Rotten Tomatoes is a website that aggregates reviews and ratings across the internet for movies and TV shows to give general consensus ratings. It was started back in 1998 by Senh Duong with two of his friends from University of California, Berkeley, originally as a project to aggregate reviews from a new Jackie Chan film. It was a hit immediate after launch, and within a couple years was getting tens of thousands of visitors each day. Over the years, the website expanded to include audience as well as critics scores and began including results for television shows.
Rotten Tomatoes calculates its ratings by pulling reviews from major publications or other news sources. This can be challenging, as the RT team must determine who counts as a valid and qualified critic. It maintains standards which include source approval (e.g. a top 100 newspaper or magazine, or top ten entertainment publication or show in a top 10 market) or be a critic belonging to one of a handful of approved critic societies. Still, the RT team has some discretion of whom to include in their critic rankings.
Rotten Tomatoes also uses larger crowds for their audience ranking scores. These rankings are submitted directly through the Rotten Tomatoes website (RT scores an audience review “fresh” if it has a ranking of 3.5 or higher). While the critic scores are qualified and verified to come from a select number of sources, anyone can submit an audience ranking, occasionally allowing for some stark contrasts in tastes to be seen. In December of 2017, Star Wars: The Last Jedi received a 91% fresh score from critics while only a 48% from audiences. Netflix’s original Bright starring Will Smith, however, maintains a 27% critic score and an 84% audience score. Still, the majority of films and shows tend to be in more lockstep.
Rotten Tomatoes primary source of revenue comes from advertising on its site. Programmatic banner ads align most pages, many of which focus on new film releases and upcoming TV shows. To generate more traffic to their site, RT maintains an active news section as well, with industry commentary and entertainment columns. Other attempts at using the platform as a vehicle to launch content initiatives have mostly failed though. In 2009, The Rotten Tomatoes Show was launched on Current TV, but was cancelled a little over a year later. In November 2017, a new web series launched on Facebook entitled See It/Skip It.
Rotten Tomatoes impact on the entertainment industry has become a hotly debated topic in recent years. The ticketing website Fandango—which shares parent companies with Rotten Tomatoes—even integrates the tomatometer scores onto its platform, so movie goers are aware of general consensus before they see a movie.
Some film executives blame poor box office performance on a low critic scores on the site, complaining that the system that ranks a review as either fresh or spoiled eliminates the nuance of each review, and stops audiences from trying out new films. Others have gone further, even changing marketing and distribution decisions for upcoming releases to prevent any “Rotten Tomato effects.” Studios trying to create bandwagon effects have chosen to show certain films to select critics at first, attempting to build a better score before wider distribution. Others have even put entire review embargos on films before their release. In the summer of 2017, Sony prevented reviews of its animated feature The Emoji Movie until the day of release. Despite its spoiled score of 8%, it opening weekend sales totaled $24.5 million. Much of this was, so one theory holds, due to families making their weekend plans to see the movie before critical consensus of it being a failure had reached the mainstream.
But the bandwagon effects can enhance performance as well. Films like Baby Driver attempted to use its Rotten Tomatoes score in the high 90s to lure people to the film over the summer of 2017. Others have certainly tried as well, though to what extent they have been successful is debated.
Rotten Tomatoes has certainly impacted the way in which we think about which films to see. No longer do most people rely on one or two critics for an opinion on the quality of the films they see, but rather they rely on crowds, both audience and critical, to generate a consensus. Whether this is good for the industry in the long-run is questionable.