LOS ANGELES – If the artwork in the lobby of this California tech company doesn’t tip you off, take a walk down the hall, past the themed conference rooms, such as the “Casablanca” room.
Or listen in to the discussion at the morning meeting. “Our top movies are ‘Black Panther’ and … it’s just ‘Black Panther’!” said Zoey.
Welcome to the headquarters of Rotten Tomatoes.
Even as the entertainment industry gathers tonight to see which of this year’s films the Academy thought best, this company may be re-shaping the way we go to the movies — and how we choose what we see.
“Without a Rotten Tomatoes, I as an individual, I guess I’d have to go read a hundred reviews,” said Paul Yanover, the president of Fandango — the online ticket company that acquired Rotten Tomatoes two years ago.
“Perfect marriage here of a technology company and an entertainment company,” he said.
More than a third of moviegoers now make checking Rotten Tomatoes the last thing they do before buying a ticket. The site aggregates dozens of reviews curated from thousands of company-approved critics and calculates the percentage that are positive.
“We’re democratizing that research, and then we are democratizing access to it through the internet,” said Yanover.
Jeff Voris, a vice president at Rotten Tomatoes, explained: “A curator will go find a review, put it in the system, and then read it to determine, is it ‘fresh’ or ‘rotten’? If they’re not sure, then our process is we send it to three other curators on the team who all read it independently.”
Yanover added, “If there’s real uncertainty, we’ll go to the source and say, ‘You’re not being clear. Are you recommending this movie, or are you not?'”
If 75% or more of the critics post positive reviews (like 97% did with “Black Panther”), the movie is “Certified Fresh.”
A score of 60 to 74 on the “Tomatometer” (like “Beauty and the Beast,” with 71%) only gets you a “Fresh.”
What you are trying to avoid as a filmmaker is a number under 60. That gets a “Rotten” thrown at it.
It’s Siskel and Ebert for the digital age.
When asked how wigged out studios are by Rotten Tomatoes, Ethan Titleman, who works for the National Research Group (a polling firm that tracks industry trends), said, “I think they’re scared. It’s still that shortcut.
“And you can agree or disagree with the reviewer, but really nothing beats seeing that score at the end to know, yeah, I wanna spend my money or I don’t wanna spend my money on this movie.”
And that’s exactly what spooks the studios: The idea their marketing machines may not be as able to overcome bad reviews in the age of Rotten Tomatoes.
“Rotten Tomatoes came on the scene, and it wasn’t the voice of individual reviewers that mattered; it was a collective voice of Rotten Tomatoes,” said Michael Lynton, the former CEO of Sony Entertainment. “I do know people pay a lot of attention to it. And I do think it does have an effect on how a movie opens. And it certainly has an effect on what the legs of a picture are.”
Perhaps that’s why director Martin Scorsese recently called Rotten Tomatoes “hostile to serious filmmakers,” in a column for the Hollywood Reporter:
“They rate a picture the way you’d rate a horse at the racetrack, a restaurant in a Zagat’s guide, or a household appliance in Consumer Reports. They have everything to do with the movie business and absolutely nothing to do with either the creation or the intelligent viewing of film. The filmmaker is reduced to a content manufacturer and the viewer to an unadventurous consumer.”
“It’s a very oversimplified system — fresh/rotten,” remarked Claudia Puig, president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, who sees more negative than positive with Rotten Tomatoes. “And there’s a lot more nuance in film criticism. There’s a lot more nuance in people’s appreciation of film. I wish that there were more categories — that there was, you know, a slightly overcooked tomato, a slightly raw tomato!”
Even with her issues with Rotten Tomatoes, Puig is still one of their top reviewers.
It seems there’s no disputing the website’s influence these days. “Certainly, studios are thinking, ‘How are we going to reach the largest amount of people? How are we going to make the most money?'” said Puig.
And to do that in this day and age, she said, “You gotta get a good score on Rotten Tomatoes.”
Axelrod asked Fandango’s Paul Yanover, “Do you dispute the notion that Rotten Tomatoes has now almost achieved make-or-break status for movies being released?”
“I think that’s too strong a statement,” he replied. “I don’t think it’s make-or-break.”
Jeff Voris said, “We don’t think that at all. We believe that, if anything, we help shine a light often on films or TV shows that you might not know a lot about otherwise.”
Axelrod said, “I guess the school of thought there is, if you want to make a successful movie now, you’ve got to thread this Rotten Tomatoes needle. Do the moviemakers, the producers, the studios, do they have a point?”
Yanover said, “I look at it this way: Right now, there are nine Oscar-nominated movies [for Best Picture]. I believe every single one of them is Certified Fresh.”
This year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees, in order of Rotten Tomatoes’ “Certified Fresh” ranking:
“Get Out” 99%
“Lady Bird” 99%
“Call Me By Your Name” 96%
“The Shape of Water” 92%
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” 92%
“Phantom Thread” 91%
“The Post” 88%
“Darkest Hour” 86%