A break down of the editor’s thoughts on criticism in the age of Rotten Tomatoes and why, if you love film, having your own opinion is the best thing you can do.
I’ve never really considered myself to be a film critic. Maybe it’s a matter of title and position but I’ve always felt more comfortable with “cinephile”. To some it’s a cliquish, snobby, term but I’ve always felt it’s more accurate. Cinema is like anything else, you understand it by studying it. But nothing can substitute passion.
It’s the key identifier I look for when discussing films with people. That passion comes from a place of understanding that cannot be taught. I’ve met people with master’s degrees in media who know less than people who’ve never heard of Andrei Rublev, let alone seen it. Many self-styled critics that I meet, however, fall into neither of these categories. They fall under “people who pretend that they’ve seen Andrei Rublev”.
As long as there are disciplines there will be people who want to exploit them for the standing they feel that discipline can give them, not because they want to enrich themselves. Film is, still, considered to be one of the lesser forms of art; if it’s considered to be one at all. But it is very popular. It’s this popularity that first drew me, as I’m sure it did many a cinephile, into wanting to understand the influence it holds over people’s lives. Why a literature teacher, with a feeling of contempt towards the legitimacy of the entire medium, will still tout the fact that a novel being made into a Hollywood movie is some kind of high honour. Film does funny things to people, this much I’ve always known. Much in the same way music does. It can be a huge part of people’s lives regardless of background, taste or education and it can be deconstructed from a number of different angles. But understanding always comes back to passion.
Passion is the difference between the key phrases that I listen out for in conversation more than I do any other. Will they say “It was bad” or will they say “I thought it was bad”? It’s the most telling thing in the world to me. Does that person have enough faith in their own opinion to shoulder the, meager, responsibility of having it? Increasingly people don’t seem interested in whether or not they will like something, they only want to know if other people like it. I find it a very dehumanising thing to have such little faith in oneself that you can’t even stand behind your own enjoyment of something. Maybe it’s because we’ve become more insecure as a species, too self-aware, too surveilled and too plugged-in. We use the internet for more things than ever now and film criticism is not immune to this trend. Maybe in the digital ocean of opinions we view our own as so small and inconsequential that we’ve given up on even having them anymore, but mostly I feel it’s down to a simple matter of economics.
You can chart the rise of such sites as Rotten Tomatoes into becoming household names with the decline of household incomes. The less disposable money a household has to spend on recreation the more prudent our decisions become. Shelling out your weekend’s spending cash on a film that may end up being completely unenjoyable is a risk that people can, literally, no longer afford to make. That’s what it comes down to, really. The death of risks.
Certainty is such a boring thing, especially in art. But it’s comforting; and that’s what the movies have become to us now. Comfort. Nothing else. It’s why the Marvel Studios’ and Star Wars’ reign supreme. Nostalgia and brand recognition help, but really it’s all about comfort. People want to be soothed by the movie theatre and it’s become the critic’s job to steer people towards the smoothest ride and away from challenging, or unpleasant, ideas. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have a good time. But, if we’re no longer defining enjoyment by how we feel, we’re not asking our critics to tell us whether or not we’ll enjoy it. We’re asking how much other people will enjoy it. How much does this film fit into the status quo. Will I be unpopular if I like it.
It’s been a fairly prevalent fear in the film criticism community for decades now. It began when Siskel and Ebert, the godfathers of modern film criticism, gained popularity with their TV show At the Movies. People feared that it would simplify the process of critical thinking and choke the life out of more complex, independent, cinema in favour of mainstream, populist, filmmaking that focussed on a direct emotional experience. Whether or not this is an accurate assessment of Siskel and Ebert’s style is a matter of opinion, as is whether or not they helped or hindered the mainstream over the leftfield. But their signature rating system, thumbs up or thumbs down, may very well have, unintentionally, started us down a path towards doom.
With each passing year films become more and more defined in the public’s eye, and in historical record, by their Rotten Tomatoes percentage. We have created a gladiatorial system by which films are given the thumbs up or the thumbs down, saved or slaughtered by a single gesture. But how accurate is that gesture and who’s really making it?
Rotten Tomatoes has become a household name but I’ve been continually shocked at how few people actually know what it is or what it does. Rotten Tomatoes is an aggregate website, similar to Metacritic, which compiles reviews for films and assigns them a percentage score based on “positive” and “negative” reviews. Every review is broken down and placed into one of of these two categories. The higher the ratio of positive reviews the higher the percentage.
Here’s the problem: this is a truly awful way to judge anything creative.
Most reviews are neither fully positive nor fully negative. Metacritic, at the very least, incorporates a third tier, “mixed”, and then assigns each review its own, individual, score before creating an overall score. As screenwriter Max Landis put it “Rotten Tomatoes breaks down entire reviews into just the word ‘yes’ or ‘no’ making criticism binary in a destructive arbitrary way”. But the thing that should give all of us pause is the question “who decides which category the review falls under?”. It isn’t always the critic. Not all reviewers use a rating system to demonstrate their conclusions and not all critics consider the same details to be relevant to their review, or any review. So, in the very common occurrence of a mixed or middling review that doesn’t prescribe a rating, who breaks the tie? Who decides if it’s positive or negative? It’s the Rotten Tomatoes editorial staff. They decide what the score is. The score that films can live and die by.
