Rotten Tomatoes’ rise to box-office power
Starting as founder’s hobby, website’s scores have power to make or break a film
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.
“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.
Jeff Voris, right, general manager of Rotten Tomatoes, with Grae Drake, left, senior editor, at their Beverly Hills offices.