Interlude – You’re Using Rotten Tomatoes Incorrectly

Suicide Squad Cast

This column has been brewing in my brain for a little while now, waiting for a reason to be written.  And here we are, a couple of days before Suicide Squad is being released and people everywhere are freaking out.  The reviews from professional critics are dropping and they aren’t looking too kind.  As of this writing, the Rotten Tomatoes score is sitting at a troublesome 35%.  That will continue to change as more reviews come in, but it’s not going to waver too much.  And everybody has an opinion about it.  And it seems that the people who haven’t seen the movie have even stronger opinions than those who have.

I’ve seen people completely dismissing the opinions of the critics – professionals who see way more movies and know way more about movies than they ever have or will.  I see the flip side, as well, as others are embracing this 35% as an unwavering fact, completely unwilling to allow for the influence of subjectivity.

Both sides are sorely misguided.

The root of the problem here is that ominous Rotten Tomatoes score.  If you aren’t familiar with Rotten Tomatoes, here’s the deal.  Rotten Tomatoes is a popular movie website that is best known for its aggregation of professional critics’ reviews of movies and television shows.  Each individual review is then designated as Fresh, if the critic liked the film, or Rotten, if they didn’t.  The percentage of Fresh reviews is then calculated and that percentage is the film’s or show’s Rotten Tomatoes score.  A score of 60% or higher will deem the film/show as Fresh, overall.  A score of 75% or higher gives a Certified Fresh designation.

Pretty simple, right?  Well, it’s intended to be.  But it’s not.  That’s the problem.  It seems more simple than it is.  And most people are interpreting the scores in a horribly ineffective way.

The issue lies with RT’s parity system.  There are way too many factors involved in analyzing the quality of a film to assign it a label using a binary method.  Right/wrong.  Black/white.  Good/bad.  That’s way too reductive and, frankly, unfair to the films, the filmmakers, and the readers.

And who, exactly, is in charge of deciding these Fresh/Rotten designations?  According to the RT website, a number of people.  And we can see here that it gets a bit tricky.  That page clearly states that a middle-of-the-road review is usually counted as Rotten.  And that’s fine if your audience is aware of that.

But most people think that a score with a Rotten percentage means most critics loathed that particular work, which simply isn’t accurate.  There’s no accounting for how much a critic liked or disliked a film.  It’s Fresh or Rotten and even that designation is open to interpretation.

The movie in question, here, is Suicide Squad but I don’t want to include any blurbs about that specific film because I want to leave it up to you to search those out if you choose to (and I recommend you do, to some degree).  But, I want to use another recent and related film to illustrate my point.  Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice currently sits at 27% on RT.  The whole world seemingly took that rating to heart, either rebelling or rejoicing in the number as if God/Emilia Clarke herself declared it to be her word.  So, let’s take a closer look at some of the reviews used to arrive at that number.

As one scrolls through a film’s page at the RT website, each review is represented by a blurb that aims to synopsize that particular critic’s entire review.  A graphic is placed alongside the blurb to symbolize whether said review is designated Fresh or Rotten, and the reader can then click through to read the entire review.  Below, I will include five of those blurbs.  Guess if each represents a review that is designated Fresh or Rotten.  Good luck.

1.

Blurb 1

2.

Blurb 2

3.

Blurb 3

4.

Blurb 4

5.

Blurb 5

Okay, got it?  Think you know which are Fresh and which are Rotten?  Okay, let’s see.

1.  Fresh

Blurb 1A

2. Rotten

Blurb 2A

3. Rotten

Blurb 3A

4. Rotten

Blurb 4A

5. Fresh

Blurb 5A

And there you go.  Even if you got some or even all of them correct, anyone would have to admit that all five of those are open to some very liberal interpretation and that it doesn’t much sound like any of the five either purely loved or hated the film.  And the blurb from the first review by Ken Hanke seems to fly directly in the face of the Fresh designation that his review was assigned.

So, my point should be clear.  Even if the RT score is a severely low (or high) number, it’s naïve and presumptuous to assume that there’s a direct correlation between that number and the objective quality of the film, itself.  Many reviews are clearly positive or negative and deciding between a Fresh and a Rotten designation is easy.  But many are not.  So, the informed action to take is to peruse the reviews themselves and see exactly how strongly each critic felt and what they specifically liked and disliked.

