getting it wrong.
Bergquist's number crunching may not have pinned the blame on Rotten Tomatoes, but it did identify one trend that should worry studios. He found that there's an increasing correlation between critic and audience scores on the aggregate site. Intriguingly, the more successful the film, the closer the correlation. In this media-rich environment, it seems that viewers are becoming increasingly critical themselves. As Bergquist noted:
"Audiences are becoming experts at smelling a “bad” movie and staying away."
The upshot of this is simple: when studios complain about Rotten Tomatoes scores, they should actually be recognizing that audience tastes are changing. Chief executives at Hollywood shouldn't be making it their mission to destroy Rotten Tomatoes; their mission should be to make films that their audiences want to see.
Rotten Tomatoes' scores aren't responsible for this year's poor box office. Rather, they're an increasingly accurate indicator that Hollywood has been failing to give viewers the kind of films they want. In this media-rich environment, viewers are becoming more discerning. Rinse-and-repeat sequels won't cut it any more. There needs to be more reason for a movie than just the hope of launching another franchise or cinematic universe. Tropes that have been used for decades have grown stale with age, and viewers don't like their taste any more.
The sad truth is that Bergquist's stats won't end this debate. I'm pretty confident that a lot of studio execs will find it easier dismiss his analysis, to argue that his methods are flawed and that they trust their instincts instead. If they do so though, then I'm also confident that next year's box office will contain a lot of disappointments too.
Do you think Rotten Tomatoes is a positive force in the entertainment industry? Let me know in the comments!