Hollywood: Rotten to the Core


Instead of Hollywood addressing its issues regarding quality films, they're content using Rotten Tomatoes as a scapegoat.

By Sean Franklin

Instead of Hollywood addressing its issues regarding quality films, they’re content using Rotten Tomatoes as a scapegoat. (Courtesy of Flickr)

This summer was not good for Hollywood’s bottom line. Box office revenues fell by almost 20 percent compared to last summer, marking the lowest point for summer ticket sales in almost 15 years. Now, common sense would suggest that maybe audiences just weren’t as interested in this summer’s crop of movies and therefore didn’t turn out to see them. However, Hollywood executives had another scapegoat in mind: Rotten Tomatoes.

Rotten Tomatoes is a film-review aggregation site. It takes reviews from thousands of critics and combines them to create a “Rotten Tomatoes score”: the ratio of positive to negative reviews. A movie with eight positive reviews and two negative reviews would receive a Rotten Tomatoes score of 80 percent, indicating that 80 percent of the critics who watched the movie viewed it favorably and 20 percent did not. A Rotten Tomatoes score is essentially a measure of how broad a film’s appeal is. It serves as a useful benchmark for how well-liked the film is among the critical community, and acts as an indicator of a film’s quality. Rotten Tomatoes’ clout has grown in recent years – the site reached an all-time high of 13.6 million unique visitors in May. Rotten Tomatoes scores are also displayed on Fandango, a ticket-purchasing site, and next to Google searches for a particular film. They’re pretty ubiquitous these days – whenever you look for a film online, it’s likely that you’ll come across its Rotten Tomatoes score.

In a recent series of interviews with The New York Times’ Brooks Barnes, Hollywood executives expressed significant distaste for Rotten Tomatoes, arguing that it was sabotaging their business with its increased consumer influence. This argument is specious in a number of ways. First of all, Rotten Tomatoes is not a review agency – they simply collect and aggregate the opinions of the critical community at large. Also, Rotten Tomatoes is owned by Fandango, which is a joint venture between NBC Universal and Warner Bros. Rotten Tomatoes is owned by the very media corporations who are attacking it.

But most of all, Rotten Tomatoes is merely a reflection of popular preferences, not the source of them. To suggest that Rotten Tomatoes is to blame for poor box office numbers is to miss the point entirely. There’s a very simple explanation for why people didn’t go out to the movies as much this summer – there wasn’t a whole lot worth seeing. From the stale sequels (Transformers: The Last Night, Despicable Me 3, Alien: Covenant) to the remakes no one asked for (Baywatch, The Mummy) to the shameless cash grabs (The Emoji Movie), it was a very bad summer for “quality” movies. When studios put out bad movies, people aren’t going to head to the cinema as often.

This would seem to be an easy conclusion to draw. If you’re not making as much money on the movies that you’re putting out, maybe you should make different movies.

Hollywood’s formula as of late has been franchise-based: an endless stream of sequels, spin-offs, and remakes. Of the top 10 highest-grossing movies this summer, only Dunkirk and Girls Trip were original concepts. The other eight were sequels or entries in “cinematic universes,” which seem to be all the rage these days. Creativity in Hollywood is sagging, and their numbers are suffering as a result. Franchises are no longer the sure bets they used to be. What audiences really want is movies that tell a good story. Even in 2017, you can see this in the numbers. There were certainly movies that did very well at the box office even if they were part of established franchises, such as Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 or War for the Planet of the Apes.

These movies all had one thing in common: they were well-made and had compelling plots. But name recognition alone is no guarantee of success, and some franchise films this summer performed very poorly at the box office, especially if measured against their budgets. If you follow the money, you can see that what audience want to see is quality films. This makes it all the more troubling that studios are pointing blame at Rotten Tomatoes instead of engaging in a little introspection. They certainly seem to have noticed that movies with worse Rotten Tomatoes scores tend to do worse at the box office. This isn’t because of Rotten Tomatoes itself, though – it’s because those movies are the ones that critics and audiences saw as bad. People don’t want to see rehashed movies, and poor reviews and word-of-mouth usually go hand in hand. If Hollywood realized that, they might start making better movies, and that would be beneficial for everyone – studios and audiences alike.

Sean Franklin, FCRH ’21, is an urban studies major from Alexandria, Virginia.