What would happen if Rotten Tomatoes and other review aggregators just went away, as some Hollywood suits have suggested? We play out the thought experiment.
Welcome to 2017, the year that Rotten Tomatoes took over the conversation of film criticism. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen a waterfall of articles and interviews about how Rotten Tomatoes is the scourge of the film industry. And with a string of blockbuster summer movies failing to live up to projections — and a few fan favorite underperforming with critics as well — the desire in some corners of Hollywood to do away with film criticism altogether has risen to a dull roar. Nevermind the fact that executives and critics dislike Rotten Tomatoes for the same reasons: they oversimplify nuanced reviews, narrow conversation to a single number, and discourage people from reading individual reviews with film criticism in mind. No, Rotten Tomatoes is hurting the bottom line, and as a result, the underlying functions enabling Rotten Tomatoes gotta go.
So let’s perform a bit of wish fulfillment: let’s do away with Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, and their ilk altogether. From here on out, all aggregate review sites are immediately banned the moment they come into existence. How would this affect the film industry as a whole?
It’s an interesting thought. On the one hand, Hollywood might indeed be subject to a short-term lift. A recent internal study by Paramount Pictures — as referenced in this broader Hollywood Reporter article about the box office failure of Baywatch — found that younger audiences pay close attention to the Rotten Tomatoes scores of big releases, so studios are (naturally) beginning to whisper about the possibility of cutting critics out of the loop altogether. In theory, audiences would then be forced to judge the appeal of a movie based entirely on the marketing material prepared by the studio, cutting out the potentially harmful middle-man and forcing audiences to gamble on a film without external factors getting in the way. Granted, this would be a death knell for smaller films that rely on critical buzz to generate interest, but since those films don’t cost studios hundreds of millions of dollars to make and market, it’s a tradeoff I’m sure plenty of executives would be willing to make.
And that might indeed work… for a while. If we assume that Hollywood wouldn’t put any of its money or efforts into making their blockbusters any more original or interesting, then films like Baywatch would undoubtedly draw the attention of Dwayne Johnson fans and people interested in the promise of a raunchy summer comedy. Who cares if a movie is objectively good as long as it is objectively popular, right? And that would probably last about as long as the fifth or sixth bad movie that audiences see before people decide to swear off the movie theater altogether. Scott Mendelson of Forbes wrote about this best yesterday when he discussed the perfect storm of Rotten Tomatoes, blockbusters, and Netflix that has brought us to this point. If anything, Rotten Tomatoes scores and box office show that the default position for moviegoers now is to stay home. It’s not that negative reviews are discouraging people from attending the movie theater; it’s that negative reviews are providing confirmation for their preferred course of action.
Even if we did create a landscape where fans didn’t have access to review aggregators, would you trust them to effectively analyze Hollywood product? Any sports fan worth his or her salt is probably familiar with the Bull Durham quote about the difference between a .250 hitter and a .300 hitter boiling down to a single hit a week. But the harder question — the one you sometimes see asked on analytical baseball sites — is whether you would be able to physically observe the difference in real time. If you sat down and watched 162 consecutive baseball games without once observing the players’ stat lines, you might walk away with a skewed notion of who the best performer on the team might be. You’ll remember the player who went 5–5 in a single game, even if he went hitless throughout the rest of the week, over the player who goes 1–4 like clockwork every single outing. You might also artificially inflate the value of a player who tends to hit long, towering fly balls — even if they don’t drop in — over the player who peppers the infield with ground balls. We may want to see patterns, but we’re drawn to outliers. Those get lodged in our minds.
We see that writ large in comment sections around the internet, where moviegoers grumble about the overall quality of releases in Hollywood. Without sterling reviews, would you trust audiences to recognize a stealth blockbuster like Get Out amidst such notable February releases as The Great Wall, Rock Dog, and Rings? Would they care about the track record of one particular studio over another? Without advance screenings of movies, fans wouldn’t even have the benefit of looking to their favorite writers for information about the film before it is released, meaning that they’d have to take a sort of all-or-nothing approach to Hollywood filmmaking. And if your average baseball fan cannot tell the difference between a .250 hitter and a .300 hitter on eyes alone — quite literally the dividing line between All-Star and scrub — what makes you think that they’ll do any better at differentiating between one horror film and another?
As Mendelson notes, this is a more complex problem than simply “make better movies,” and as long as studios are reliant on the success of 2–3 movie per year to stay afloat, they’re putting themselves in an awkward situation. With a plethora of at-home options available to audiences, it’s tough to expect them to play a $16 lottery on blockbuster movies, and removing Rotten Tomatoes scores altogether would punish the good movies more than it would benefit the bad ones. Film critics — and by extension, film reviews — aren’t perfect, and aggregating their reviews may do a disservice to films and filmmakers alike, but they go a long way towards giving audiences at least some sound logic for the movies they choose to see. It may seem enticing to pull the plug on critics when your movie is struggling at the box office, but ask Jordan Peele or Hidden Figures director Theodore Melfi how they feel about the power of positive reviews, and you may find that any filmmaker not working with a $100 million budget will sing a much different tune about what happens when your movie is, you know, good.
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