When a person edits anything they are either consciously or subconsciously making constant decisions over what information to highlight and what information to hide and the way in which monetisation of content on the internet works deeply affects this decision-making process.
Making money through the internet can seem like an overly complex business but, broken down into the simplest terms, it’s really all about clicks. How much traffic can you drive towards your page. Even when money isn’t involved it’s still the basic tenet of how to make the most of the internet. It’s marketing, and marketing revolves around trends. When you see a trend, you exploit it. When the public has been whipped into a frenzy over something’s marketing campaign then it becomes more profitable to be a part of that frenzy rather than ignore it. Similarly, when people take more notice of you for disliking something than for liking it, it becomes profitable to attack it. I first began to notice it a year ago when the Rotten Tomatoes scoring system made headlines because of the negative reviews for Batman V Superman.
It’s funny how arguments over Rotten Tomatoes always come back to this one film. In the grand scheme of things, it’s hardly important. But it elicited incredibly strong reactions from people and it became quite apparent, quite quickly, that the trend wasn’t about people not liking the film; it was about antagonizing the people that did. The more that its score became a story the lower it got. More people were writing hyperbolic reviews and more on-the-fence reviews were interpreted by the aggregate system as negative. The middle ground no longer existed. You had to choose a side. It played, disgustingly, into the hands of this marketing idea, perpetuated by both sides, that there was a fundamental difference between two comic book adaptations about men in skin tight outfits punching one another. Sure enough, by the end of the summer Batman V Superman was dubbed a travesty and Captain America: Civil War was lauded as a masterpiece. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a score of 90%. That’s higher than each of the previous two year’s Palme d’Or winners. Let that idea sink in for a moment.
One of the biggest problems with this one, homogeneous, score is that it isn’t homogeneous at all but it can be easily wielded as a weapon to secure a film’s greatness, or failure, in the public’s eye. Different critics very often focus on different things because different things matter to different individuals.
Now, this can be viewed as a good thing in relation to the scoring system. High or low consensus is made up of people finding positive, or negative, things to say about a range of things in the film. But, truthfully, criticism comes down to personality more than anything else. Passion is subjective. If you hear that a film critic likes a film then that piece of information tells you nothing more than that a person liked a film. It does not mean that the film is good and it does not mean that you will also like it. You have to go out of your way to find an individual voice that you agree with or respect the opinion of. Asking a total stranger whether or not you’ll like a film is like asking a total stranger whether or not you’ll like a certain food. How on earth would they know? The best part is: it doesn’t just have to be one voice that you listen to, you can find lots of different voices to listen to that you agree with on many points and disagree with on others. You can open up a dialogue with those individuals. They can enrich your understanding, you can enrich theirs. You can’t interact with a number. You can’t converse with a mob. Engaging with criticism is about reaching your own conclusion. Reading a Rotten Tomatoes score is about accepting someone else’s.
There were a lot of people who genuinely did not like this one film about Batman having a disagreement with Superman, I have become painfully aware of this as I have become painfully aware of their need for this to be everyone’s conclusion. I’m also aware that there are people on the other side of that, who blindly and piously fight for a brand name against any negativity. It’s the fundamental problem that both Batman and Superman face beyond film criticism. They’re such well-known names that everyone has their own idea of what those characters should be and when something doesn’t conform to that preconceived notion we reject it, believing on some level that our idea was better. It reminded me a lot of the public reactions to Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. I heard a lot about what people thought that film should have been and very little about what that film actually was. I don’t know about you but I don’t crave entertainment that meets my expectations, I crave entertainment that defies them. This is Rotten Tomatoes true Achilles heel. It cannot translate passion. It cannot convey that a person can dive deep into something’s flaws because that something has depth. It cannot reflect that a person will write a six page essay on how they find something boring because they are actually obsessed with it.
It comes down to this much wider, much more important, discussion about the aforementioned death of risks in mainstream filmmaking. The coldest, hardest, truth that I have found with Rotten Tomatoes is that it rewards mediocrity above anything else and it punishes films that take risks. Homogeneous, meaningless, scores make for homogeneous, meaningless, films. You can’t say much bad about something that you can’t say much of anything about. How do film producers thrive under this system? Simple. Make more films based on pre-existing intellectual properties that take fewer creative risks and conform to pre-existing views. In short: don’t make anything new. Don’t change. Don’t grow. Reboots. Remakes. Sequels. Requels. People liked Jurassic Park, why not make it again. People responded better when Star Wars was a story about blowing up the Death Star, well let’s just keep making that then. Creativity can grow in this environment, again it’s a much wider topic, but thinking that it’s better than original concepts is delusional.
Rotten Tomatoes has been used as a tool to help film theatres but in truth it’s hurt them. The more single-minded the mainstream film industry becomes the more it alienates talent. Remember all that hubbub about the great exodus of talent away from film to TV? We can influence the media we see and we can change it for the better but that’s never going to happen if people can’t have faith in something more than a tentatively accurate percentage score.
In its own way, maybe Rotten Tomatoes is instigating change by showing people the wrong way of doing things. The foundation of Rotten Tomatoes is print journalism and as its prominence and notoriety outside of the internet has grown so too have the new age film critics of podcasts and YouTube. They’re more accessible, often more relatable, and can more clearly show they’re reasoning and their intended tone. Their passion is more easily identifiable. Criticism is creative and creativity is not binary. Listen to other people’s voices because it will help you find your own.