Movies are scoring higher and higher on Rotten Tomatoes — but why? – National
Moviegoers were left scratching their heads this spring when Paddington 2, a children’s film about an anthropomorphic bear, overtook Citizen Kane on Rotten Tomatoes, cementing the sequel’s status as one of the best-reviewed films on the site. How is it that a movie featuring a CGI bear — albeit a great movie — overtook one of the greatest films of all time? It seems to be a trend on Rotten Tomatoes; movie review scores on the site have been creeping upward for a decade, according to data compiled by Global News.
“It’s puzzling. I don’t know what to make of it. I really don’t,” says David A. Gross, who runs Franchise Entertainment Research, a movie consultancy.
Films on Rotten Tomatoes are given a “Tomatometer” score out of 100 per cent, based on how many critics give the film a positive review. For example, Cruella’s 74 per cent means that roughly seven out of every 10 critics on the site thought the villainous fashionista’s origin story was at least worth a watch.
In 2009, the average Tomatometer score for all wide releases was 46 per cent, and it was roughly at that level for much of the 2000s. By 2019, that average score had climbed to a high of 62 per cent — an important milestone, since 60 per cent is the dividing line between a “fresh” film and a “rotten” one.
Effectively, the average movie has gone from rotten to fresh in just 10 years.
For Gross, who has been following this trend for years, the higher scores fix a longstanding problem with the critic aggregator: it was unfairly critical.
For all of the 2000s, average Tomatometer scores hovered in the decidedly rotten low-to-mid-40s. If 60 per cent is the dividing line between a good film and a bad film, it makes sense to Gross that an unbiased average should fall roughly in the middle.
“Their site is a service for moviegoers,” Gross says. “If you had talked to me 12 years ago, I would have said, ‘What in the world are they doing and why are they just trashing movies?’”
The rising scores can be confusing for viewers who use the site to decide what to watch. This spring’s Godzilla vs Kong, a movie about a giant CGI ape brought out of retirement to battle a giant CGI lizard, had a score of 79 per cent in the lead-up to its opening weekend (it has since dropped to 76 per cent). That’s a higher score than 14 best picture winners, including Forrest Gump (1994): 71 per cent; Gladiator (2000): 77 per cent; and Braveheart (1995); 78 per cent.
“I feel for the movies that are stuck with their scores,” Gross says. “I think it’s unfair to the old movies.”
Are movie studios to blame?
The rising scores come as Rotten Tomatoes has forged close financial ties with the movie industry. The website, launched in 1998 by three recent Berkeley grads, was purchased by Warner Bros. in 2011. And in 2016, Comcast (which also owns NBCUniversal) acquired a 70 per cent stake through a deal that turned Rotten Tomatoes into a division of the ticket vendor Fandango. (These media conglomerates produce many of the movies and TV shows that are rated on the site.)
The company that once revelled in its outsider status now occupies a critical position within the movie industry, its scores appearing across the web on Google, iTunes, DirecTV and Fandango.
While Rotten Tomatoes usage among moviegoers has declined in recent years, according to a survey by the National Research Group, the firm estimates that roughly one in four moviegoers still make use of the website.
“Rotten Tomatoes is very important, there’s no doubt about that,” Gross says.
“Their numbers fly around the internet fast on opening weekend.”
Montreal movie theatre manager Zachary Merovitz says that positive critical buzz can boost ticket sales, especially for highly regarded but under-the-radar films like Nomadland, which may fall out of the general moviegoing public’s purview.
“That one had extra business because it was a well-regarded movie.”
And while the precise effect of Rotten Tomatoes on ticket sales is hard to discern, the site can sometimes tip the balance for customers who haven’t made up their mind at the box office.
On occasion, customers will “look at the score on their cell phones right in front of me,” Merovitz says. “And if they see it has a really terrible review, then sometimes they won’t go see the movie.”
Indeed, the site’s potential as a marketing tool is not lost on film publicists.
“If you’re certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, that’s definitely something that you’re going to pull into your campaign,” says Andréa Grau, founder and owner of the publicity firm Touchwood PR.
The close relationship between the world’s premier review aggregator and two of Hollywood’s largest movie studios has led to some concern over the potential for conflicts of interest. Is it possible that business pressure from the site’s corporate backers could explain the rising scores?
It’s a theory Joel Meares, editor-in-chief at Rotten Tomatoes, is quick to dismiss.
“What I can say is that [I] never felt any pressure to have higher scores for movies that are released by our parent companies.”
For Meares, it’s not clear how Rotten Tomatoes or its corporate owners could influence the scores that films receive.
“We ingest reviews. They are either fresh or rotten. They go into a pool. The percentage is the percentage and it is what it is.”
But exactly how film reviews are classified as rotten or fresh has never been an exact science.
“It’s this weird Wild West about what counts as fresh or rotten,” says Jason Gorber, a Toronto-based freelance film critic with reviews on the site dating back over two decades.
