Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Certified Critic: How Rotten Tomatoes Has Changed the Role Of The Critic

By Bianca Garner

There’s no denying the fact that the review-aggregation website known as Rotten Tomatoes has changed the landscape of film and television criticism since its inception twenty-two years ago. Love it or loathe it, Rotten Tomatoes is the place that many film consumers go to as a way to determine whether or not they want to depart with their hard-earned cash for a rental or a movie ticket. Rotten Tomatoes has impacted the movie business that it left film studios positively shaken up by its presence [SC1]. Unfortunately, the site has been blamed for the dismal box office earnings of several films such as “Baywatch” and “The Mummy” remakes due to the poor scores each film was given. This actually resulted in 20th Century Fox conducting a 2015 study, “Rotten Tomatoes and Box Office” (see above source), which found that the website and the rise of social media were having an adverse effect on the film business.

​Rotten Tomatoes has been around a lot longer than one might assume. In fact, its inception was back in August 1998 by three undergraduate students at the University of California, Berkeley: Senh Duong, Patrick Y. Lee, and Stephen Wang. The name “Rotten Tomatoes” partly relates to the practice of audiences throwing rotten tomatoes when disapproving of a poor stage performance ­- although the original inspiration comes from a scene featuring tomatoes in the Canadian film, “Léolo.” According to Wikipedia, Duong was inspired to create the website after collecting all the reviews of Jackie Chan’s Hong Kong action movies as they were being released in the United States. The catalyst for creating the website was actually “Rush Hour,” which was initially planned to release in August 1998. Duong coded the website in two weeks, and the site went live the same month, but the release of “Rush Hour” was delayed until September 1998. So, besides Jackie Chan films, he began including other movies on Rotten Tomatoes. The website was an immediate success, receiving mentions by Netscape, Yahoo!, and USA Today within the first week of its launch, and it attracted “600–1000 daily unique visitors” as a result.

Duong teamed up with the University of California, Berkeley classmates Patrick Y. Lee and Stephen Wang, his former partners at the Berkeley, California-based web design firm Design Reactor, to pursue Rotten Tomatoes on a full-time basis. They officially launched it on April 1st, 2000. In June 2004, IGN Entertainment acquired Rotten Tomatoes for an undisclosed sum. In September 2005, IGN was bought by Fox Interactive Media. In January 2010, IGN sold the website to Flixster. According to the companies, the combined reach of both companies is 30 million unique visitors a month across all different platforms. In 2011, Warner Bros. acquired Rotten Tomatoes. And then, in February 2016, Rotten Tomatoes and its parent site Flixster were sold to Comcast’s Fandango. Warner Bros retained a minority stake in the merged entities, including Fandango.

I have recently become a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic (you can find my reviews here). Despite my initial reservations about becoming an RT-approved critic, I’m now quite content with seeing my name listed on the site. It has helped me in terms of boosting my confidence as a film critic, especially after experiencing some personal and mental health issues during last year and nearly throwing in the towel with this whole film criticism side gig.

To meet Rotten Tomatoes criteria, critics must have been regularly publishing movie reviews with a reasonably widely read outlet for at least two years, and these critics must be “active,” meaning they’ve published at least one review in the last year. The site also deems a subset of critics to be “top critics” and calculates a separate score that only includes them. Some critics upload their own reviews, choose their own pull quotes, and designate their reviews as “fresh” or “rotten.” However, other critics have their reviews uploaded, pull-quoted, and tagged as fresh or rotten by the Rotten Tomatoes staff. Sometimes, the RT staff may not know to tag a review as fresh or rotten, so they’ll contact the critic for clarification. The critic can also request any changes to their pull quote and designation of “fresh” or “rotten.”

