Rot­ten To­ma­toes’ rise to box-of­fice power

Start­ing as founder’s hobby, web­site’s scores have power to make or break a film

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - RYAN FAUGHNDER

On a re­cent Wed­nes­day morn­ing, the staff of Rot­ten To­ma­toes gath­ers in a Beverly Hills of­fice, lap­tops open — steel­ing them­selves for the next on­slaught of re­views for Hol­ly­wood’s big­gest up­com­ing movies.

But first, su­per­vis­ing pro­ducer Cookie Zito gives an up­date.

“We just found out ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ is cer­ti­fied,” she an­nounces, as a cou­ple dozen Rot­ten To­ma­toes em­ploy­ees break out in ap­plause.

That means the vast ma­jor­ity of crit­ics liked the new 20th Cen­tury Fox movie — and the US$150-mil­lion Apes se­quel gets the of­fi­cial “cer­ti­fied fresh” la­bel on the movie-rat­ing web­site.

Launched nearly two decades ago by a trio of UC Berke­ley bud­dies, Rot­ten To­ma­toes has be­come an in­creas­ingly in­flu­en­tial — and feared — player in the film and tele­vi­sion in­dus­try. Its scores can help de­ter­mine whether movies sink or swim.

“It’s like the Good House­keep­ing seal of ap­proval for movies,” said Donna Gigliotti, pro­ducer of “Hid­den Fig­ures” and “Sil­ver Lin­ings Play­book” (both movies re­ceived a high 92-per-cent To­matome­ter score). “For a pic­ture that doesn’t have a brand name and doesn’t have movie stars, Rot­ten To­ma­toes scores can en­hance the box of­fice.”

As peo­ple are bom­barded with more and more en­ter­tain­ment op­tions, qual­ity has be­come a de­ter­min­ing fac­tor for a movie’s suc­cess.

“When you have that cur­rency that says you have 100 peo­ple that agree the movie is great or hor­ri­ble, you don’t need more in­for­ma­tion than that,” said Rob Moore, for­mer vice-chair at Para­mount Pic­tures.

“That’s how they’re pick­ing restau­rants and that’s how they’re pick­ing movies.”

The trend has been a boon to Rot­ten To­ma­toes. Thirty-six per cent of U.S. movie­go­ers check the site’s re­views of­ten be­fore see­ing a film, com­pared with 28 per cent in 2014, ac­cord­ing to box of­fice track­ing firm Na­tional Re­search Group. Nearly half of movie­go­ers aged 25 to 44 are reg­u­lars. The site scored 13.6 mil­lion U.S. vis­i­tors in May, up 32 per cent from a year ago, ac­cord­ing to data firm comS­core.

Now, the com­pany is de­vel­op­ing a lineup of orig­i­nal on­line video se­ries and grow­ing a live event busi­ness. Dur­ing the lat­est ComicCon In­ter­na­tional, Rot­ten To­ma­toes turned its “Your Opin­ion Sucks” live dis­cus­sion panel into a three-day event with fa­mous guests and a stage at the Om­nia Night­club in down­town San Diego. The panel may even­tu­ally be­come a tour­ing show or on­line se­ries.

With par­ent com­pany Fan­dango, Rot­ten To­ma­toes re­cently moved from West L.A. into a mod­ern of­fice space in Beverly Hills with open work ar­eas, snacks and a spot for yoga and in­door ham­mocks.

The com­pany has only 30 em­ploy­ees, but its ris­ing clout has caused grow­ing anx­i­ety in Hol­ly­wood dur­ing a bruis­ing sum­mer at the box of­fice. Ex­pen­sive movies in­clud­ing “Bay­watch” and “The Mummy” failed spec­tac­u­larly this sum­mer, all of them slammed by crit­ics (they re­ceived rat­ings of 19 per cent and 15 per cent, re­spec­tively). Movie ticket sales since the first week­end of May are down 7 per cent com­pared with a year ago in the United States and Canada, ac­cord­ing to comS­core.

Decades ago, the only way to eval­u­ate a movie be­fore its re­lease was to read re­views in ma­jor publi­ca­tions. To­day, movie­go­ers rely on the To­matome­ter, a num­ber that shows what per­cent­age of crit­ics rec­om­mend the film. In To­mato-speak, a movie with mostly neg­a­tive re­views is deemed “rot­ten” and tagged with a green splat. Movies that are mostly well re­viewed get a “fresh” red to­mato.