Roughly half of all reviews added to Rotten Tomatoes are self-submitted, which means that the critic or publication specifies whether their review is fresh or rotten, using whatever criteria they like. Gorber considers any film he rates as a C+ or higher to be fresh. For another reviewer that threshold might be a C, or a B-, or 2/4 stars.
Still, other critics, Gorber says, “have never logged into Rotten Tomatoes at all.”
For these critics, the company employs a team of curators, seven in all, who read hundreds of reviews a week and mark them fresh or rotten based on their interpretation. If the review is on the fence, multiple curators will read it, and if it’s really unclear they will contact the reviewer for clarification.
Are news outlets to blame?
Meares hasn’t crunched the numbers himself, but speculates that if Tomatometer scores have risen, it may be due to broader shifts in the media industry.
“Over the last 20, 15 or even 10 years, the way that criticism has operated in the world has changed.”
When Rotten Tomatoes started in the late-1990s, most professional film critics worked as full-time tenured employees at large publications. Think Siskel and Ebert.
Today, the industry is dominated by freelancers, who increasingly write for independent online publications, and so-called influencers, some of whom have no experience in the industry whatsoever — and a lot of the time no knowledge of film history or trends.
All critics rely on studios for access to advanced press screenings. This is something tenured critics at big publications don’t need to think about. But for freelance critics, press access is by no means guaranteed.
Jason Gorber explains that freelancers may hesitate to pan a film out of fear of drawing the studio’s ire.
“If I continuously slam, for justifiable reasons, a given series of films from a given studio, I may stop being invited by that studio,” Gorber says.
And it’s not just film studios that freelance critics need to be wary of. In the age of social media, angry movie fans have also grown into a force to be reckoned with.
Anyone can be an internet troll under the right circumstances – even you, study finds
“I panned a film that I saw in Toronto two years ago and I ended up getting death threats,” says freelance film critic Danielle Solzman. “There’s nothing like coming back from a film festival and having to go straight to the police.”
“I think in hindsight, that made me kind of more overgenerous, as far as star ratings for Wonder Woman 1984, because I just did not want to deal with the death threats,” Solzman says. “It definitely makes you think twice when it comes to some films. But at the end of the day, if I don’t like a film, I don’t like it.”
Diversify, diversify, diversify
While movie audiences are growing more diverse, film criticism has long been dominated by white men. Looking at the top 100 films in 2017, a USC Annenberg report found that 82 per cent of the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes were written by white critics, and 78 per cent by men.
Male critics are consistently more harsh than women when it comes to reviewing films with female leads, according to an annual report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.
“When I’m on the fence about a film and haven’t seen it yet, the last thing I want to do is read 80 reviews from old white men,” Solzman says.
Shortly after USC Annenberg released their findings in 2018, Rotten Tomatoes overhauled its criteria for approving critics. Over the next two years, the company would add over 825 new critics to its website, more than half of whom were women, including about 20 per cent people of colour. A majority of these were also freelance writers.
In 2020, the company announced similar changes to its Top Critics program.
“It’s about making sure that a diverse movie-going public is reflected in the diversity of the pool of critics we have,” Meares says.
Oscars change best picture rules to encourage diversity
Appearing on the website can also be helpful for critics struggling to gain a foothold in the industry.
“Getting on Rotten Tomatoes has definitely helped with regard to press lists,” says Solzman, who notes that gatekeeping is a real problem within the industry.
Gorber believes that the increasing diversity of voices on the site has helped blunt some of its sharper edges.
“We have more and more diverse voices. I don’t just mean in terms of racial and ethnic diversity. I just mean literally different people contributing to this grander conversation,” Gorber says. “Some negative voices will be drowned out in the larger cacophony.”
It’s all about that user base
More critics on the site have meant more movie reviews contributing to each film’s score. The top 10 highest-grossing films in 2009 had an average of 278 reviews per film. By 2019, that number had risen to 445 reviews per film.
If you are feeling particularly studious and want to browse the 541 reviews that makeup Avengers: Endgame’s 94 per cent rating, you’ll notice that many of the critics hail from niche online publications that cater to specific audiences. Some, like SciFiNow, and ComicBookMovie.com, narrow in on one genre. Others, like Movies4Kids, are geared toward a subset of moviegoers.
Meares thinks the growth of internet critics writing for specific audiences could potentially help explain rising Rotten Tomatoes scores.
“When a horror film comes out, it has more genre-specific experts reviewing it,” Meares says. “I’m not saying they necessarily go easy on it, but perhaps they have a different relationship with a third horror sequel than someone at the top of a major masthead, who 20 years ago had to review every film that came out every weekend.”
If you’re a critic writing a review aimed at horror fans, Meares explains, you’re more likely judging the film based on how it appeals to that specific audience.
All these industry shifts have contributed to what publicist Andréa Grau sees as a more positive attitude amongst critics.
“Rarely do you see film reviews like we used to see 20 years ago, which were just destroying a project.”
She sees a media industry geared more toward celebrating cinema than attacking it.
“We’re all in this industry together and we all want to make sure that we’re still supporting filmmaking. And I think film critics are part of that.”