For this piece, I wanted to ask fellow critics about how Rotten Tomatoes has helped their career and presence, to hear about their experiences with the process of becoming an RT-approved critic, and whether it was worth all the effort. At first, I wanted to know what critics thought about the reputation of Rotten Tomatoes before they applied and whether this made an impact on their decision. Caitlin Kennedy (who has written for several publications, including Screen QueensThe Mary Sue, and Film Inquiry) had this to say: “I’ve always been aware of Rotten Tomatoes as a collection of reviews and a resource on films before I ever participated in film criticism. I think RT has a decent reputation, although I think it could benefit from more transparency. The general public doesn’t exactly know how a lot of the inner workings of film criticism, relations between journalists and other industry professionals, and such actually work, and I think RT is an easy place to target those frustrations. From the critic’s perspective, I wish there was more transparency in how critics are chosen and what that standard actually looks like.”

Sara Michelle Fetters (editor and chief of review site MovieFreak) had mixed feelings about becoming an RT approved critic, stating that “reducing any art, let alone cinema, to a binary’ pass/fail’ or ‘good/bad’ baseline didn’t seem like a great idea to me.” However, she continues by saying that she could also see the appeal and “wasn’t at all surprised that most people responded rather positively to what it was [that RT] were doing.” However, it became clear to her that the site was growing in popularity and that becoming accredited could positively impact critics from a smaller publication. She applied back in 2004/2005, but she was denied; however, she was still listed on the site, and that seemed good “Just having my reviews up there brought traffic, so I didn’t really think too much more about it.”

Like Sara and Caitlin, Karl Delossantos (who runs his own review site Smash Cut Reviews) had his apprehensions about applying to Rotten Tomatoes due to their reputation. “I didn’t have a high opinion of it personally,” he says. “I thought boiling down a film’s score to whether or not you liked it was harmful to the perception around a movie (someone who loved a movie would be weighted the same as someone who just liked it). I also think that it has become too tied to film criticism with people assuming critics moved in a monolith.”

Like many of the critics I spoke to, Douglas Davidson (who runs his review site Elements of Madness) brought up a good point regarding how the public perceives Rotten Tomatoes and the common misconceptions that have led to the site having a negative reputation. “The general public doesn’t understand how RT functions,” he states. “They either think that critics upload reviews directly (instead of being an aggregator), or they think that RT is an organization that scores/rates films. Mostly, deeming a film “fresh” or “rotten” somehow determines whether it’s worth seeing or not. [And because] most folks don’t understand how RT works, it tends to be seen unfavorably by those with less knowledge of the industry or how RT functions. Conversely, those who release films dig RT because they can use the score to promote their film. The way they’ve positioned themselves is great as a marketing tool, but some take issue with the influence on how film criticism is viewed (absolute good or absolute bad with zero analysis).”

Moira Macdonald (who is the Seattle Times Art Critic) made a good observation regarding the setup of Rotten Tomatoes, saying that while “it’s great for readers to find an assortment of links to reviews in one handy place, and for writers, especially those just getting started, to get their work promoted,” on the other hand, she says, “it’s always bothered [her] that reviews are classified as ‘fresh’ or ‘rotten’ with no middle ground, when much of what critics [write] occupies that middle ground – or that a film might be ‘fresh’ in some aspects and’ rotten’ in others.”

I enquired with my fellow critics about their reasons for applying as an accredited critic for Rotten Tomatoes, as I was curious to see what drove people to apply. Dan Buffa (who writes for St. Louis Jewish Light and KSDK News) had this to say: “It’s a prestigious spot to have as a film critic, so I have always thought about it. Ever since I submitted my first review for the now-retired [website] Film-Addict, I thought about finding my take on RT. Sometimes, though, you don’t think what you can provide is good enough or worth the shot. But it was actually a local movie marketing rep [that] encouraged me to apply and see what happens. So, thank you, Mark Schulte.”

Mexican City-based critic Ricardo Gallegos (who writes for But Why Tho and Shuffle Online) had a different reason to apply, stating that he wanted to expose and help out underseen and underappreciated films. “I’ve always felt that the USA and UK are constantly ignoring International films, and by making my opinion count for those films, It would help them get a little more exposure,” he says.