It’s no co­in­ci­dence that the few break­out hits of the sum­mer box of­fice all have scores of 80 per cent or higher: “Won­der Woman” (92 per cent), “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (81) and “Spi­der-Man: Home­com­ing” (92). For smaller movies like “Baby Driver” (94 per cent) and “The Big Sick” (97), a crit­i­cal mass of ac­claim can bring much-needed at­ten­tion.

And for lesser films, a very low score can be fa­tal. Hol­ly­wood used to be able to get away with putting out medi­ocre movies, be­cause it took at least a week­end for the neg­a­tive au­di­ence re­ac­tion to get out. To­day, thanks to Rot­ten To­ma­toes, am­pli­fied by so­cial me­dia, peo­ple can smell a flop long be­fore its re­lease. Movies that score lower than 30 per cent, such as “King Arthur: Leg­end of the Sword” (28) and “The House” (17) tend to fiz­zle at the mul­ti­plex.

Ev­ery day, a half-dozen Rot­ten To­ma­toes staffers scour the web to find ev­ery review of ev­ery movie, col­lect­ing from ma­jor news out­lets and well-known crit­ics. They read each review and de­ter­mine whether it is mostly pos­i­tive or mostly neg­a­tive.

Of­ten, it’s not ob­vi­ous how a critic feels about a movie from the review.

When the lan­guage is neb­u­lous, the rest of the Rot­ten To­ma­toes “cu­ra­tion team” reads it and makes a de­ci­sion. If there’s no con­sen­sus, Rot­ten To­ma­toes con­tacts the critic who wrote the review.

About half of the crit­ics who ap­pear on Rot­ten To­ma­toes — of­ten the more ob­scure set — sub­mit their re­views, along with the rat­ings, to the site them­selves. As re­views are in­dexed, Rot­ten To­ma­toes cal­cu­lates the score.

If 60 per cent of a movie’s re­views are pos­i­tive, it is con­sid­ered “fresh.” If it’s be­low that thresh­old, it’s “rot­ten.” The true badge of hon­our — the ones stu­dios ref­er­ence in mar­ket­ing cam­paigns — is a “cer­ti­fied fresh” badge, rep­re­sent­ing a score of 75 per cent or bet­ter with a cer­tain num­ber of re­views counted.

Some de­trac­tors note that a “fresh” movie with a 61-per-cent rat­ing prob­a­bly isn’t much bet­ter than a “rot­ten” movie with a 59per-cent score. They pre­fer Rot­ten To­ma­toes’ big­gest ri­val, CBSowned Me­ta­critic, which uses a weighted av­er­age of crit­ics’ rat­ings and mea­sures re­views on a scale of 1-to-100 be­fore cal­cu­lat­ing scores.

Another com­plaint is that some of the crit­ics Rot­ten To­ma­toes uses are from ob­scure blogs and pod­casts. Sup­port­ers, how­ever, note that one or two mar­ginal blogs prob­a­bly don’t have much im­pact on the fi­nal score.

It’s a re­mark­able amount of at­ten­tion for a com­pany that started as a hobby. Mar­tial arts film fan Senh Duong came up with the idea to put ev­ery movie review in one place af­ter strug­gling to find Jackie Chan re­views on­line. He and two UC Berke­ley bud­dies of­fi­cially launched the site in 1998.

Since then, the site has un­der­gone a se­ries of own­er­ship changes. The founders sold the com­pany for an undis­closed amount in 2004 to IGN En­ter­tain­ment, which was ac­quired by News Corp. for $650 mil­lion the fol­low­ing year. News Corp. sold Rot­ten To­ma­toes to movie dis­cov­ery startup Flixster in 2010, which was later bought by Warner Bros.

Fan­dango, a unit of Com­cast Corp.’s NBCUniver­sal, bought Rot­ten To­ma­toes and Flixster early last year for an undis­closed sum.

TWEN­TI­ETH CEN­TURY FOX

“War for the Planet of the Apes” was “cer­ti­fied fresh” by Rot­ten To­ma­toes, mean­ing its score is 75 per cent or higher with a cer­tain num­ber of re­views counted.

AL SEIB, TNS

Jeff Voris, right, gen­eral man­ager of Rot­ten To­ma­toes, with Grae Drake, left, se­nior edi­tor, at their Beverly Hills of­fices.

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