“I think it’s the destruction of our business.”
This quote comes from director Brett Ratner at a film festival this year. What did Ratner claim was destroying the film business? Rotten Tomatoes, the review aggregate website. Basically, because Rotten Tomatoes lacks nuance and throws scores together by 'reviewers,' it's not a good system and is the cause of films like Baywatch or King Arthur under-performing.
Of course, in order to accept this, you would have to pretend that this was the first time that Hollywood has tried this blame game. It's not, they actually do this quite a lot. This time they've picked Rotten Tomatoes as the scapegoat. Instead, let's debunk the idea that Rotten Tomatoes is destroying the movie business and talk about two of the other times that the industry pulled this stunt.
Attack Of The Rotten Tomatoes
Fun Fact: There are some pretty specific hoops one has to jump through in order to become an official Rotten Tomatoes reviewer. For example, an online critic has to publish 100 reviews over two years at a Tomatometer-approved publication with an average of at least 300 words per review. These standards allow diversity of opinion. Most mainstream critics tend to be old white men, so by casting a wider net they can include voices of women and people of color.
Here's how this works on the site: the film Get Out got almost universal acclaim with a 99% fresh rating based on 281 "Fresh" ratings and two "Rotten" ones. Those two rotten ones included Jeff Beck, who gave it a 3/5 (Which is a good score, no matter what anyone says), and Armond White from the National Review, who called the movie inept and race baiting. When this happened, Armond got blasted because he broke Get Out's 100% rating. Honestly, I'm not a fan of Armond's work, mostly because he appears to be trolling with his reviews designed to upset liberals. His Wonder Woman review opened with "Gal Gadot is a tomboy superheroine designed for our PC times."
He wants politically-left individuals to dislike him but he follows the guidelines and, while I do not agree with his conclusions, there are some who think like him so Rotten Tomatoes treats him like any other reviewer. Even his reviews affect the score.
That's all Rotten Tomatoes does: it takes hundreds of reviews and condenses them to give the public a general sense of a movie's quality. Hollywood blaming their bad year on a review aggregate implies that they believe they would make more money if the audience didn't know ahead of time the quality of the movie. They want to blame the entire downfall of the movie industry on this one website. It would be shocking if it wasn't the first time that they've tried this.
Be Kind, Rewind
Remember when you could go out, buy a VHS tape and record something when it aired? Walt Disney and Universal remember, because they sued Sony in order to stop that in 1979. The case was Sony Corp of America v. Universal City Studios and they argued that Sony's Betamax encouraged copyright infringement. Sony won, as the taping of shows was classed as "time shifting" and not copyright infringement. Even with that ruling, the studios continued the rallying cry that VHS was going to destroy the industry with all the alleged copyright abuse.
Well, spoilers, that didn't happen. The '80s were a bit of a slow time for the movie market but the rise of the VHS saved it and allowed them to continue by making films specifically for the home market. Yet they wanted the consumer to be unable to purchase a blank VHS tape and record an airing of Cheers because they thought that was copyright infringement.
Here's how extreme the hatred of VCRs was, from the mouth of Jack Valenti himself when he testified to Congress in 1982:
"I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone."
That's the head of the MPAA (at the time) telling congress that VHS tapes are the equivalent to a serial killer. Apparently it's just not fair that consumers get to consume products how they choose. Meanwhile, it's evident that VHS tapes did nothing negative to the industry. The industry adapted and offered the service that the customers wanted, customers rewarded them with money and things got better — until we got internet.
A Pirates Life For Me
With the VHS tape no longer an excuse for why Hollywood wasn't making all the money, they needed a new target. Thanks to Napster, they got one. Studios screamed how piracy was destroying the industries of entire nations, directors called people who download movies "parasites," news stories accused the internet of destroying the entertainment market.
So let's put this into perspective. In 2011, the site Torrentfreak published a list of the top 10 Most Pirated Movies Of All Time. Number one on that list was Avatar at 21 million downloads, but the highest grossing film of all time is also Avatar. Go back to that list and notice that every movie on it (except Kick Ass) made well over $100 million. They all, without exception, made their budgets back and then some.
Let me be clear, I'm not advocating piracy, but it didn't destroy the industry, it just forced them to change. They had to offer a competing service and it paid off. Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime are examples of the industry trying to offer what the pirates offered, except in higher quality and with people being paid. Are there flaws in that system? Sure, but it's a pretty good start. Why would anyone bother pirating a movie when a service will have it to stream, take up less hard drive space and remember their place if they have to run an errand?
Throw The Tomatoes
And so we return to Rotten Tomatoes. Hollywood blames it for people not going to see certain movies, but is it at fault? Let's look at The Emoji Movie. That movie has a 10% on Rotten Tomatoes. Going by the premise of Ratner's quote, that low a score should mean that the film does horribly right? As of right now, after six weeks of release, it's at $172 million at the box office.
Now let's look at a good kids movie. Captain Underpants currently sits at 87% on Rotten Tomatoes, it's getting a ton of critical praise, it's been out for 14 weeks, and it's made $104 million, just a little over half of what The Emoji Movie made. If Rotten Tomatoes was as powerful as the industry claims it is, those box office numbers would be switched around.
Rotten Tomatoes is just a tool that some people use to pick what movie they're going to see and to get an idea of it's quality — but it's not everything. Critics and audiences have always had varied opinions on movies. A film critic tries to put the film in a context, to explore what does and doesn't work about the film and to point out flaws, while the average moviegoer wants to be captivated for a couple hours and doesn't need a film to be much above "entertaining".
What's Actually Wrong With Hollywood?
Hollywood hasn't yet adapted to our time. It hasn't figured out that you don't need to spend hundreds of millions in order to make money, and in fact, it's better to just make a cheaper film that gets people to show up. If a studio makes good movies, it doesn't need to worry about anything else. Get Out was a fantastic movie — it had a $5 million budget, but made $250 million. Why? People will go to see good films if they know they're there!
Hollywood still takes an eternity to allow their films to be put on streaming services, and audiences still have an arbitrary several-month waiting period between the end of the theatrical run and the home video release. They also think that it's fine to take months to release films internationally. In Australia, Captain Underpants was just released in September, a film that's been out in the USA since June. They held it back, waiting for the September holidays, which is about two weeks long. Meanwhile they could've released it here in June, enjoyed a month of holiday box office. What was to stop me from downloading it instead of waiting till September? Morality — that's all they have to hope for.
How Does Hollywood Fix This?
Instead of blaming (Rotten Tomatoes/downloads/VHS/whatever comes next) for not making every dollar on the planet, what if Hollywood just adapted to the times? If they're so scared of a bad review on a site named after a fruit is killing the industry, then they can't afford to spend that much.
Hollywood needs to treat their customers better. Give audiences access to the products that they are willing to pay for instead of smacking them for trying to get it another way. If the studios partnered with Netflix and put out every movie that they have in their (considerable) vaults, charging a slightly higher monthly fee, piracy would die. It would become a steady, permanent stream of cash from around the world and all they'd have to do is give people the chance to see the movies they made.
Do you use Rotten Tomatoes before going to a movie? How does it influence your decision?