Rotten Tomatoes has fired up the anger of fans with its damning judgement of Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice. The site has stamped the $250 million-costing superhero showdown with the dreaded "rotten" sign: critics' reviews averaging at 29%. When Henry Cavill, Zack Snyder and Amy Adams were asked by Yahoo last week how this made them feel (which has the same pang of cruelty as asking someone how it was failing an exam) they said it was the fans that matter. Cavill said:
“What is really going to matter, I believe, is what the audience says."
Is Cavill just putting on a braving face, while how he really feels might be better expressed by the gloom of Ben Sadffleck during that interview? Quite possibly. The more interesting question is about the role Rotten Tomatoes, where most of these reviews are gathered, has to play in criticism. Does a poor Rotten Tomatoes rating matter?
How Does It Work?
The site is the king of the US review system. With 17 million unique monthly visitors, it's the most popular site exclusively for movie recommendations, and the fourth most- visited movie site. It gives a Tomatometer rating by rating critics' reviews as either positive or negative and aggregating the results. It mashes together all the film reviews, all the snipes and applause and gorgeous sentences bled from the critics’ fingers, and rams them into a machine. In the style of Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy out plops a neat single number. If this number is 59% or under it's "rotten," if it's at 60% or over it's "fresh." The name comes from the tradition of throwing decayed fruit at poor theater shows.
The process is not fair. The all-powerful Tomatometer is based on whether critics are deemed to give a "rotten" or "fresh" review. This black-and-white view reduces them to an up or down thumb. To paint a review that has given two stars to a movie as 100% bad is completely incorrect for it ignores any positives they may have.
Rotten Tomatoes: Rotten
It's not just movie disagreements causing controversy around Rotten Tomatoes. The site itself has been struck by some foul-smelling things thrown by the disillusioned arms of critics more than a few times since its birth in 1998. The site has been slated in the past for its simplification of criticism. Armond White, who was chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle at the time, said in a 2010 speech:
"By dumping reviewers onto one website and assigning spurious percentage-enthusiasm points to the discrete reviews, the Internet takes revenge on individual expression—the essence of criticism, if not a definition of democracy itself."
Treats Movies Like Amazon Goods
White considers the lumping together of reviews a damaging method that threatens the impact of criticism. His questioning of its role and the part Rotten Tomatoes has to play harks to the issue of squishing together reviews of a subjective work of art into a single digit — treating Batman v Superman like an Amazon product. Pierre Bourdieu said in his 1996 book On Television:
Audience ratings impose the sales model on cultural products. But it is important to know that, historically, all of the cultural productions that I consider the highest human products — math, poetry, literature, philosophy — were all produced against market imperatives.
Under Bourdieu's theory, Rotten Tomatoes could be considered a one-sided system that exclusively favors the mainstream and does not allow for lesser-marketed films to flourish. The Periphery Mag expanded on this by likening the site to "a sort of Consumer Reports of culture" so making "filmgoing, at its core, into nothing other than an economic transaction." These remarks imply that by converting criticism into comparable format, i.e. with a percentage, this bolsters the mainstream and quells the independents.
Rotten Tomatoes: Fresh
But to claim that the site is threatening the impact of reviews is true only at the basest of levels. It would be true if everyone were to read all 283 BvS reviews used by Rotten Tomatoes and came up with their own opinion independently. But unless you were writing a thesis on the movie or were the biggest fan in the world, it's unlikely.
People Aren't Stupid
Rotten Tomatoes has doubtless altered how people consume criticism at the surface. But it was never intended to be the final word on how something is rated. To claim that it is an objective criticism is to patronize movie-goers. None will visit a theater expecting to enjoy BvS at 29% of their enjoyment level. They can make up their minds on their own. They will watch in the slightly misguided belief that this proportion of critics approved of the movie, but unfortunately that's the best analysis possible in a single figure. There are a crowd of factors influencing whether someone goes to a film — no matter how rotten the Tomatometer deems. BvS proves this in having hauled in half a billion dollars internationally so far.
The rotten or fresh result may be painfully simplistic but it's also the best way to see all the reviews in a glance. While not precise by any means, it does show the critics' climate. It's quite likely most people would not read any criticism at all were it not for the Rotten Tomatoes rating, and through collecting the review links into one place it will actually help boost writers' traffic. At the very least Rotten Tomatoes helps to stoke debate about review quality — just as it has done with BvS. At the end of the day, Cavill is right — it's about what the fans say and not the critics. The pile of films that are judged "rotten" below shows how the Tomatometer does not determine whether a movie succeeds or fails.
Check out 11 times Rotten Tomatoes panned a movie and the box office looked the other way:
11. 'Bruce Almighty'
Box office: $484.6 million
10. 'Transformers: Age Of Extinction'
Box office: $1.1 billion
Box office: $497.4 million
8. 'Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides'
Box office: $1 billion
7. 'Sucker Punch' (2011)
Box office: $89.8 million
6. 'Tron: Legacy'
Box office: $400.1 million
5. 'Top Gun'
Box office: $356.8 million
4. 'The Great Gatsby' (2013)
Box office: $351 million
Box office: $553.7 million
2. 'Ice Age: Dawn Of The Dinosaurs'
Box office: $866 million
1. 'Home Alone'
Box office: $476.7 million