Rotten Tomatoes Is Causing Hollywood's Latest Existential Crisis

No one wanted "The Emoji Movie." Get over it.

In Hollywood ― as in fashion ― one day you’re in, and the next day you’re out. Executives and creatives alike have been feeling that burn a lot lately, as many movies based on established properties struggle to score home runs at the box office. Now there’s a convenient scapegoat: Rotten Tomatoes. 

A Hollywood Reporter story published Wednesday breezes through the strategies that film studios and promoters are employing to skirt a damning score from Rotten Tomatoes, where movies are assigned percentages indicating how many positive reviews they received. Earn 90 percent or higher, and it’s a marketing tool: “Get Out,” “Wonder Woman” and “Detroit” have touted their near-perfect averages in TV spots. Earn a dismal rating, and those associated with the movie claim Rotten Tomatoes is ruining Hollywood.

That polarity has endless layers. The Hollywood Reporter’s piece cites various box-office analysts who say Rotten Tomatoes “can be damaging to the bottom line for films that people are on the fence about.” But that’s an oversimplification, even if the site is a glorified Consumer Reports. 

Rotten Tomatoes does have its problems ― two big ones, in my estimation. First, men comprise the majority of critics on the site, so the scores can represent a limited point of view. Secondly, the thumbs-up/thumbs-down approach to arts criticism ― arguably popularized by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel’s weekly TV show, which premiered in 1975 ― reduces moviegoing to a binary. When everything must be categorically good or bad, there’s no room for nuance.

But movie ticket prices continue to balloon, and steering people toward quality movies is not the fundamental issue. Studio executives, as well as directors who say asinine things like “I made this for the fans, not the critics,” are embarrassing themselves by blaming Rotten Tomatoes for their projects’ failings. 

With television and the internet a finger’s length away, there’s no doubt that moviegoing no longer has the glamorous hold on American culture that it once did. But, generally speaking, the problem is the movies themselves ― or at least the reboots, like “Baywatch,” and the endless sequels, like “Transformers: What’s Even Going On Anymore?”, and the odd cash grabs, like “The Emoji Movie,” which have little luster among North American patrons in the first place. 

So, what’s a studio to do? After all, the major companies now green-light movies years in advance, and sometimes it seems like they don’t give two thoughts to audience appeal. Case in point: June’s “The Mummy,” which is meant to launch Universal Pictures’ costly “Dark Universe” monster franchise, even though it has a frightening 16 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and failed to crack $100 million at the domestic box office. As a defense mechanism, studios have been screening bad movies for critics one or two nights before they open, leaving hardly any time for reviews to percolate. That happened with Friday’s new releases, “The Dark Tower” and “Kidnap,” both of which screened Wednesday night and inspired brutal reviews by Thursday morning. That’s a strategy that directly implicates Rotten Tomatoes’ effect on revenue.

If anything, this summer’s success stories involve two things: “Wonder Woman” (the first major superhero movie directed by and starring a woman), and original fare that outperformed analysts’ expectations, as “Get Out” did earlier this year. We’re talking “The Big Sick,” “Baby Driver,” “Dunkirk” and “Girls Trip” ― movies with fresh stories, diverse casts, practical effects and smart, crowd-pleasing attributes that spark the word-of-mouth that every Hollywood suit craves. In other words, the types of movies that used to open almost every week, before the industry went franchise crazy in the 2000s.

The way this is going, we’re facing more of the same: Positive Rotten Tomatoes scores are emblazoned on advertisements, negative scores become weaponized treatises about critics being out of touch with everyday moviegoers. But now, the studios lack the receipts to validate their arguments. “The Emoji Movie,” the peg for The Hollywood Reporter’s story, is a prime example. Family flicks tend to be easy sells, but “Dunkirk” ― a week-old adult drama that wasn’t adapted or remade ― nonetheless toppled “The Emoji Movie We Never Wanted in the First Place” to win the weekend’s box-office crown. When it comes to these blockbuster wannabes, critics’ appraisals are more aligned with box-office sums than they get credit for. (“Emoji” has a whopping 6 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.) 

There’s no better dictum than the quote that closes THR’s piece, from marketing analyst Paul Dergarabedian: “The best way for studios to combat the ‘Rotten Tomatoes Effect’ is to make better movies, plain and simple.”