If you use Rotten Tomatoes to decide whether to see a movie —and especially if you use it primarily by glancing at films’ ratings without digging deeper into what the individual reviews that make up that rating say — there is a new article out that you definitely should read.
Called “The Decomposition of Rotten Tomatoes,” it details how studios and publicists have essentially gamed Rotten Tomatoes’ system to ensure that their movies get the best possible scores. In one striking example described in the piece, a publicity firm tried to boost the score of an independent film without a distributor (2018’s Ophelia, starring Daisy Ridley) by recruiting “obscure, often self-published critics who are nevertheless part of the pool tracked by Rotten Tomatoes.” Several anonymous critics told journalist Lane Brown the company in question “pays them $50 or more for each review.” (Read the full article at Vulture.)
The piece does make it clear that these critics were told they were “free to write what ever they liked but that ‘super nice ones’ … often agreed not to publish bad reviews on their usual websites but to instead quarantine them on ‘a smaller blog that [Rotten Tomatoes never sees.’” Whether this tactic was effective or not, Ophelia’s Rotten Tomatoes score did eventually flip from a “Rotten” 46 percent to a barely “Fresh” 62 percent. The movie was ultimately acquired for distribution, and released in the United States.ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: QUANTUMANIAMarvel
READ MORE: Famous Movies With a 0 Score on Rotten Tomatoes
That might be the most eyebrow-raising example in Vulture’s article, but the whole thing is full of other ways, some sketchier than others, that film companies seek to goose their Rotten Tomatoes ratings however they can. The main way they do it: By controlling which critics see which movies and when, in order to ensure that a movie’s score is as high as possible for as long as possible, especially around the time when a blockbuster’s pre-sale is about to launch.
For example, the piece notes that the first batch of reviews for Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania that came out of its earliest reviews from critics gave it a Rotten Tomatoes score of 79 percent — just as tickets for the Marvel film were going on sale. By the time the movie opened in theaters, and more critics had seen it, that rating had dropped to 46 percent. After a very strong opening weekend, Quantumania had a precipitous drop at the box office.ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: QUANTUMANIAMarvel
I can’t recall ever being offered money to review a film on Rotten Tomatoes, and obviously if I had, I would have said no. But I’ve certainly received many emails from publicists through the years trying to get me (and no doubt many other critics) to write positive things about their client’s work, and then hopefully to post those nice things on Rotten Tomatoes. That is a publicist’s job — to publicize their movies and to try to get the most positive coverage for their clients possible.
So I think the ultimate takeaway from Vulture’s piece should be less about one company that was allegedly doing some shady stuff, and more a reminder that Rotten Tomatoes scores do not exist in a vacuum, and that users of the site should never take those scores as simple objective truth.
I always encourage people to actually, y’know, read reviews, not just because they should know who they are trusting to tell them if a film is good or bad, but because reading good criticism expands the experience of going to the movies and enhances our appreciation of cinema. Rotten Tomatoes can still be a useful place to find many reviews in one place. But a contextless number from quasi-anonymous sources can never replace the work of a good, knowledgeable critic whose work you trust and enjoy.