And that leads me to point out that anyone who casually dismisses professional critics are every bit as naïve as those who take the RT scores to heart.  Professional critics didn’t get into their line of work because they hate movies.  How absurd would that be?  They love movies.  I agree that it often seems like they craft their reviews in order to manipulate their own personal reputations among their peers.  But even then, these people are educated and knowledgeable about film and their views should at least be taken into consideration.  To again illustrate my point, allow me to show you the overall consensus for Batman v Superman that RT settled on once enough reviews had come in.

Consensus

Okay.  If you read my original post on BvS (linked to above), you’ll remember that I liked it, a lot, but had some criticisms.  And, looking at this consensus, there’s some truth to it.  I don’t know that I agree that the action is the problem, but I can concur that the film tries to accomplish a little too much by looking ahead to the future rather than staying focused on the present.

So, in other words, even though I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, I can also somewhat agree with the critics.  In every post that I write after I see a movie, I make a very concerted, conscious effort to lay out what works and what doesn’t work without telling you all – my audience – what you will/should personally like/dislike.  That’s up to each of you as individuals.  When it comes to BvS, I agree with many of the criticisms.  They just didn’t bother me as much as they bothered others.

But here’s something else everyone needs to realize.  If you truly think that critics don’t matter, you couldn’t be more wrong.  BvS started out with a very strong opening weekend and then sunk like Ben Grimm with an adamantium anchor chained around his ankle.  It should have easily passed $1 billion worldwide based on its opening but it didn’t (it made just under $900 million) and that’s solely due to the reviews and word of mouth.  And word of mouth is massively fueled by reviews because very few want to disagree with the perceived experts and risk ridicule.  “You LIKED that?  How COULD you?  HAW HAW!!!”  Movies will always perform better if they have good reviews.  Always.  The critics matter.  So, maybe you’ll see that movie you’ve been anxiously awaiting, but lots of other people who were on the fence won’t.  No matter what kind of movie Suicide Squad actually is, its box office will be seriously affected by its RT score, fair or not.

So, here’s the bottom line.  Many of the critics are leveling the same accusations at Suicide Squad as other critics.  So, that means they’re probably right; those particular issues likely exist and Suicide Squad may not be as objectively high-quality as we all hoped.  But it also means that these problems won’t bother everyone to the same degree.  I’m personally more concerned with Harley Quinn than anything else.  If I love Harley, that’s all I’ll need to enjoy the film, even if I openly recognize that there are other things I don’t enjoy (and I don’t know if any of this will be the case.  Check back here on Thursday night to see.).  Maybe you care about Harley, too.  Or maybe you’re solely invested in Jared Leto’s Joker.  Or maybe you’re a Will Smith fan who sees every movie he makes.

Whatever the case, we all care about different things.  A movie’s quality can’t efficiently be expressed as a number because beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder.  There are different levels of love and hatred and different reasons for them that a single number just can’t communicate.

My intention is not to discredit Rotten Tomatoes.  I actually rather like the site and I use it, myself.  But I use it in a way that truly informs me and not as an excuse to be reactionary and start commenting on every message board and Facebook post I see about how the movie clearly sucks or the critics clearly suck.  That doesn’t help anyone and it certainly doesn’t make the commenter appear knowledgeable or insightful.

So, use Rotten Tomatoes.  But dig a little deeper into the scores.  And see the movies you want to see, regardless of the score.  But adjust your expectations if enough of the critics are repeating a particular condemnation.  There’s probably something to it.

Anyway, come back tomorrow for a super-fun #ThrowbackThursday featuring one of the most beloved films of all-time and then again, tomorrow night, for my own Suicide Squad thoughts!  See you then!

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Interlude – You’re Using Rotten Tomatoes Incorrectly

5 thoughts on “Interlude – You’re Using Rotten Tomatoes Incorrectly

    1. Thank you! A little bit, when IMDB still had their message boards. But I’m not really sure what sites are receptive to having people share their own columns. Any suggestions? (And if you like my work, please feel free to spread the word!)

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      1. Hey thanks for the response, and I’d love to help! I’m a community manager over here at moviepilot.com and we’re always looking for contributors. If you’re interested, shoot me an email!

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      2. Hey, sorry for the delay. It’s been crazy. I’d like to touch base regarding your offer but (and I’m sure it’s me overlooking it in the obvious place) I can’t find your e-mail address?

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