Is Rotten Tomatoes killing the movie industry? No, bad movies are

Take this simple quiz to see if you are qualified to run a movie studio.

Question: The terrible movie The Mummy — starring Tom Cruise — gets a terrible 16 percent rating on movie-review-aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes and wilts at the box office.

This failure is the result of:

  • A: A bad idea, cynically conceived and poorly executed.
  • B: Rotten Tomatoes.

If you answered B, you could be a studio executive. Judging, at least, by a recent New York Times article in which studio head honchos lay the blame for several months of horrific box office numbers — the worst in 20 years — on the website, which aggregates reviews from thousands of critics, excerpts a few hundred, and assigns a “rotten” rating to movies that fail to earn at least 60 percent positive notices on its popular Tomatometer.

The site is growing rapidly, reportedly getting nearly 14 million unique visitors in May, an increase of 35 percent over the previous year. Its parent, Fandango, attaches the Tomatometer to its ticket-buying interface. All of this has helped make Rotten Tomatoes a go-to consumer service for folks who want a quick read on whether a movie might be worth their time.

Studio executives, according to the Times, fear its growing popularity gives it an inordinate commercial influence. But they apparently don’t believe this strongly enough to say so on record.

The article cites a stale, oft-repeated quote from director Brett Ratner, saying the website is hastening the “destruction” of the movie business. (Coincidentally, he directed Rush Hour 3, which has an 18 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, yet it made $140 million, seemingly disproving his theory.) Despite the article’s assertion that Ratner’s opinion is “echoed daily” by studio execs, none would echo it publicly, reportedly for fear of giving the site even more legitimacy.

I suspect there is another reason.

If you are the person who gave the green light to The Mummy (I gave it two stars), or King Arthur (two stars, 28 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), or CHIPS (two and a half stars, 15 percent on RT), or Baywatch (two and a half stars, 18 percent on RT), or  Transformers: The Last Knight (two stars, 15 percent on RT)you’re going to look like a fraud blaming the failure of your awful movie on a website that simply aggregates reviews.

And, let’s be clear: It was an awful summer for movies.

Camera icon rank Masi / Paramount Pictures
“BAYWATCH”: (L-R) Dwayne Johnson as Mitch Buchannon and Zac Efron as Matt Brody.

And the site actually does more than that. Rotten Tomatoes “curators” read each review and assign to each movie a thumbs-up or thumbs-down — translated Fresh or Rotten in Rotten Tomatoes parlance — something a lot of critics don’t do in such black-and-white terms. These curators are actually quite fastidious. They contact on-the-fence critics to affirm or clarify opinions — I know this is true because they’ve twice contacted me to affirm a Fresh or Rotten rating on Ingrid Goes West (I said Fresh) and Rough Night (I went Rotten).

Is there something Orwellian and reductive about the way a (potentially) complex entity like a movie can be reduced to a green splat or red tomato? Yes. But there is often something appropriate about it, too. If movies are to be made and marketed like mass merchandise — The Mummy was literally conceived to be the beginning of a franchise/mythological universe — they can be Yelped like it. (A more pertinent question — why are “rotten” tomatoes icons green? Isn’t that an unripe tomato?).

And if you wanted to, you could use Rotten Tomatoes in a fairly sophisticated way. You start with the Tomatometer, but you can click through to individual reviews to get a broader consideration of a movie. You can customize your feed to consult critics you prefer.

Or you can go to a different site. Consumers have their choice of aggregators, just as they have their choice of movies. One is Metacritic, which aims to be more refined and discriminating than Rotten Tomatoes. As part of its methodology, Metacritic actually reviews reviewers — starting with a much smaller, more seasoned, and (it claims) more prestigious base of critics. Within this group, it assigns increased weight to critics whose opinions are deemed most worthwhile. (This is Metacritic’s secret sauce, and it does not disclose ingredients.)

Though most fans prefer the unruly democracy of Rotten Tomatoes, its handy mobile interface, and its incredible search engine optimization (Rotten Tomatoes comes up in most searches about movies), most cineasts and stats experts who’ve studied the Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic algorithms recommend Metacritic (it has a better “Gaussian distribution,” says one stats guy) for serious film fans.

And analysts prefer both sites to the user polls you can find on IMDB and Fandango. A mathematician who examined the Fandango user poll concludes that Fandango “likes too many movies.” I’ve noticed that the user polls are also probably gamed — the scores are high until the movie actually opens, then they drop, often precipitously. A suspicious person would conclude that studios are ballot-stuffing the user base to give their movies a head start.

By the way, that never works.

Because there remains a constant in the movie business, and in the culture of moviegoing: What sells a movie over the long haul is old-fashioned word of mouth. Marketing can get an audience in theaters on opening weekend. Critics can help or hurt in the margin. And Rotten Tomatoes can aggregate those critics.

But even a cursory look at recent Rotten Tomato ratings shows a tenuous relationship between the site’s ratings and actual box office. It has assigned a rotten rating to movies that have done well (The Hitmans’ Bodyguard, The Emoji Movie), and it affixes an overwhelmingly positive rating to a film that fared poorly (Logan Lucky).

Once a movie opens, it’s people talking to other people (now accelerated by social media) that puts/keeps butts in seats.

That’s great news for great movies.

And bad news for  The Mummy.