I kind of love bad movies. I love them in the same way I love greasy Chinese takeout, or watching back-to-back Lil' Kim videos on Youtube — I don't want them in my life all the time, but there are days when a really dumb blockbuster hits the spot.
Trouble is, I don't really want to pay for the dubious pleasures of watching one, and therein lies the problem increasingly being faced by Hollywood in an era in which Rotten Tomatoes has made it entirely possible to avoid ever paying to see a bad piece of cinema — why would any sane person part with a substantial amount of cash to watch a film they know in advance is likely to suck?
It's a paradox perfectly illustrated by this weekend's box office face-off between DC's Wonder Woman (cruising in its second weekend) and Universal's The Mummy reboot. Actually, calling it a face-off feels like overstating things, because #TheMummy barely even turned up to this clash of mythological titans, banking an unimpressive $32m this weekend versus Wonder Woman's $57m. Diana and the Amazons opened with $103m last week.
It's a gulf which can be explained largely by each film's critical reviews. Wonder Woman had been building up steam from a marketing perspective for over a month when the reviews finally hit. DC must have been sweating like tourists in Themyscira who forgot to pack their swim gear up until that point, and the relief when the Patty Jenkins-directed origin story became the first #DCEU effort to win rave reviews was palpable. A Metacritic score of 76/100 (superb by any genre standard) coupled with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 95% fresh pushed hype levels through the roof in that final week before release, generating huge box office right out the gate.
Nobody asked for a reboot of The Mummy, but even so a smart new take on the story could have won over critics. Instead, we got another one of those exhausting, apocalypse-threatening CGI behemoths which can't summon the energy to justify its own existence. With a truly painful 17% on Rotten Tomatoes, The Mummy had essentially unravelled (at least in America) by the time opening day rolled around.
So you could say that Rotten Tomatoes, and to a lesser degree the more-accurate aggregate rating system of Metacritic, are holding Hollywood hostage. As a buffer between film and audience, both websites offer a fairly dependable verdict on whether you really want to spend your hard-earned dollars on a movie — but is that necessarily a good thing? Isn't there something to be said for making your own mind up, rather than being swayed by old white men who are paid to watch movies?
Well, maybe. Tempered expectations aren't always the best substitute for going into a theater with absolutely no idea of what to expect. But we live in a world where a movie ticket costs upward of $20, and if you want the IMAX experience, you're gonna have to loiter in a shady alley and rob Martha Wayne's pearls clean off her neck. Personally, I would rather spend that money on a three-month Spotify subscription (Lil' Kim all day every day, no ads) than on two hours of watching Tom Cruise run from the ghost of good movies past.
In a Vanity Fair piece about Rotten Tomatoes, Paramount's president of distribution, Megan Colligan, states that "knowing how to proceed is a hard thing" in the face of an audience who would rather not be deceived by solid trailers disguising a bad movie. Really, though, it's not a difficult conundrum at all — the answer is, simply, to make better movies. Paramount's track record this year is horrible. Ghost In The Shell and Baywatch both crawled out of a box labelled Future $3 Discount Bin At Walmart and lost the studio a frankly disgusting amount of money.
The art of making a solid movie is not an uncrackable code. By giving the audience something different in a headline female hero, and with a smart story set in an unusual time period, Wonder Woman subverted expectations of the superhero genre and delivered something feel-good and uplifting.
Also from the Warner Bros. stable, this summer's #Dunkirk looks guaranteed to deliver smart, real-life thrills and major business at the box office — that's what happens when you hire a pro like Christopher Nolan, who also pens the script and keeps things tight. The Mummy's script and story were written by six different people. Were the odds ever really in its favor?
Hollywood is on the back foot because Rotten Tomatoes has taken the power away from the studios and gifted it instead to the audience. Those studios who do make consistently well-received films, primarily Disney and Warner Bros, will increasingly harness certified-fresh ratings in their TV advertising. The others might start withholding pre-release screenings from critics, but only for the films they know are bad, and that in itself will become a major red flag for the audience pretty swiftly.
Money talks (not literally — if it does, mine only says "stop fucking spending me, you're broke!"), and when Hollywood finally realises that there's really only one solution to the Rotten Tomatoes problem, we can probably expect a hike in the standard of blockbuster hitting our screens. But until then, the box office bloodbath of summer 2017 is unlikely to be the last — and that's really not such a bad thing.
So next weekend, enjoy that greasy Chinese takeout with no regrets. Your twenty bucks could be much, much worse-spent.