Amelia Harvey (who writes for Screen QueensThe People’s Movies, and Frame Rated) gave me a unique insight into her own experience applying to become an accredited critic and her reasons why she applied. “I always used Rotten Tomatoes to see the general thoughts on a film; it’s also a good way to find lots of reviews quickly,” she says. “I see it as an aggregator of reviews and a good way of seeing upcoming films.” Her application process was relatively stress-free. “I don’t think it took too long or was too ‘faffy,'” she explains. “I know I spoke about how I concentrate on writing about women-directed or written films and well-written LBGTQ+ stories — I guess that’s my writing USP. I know my application went through as they were trying to diversify their reviewers. I wonder if that had something to do with it (a queer Spanish-speaking woman ticks some boxes, but that might be cynical).”

Being a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic hasn’t exactly made a dramatic impact in my film criticism career, but it has helped in small ways, like having more access to screeners and PR contacts within the film industry. It has even helped me gain a date after I put in my Bumble profile that I was officially a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic!!

I was curious to see whether or not being a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic has helped others gain visibility or impacted their careers. For Gallegos, it has helped a lot. “Despite living in Mexico, It opened many doors for me,” he says. “I got approved right when the pandemic started, and I had launched my own website, so it allowed me to establish myself as a trusted critic and get a lot of PR contacts. Also, I honestly think it boosted my application process for many film festivals. In turn, I feel that I’ve achieved my goal of putting my grain of salt into helping out small and international films. It definitely was worth applying.”

Davidson also believes that it was worth applying, stating two reasons why this is the case. “First, I’ve had writers/directors/producers find reviews for films I’ve written and use that to reach out to me to put their films on my radar. I don’t just cover mainstream releases, so this has been a great way to get access to independent productions,” he explains. “Second, there’s been a few instances (more so during the last year with theaters closed down) of bigger studios offering access to films, mostly due to my RT approval.”

Harvey was overall quite happy with her decision to apply, and it has helped her gain some visibility as a critic. “I have definitely got more press accreditations and on more PR lists since becoming RT accredited,” she says. “I have had opportunities to go to film festivals, I have worked with Netflix, and I’m on a decent amount of PR lists. It’s also nice for me to have all my reviews in one place, almost like a portfolio for people to see. I think I have had more pitches accepted since applying as well. This industry is a big uphill climb unless you have contacts; also, it feels like a steeper hill for a woman. I live about two hours away from London, which adds to it as well.” Although Harvey made an interesting statement which has left a lasting impression on me, saying that while it has helped her on the PR and press accreditation side of things, “it’s still very hard to get your foot in the door career-wise” and she’s “not sure if the accreditation is enough.”

Although being RT-approved may have had an impact on some people’s careers and visibility, some critics like Macdonald haven’t really noticed any change. “I don’t think it’s made a difference for me either way,” she says. “I have no communication with RT (I don’t submit my reviews to them, though they do seem to pick them up) and don’t check it very often. It’s possible that I get some clicks on reviews from RT, and if so, that’s always helpful, but I’ve never measured it. I’m really lucky in that I work for a big newspaper, so we have a lot of traffic on our site already. For a critic who doesn’t work for an established organization, I can imagine that the RT exposure could be quite helpful – though only to a point, as there are so very many critics on the site.”

Even Delossantos seems pleased that he applied to be an accredited critic, stating that despite reservations, he believes it did two things: “Bring more visibility to my work (purely by driving traffic) and legitimizing me as a critic.” He continues by saying, “I write [for] my own publication, which makes it hard to separate myself from just a general movie enthusiast. However, when I mention I’m RT-approved, people understand that as a sort of validation of my opinions. So, I do think it was worth applying. However, I think the critics on the platform should have more resources to share their full work, so they’re not boiled down to a number.”

Buffa added, “It has helped broaden my scope, as in how many souls you can reach with a simple spot on a website. Local and national studio reps love it and will request it upon screener link delivery. It’s become a bigger deal than being in a city film critic group or other accolades. It is very much worth applying. I encourage every film critic to apply at some point.

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