Scores more stable on Metacritic and IMDb
Global News also looked at average movie review scores for wide releases on Metacritic, a competing online review aggregator, and IMDb, an online database of movie and TV info.
Between 2009 and 2019, average Metacritic scores for wide releases, which are out of 100, increased to 56 from 49, or by 7 per cent. In contrast, Rotten Tomatoes scores rose more than twice that much over the same period.
Films regularly score lower on Metacritic now than they do on Rotten Tomatoes. This spring’s Quiet Place Part II is currently at 91 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes but only 71 on Metacritic.
Can cinema recover from a year of lockdown?
It may seem odd that two sites that both claim to aggregate critics’ opinions could land on two completely different scores for the same film, but each site uses a different methodology to calculate their scores.
“It’s like comparing apples to automobiles,” Gorber says.
Metacritic converts each review into a score between 0 and 100. It then uses a closely guarded formula to create a weighted average of all the reviews.
On Rotten Tomatoes, by contrast, the Tomatometer score is nothing more than the percentage of critics who thought the film was worth seeing.
According to Gross, Metacritic is also more restrictive about the critics it accepts, relying largely on traditional media organizations. The company was previously owned by the CBS Corp. and was sold to Red Ventures in 2020.
Anyone can cast a vote for a film on IMDb, which is owned by Amazon. Yet despite the potential for misuse, IMDb ratings for wide releases have stayed relatively stable over the past two decades, varying little from their average of 6.2 out of 10. Between 2009 and 2019, scores on the platform rose three per cent.
Rotten Tomatoes also hosts audience scores, but they are not a part of our data.
Since Global News conducted analysis independently, Meares of Rotten Tomatoes says it’s hard to comment authoritatively on our findings.
While Meares did not dispute our data, a company spokesperson claims not to have any comparable internal analysis showing that Tomatometer scores have risen for wide releases between 2009 and 2019.
“We do see ups and downs,” Meares says.
Meares acknowledges that 2019 was a strong year for the Tomatometer, but points out that if you go back historically, there are other years with high average scores, such as 1939 and 1982. Global News only looked at data from films released after the website’s founding in 1998.
Even anecdotally, the finding that there are more and more fresh films on the site does not appear to be an item of conversation among staff.
“It’s not necessarily a topic that has come up,” Meares says. “We tend to live in the day-to-day.”
Without a full accounting by Rotten Tomatoes, which has greater access to its own data than any third party, it is impossible to know exactly why the data shows that scores are rising on the site.
It’s more than just scores
Anyone old enough to remember Siskel & Ebert & the Movies can recall how often the two critics used to disagree with each other. Two critics, five opinions, as the old joke goes.
Now imagine trying to get upwards of 500 critics to reach a consensus. That’s exactly what the Tomatometer attempts to do.
Gorber believes a great deal of nuance is lost when you boil down all these contrasting opinions to a single number.
People often assume that if a film is at “80 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes that means it’s an A movie, and if it’s 70 per cent that means it’s a B movie. And that’s 100 per cent not what it’s like,” Gorber says.
“Some of the greatest films ever made are 50 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, because half the audience really loved it and half the audience hated it. And sometimes those are the most exciting works of cinema ever.”
Rotten Tomatoes’ best worst movies
On the other hand, he notes that a mediocre movie can easily score 80 per cent or 90 per cent on the platform, if most of the critics who viewed the film thought it was just fine.
Gorber warns against making viewing decisions just based on a movie’s score. He believes that Rotten Tomatoes is best used as a jumping-off point for exploring the criticism, discussion, and debate around a film.
“If you are deciding not to not watch a film because of its negative Rotten Tomatoes score, I highly encourage you to look and read some of those negative reviews (or at least scan them before worrying about spoilers) and decide to engage with the conversation, rather than simply dismiss it.”
While the company was formed in the dot-com boom of the late-1990s, the name “Rotten Tomatoes” has its roots in the 19th-century theatre.
Ever since aspiring Long Island actor John Ritchie was mercilessly pelted off stage in 1883 by a barrage of rotten tomatoes, previously distributed among the crowd, the food has served as the weapon of choice for disgruntled audiences. And while the Rotten Tomatoes website offers a level of sophistication that this mob of bloodthirsty New Yorkers could scarcely have anticipated, perhaps there are limits to the explanatory power of this delicious, though easily perishable vegetable.
Global News downloaded every available film review score since the dawn of cinema from Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, and IMDB using the OMDb API. We restricted our analysis to the past 22 years, since Rotten Tomatoes has been around since 1998. It’s possible the website uses a different method for ingesting reviews from older releases that would make pre-1999 comparisons challenging. Based on suggestions from David A. Gross, we also restricted our analysis to wide releases, which we define as any film that was released to at least 1,000 theatres in the U.S., according to Box Office Mojo. We reviewed our data for accuracy and to fill in missing values. Our findings roughly match those of Gross, who has been independently tracking average Tomatometer scores among wide releases for years.