Vulture swooped in this week to drop an extensive expose on the movie review website Rotten Tomatoes. The famous publication aggregates individual movie reviews from a registered pool of critics, including a scoring system that produces a percentage rating for each covered title. Ratings from critics are reported separately from audience scores. If 60% or more of its critics weigh in with a positive review, a film is considered as “fresh”, otherwise it’s “rotten.”
Since its founding in 1998 by three undergraduate students at UC Berkeley, Rotten Tomatoes has exploded in popularity to become the default reference point for moviegoers to determine quickly if a movie is worth seeing. A recent Morning Consult poll reported that one-third of adults check the Rotten Tomatoes score of a given film before deciding whether to see it.
However, many in the industry are critical of the site’s system and methods, saying that its “fresh” or “rotten” conclusions about a movie are overly simplistic and can be gamified by the studios. The Vulture article supports this criticism with the example of the 2018 movie “Ophelia” and the Public Relations company Bunker 15. The movie adaptation of Shakespeare’s famous character starring Daisy Ridley and Naomi Watts premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, with an initial score on Rotten Tomatoes of 46% based on 15 critics reviews. In part due to this relatively uninspired rating, the film languished with no distribution deal.
The producers of “Ophelia” hired PR firm Bunker 15 to put the film in front of more critics with the goal of producing more positive reviews, which could lift its rating from “rotten” to “fresh.” According to certain critics and former employees of the PR firm, Bunker 15 offered critics cash payments for reviewing the film and advice on how to hide a bad review so that it wouldn’t be registered on Rotten Tomatoes. The end result was that “Ophelia’s” critics’ score on RT moved up to 62%, making it “fresh” (barely). Soon thereafter, it was picked up for distribution by IFC Films.
Vulture uses the case of “Ophelia” to support its broader criticism of the site, and how it unfairly influences the behavior of audiences, critics, and studios.