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The Rotten Truth About Rotten Tomatoes

Growing up, in high school especially, movies were the background to a lot of my life. They were the default activity when no others were available. My first experiences on my own were at the movies; so were my first encounters with girls and my first flirtations with crime (we would buy tickets to something rated “PG” and make our way to something rated “R”).

The point: movies are important to me, in an intangible way, and so I can’t wrap my head around the reductionist program embarked on by the website Rotten Tomatoes.

I’m sure you, like me and most of the people we know, have been on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s very tempting, especially if you are on the fence about seeing one movie or another. The website often likes to promote the wide-lensed snapshot it provides, of all the critical opinion around for just about any movie you can think of. In reality, though, most of us like to look at a movie’s percentage.

That is, the percentage of critics who came out generally in favor. Above 60 percent, a movie will earn a red, cartoonish, ripe tomato (to fit the theme), but below that, the movie earns what appears to be vomit splatter. The percentage is so easy, so simple and so eye-catching that some movies have even begun to advertise their agreeable scores.

But I take issue with the formulaic nature of Rotten Tomatoes ratings. For one thing, they tend to get things wrong, especially as we compare one movie’s score to another’s. Take “Forrest Gump,” which until recently I had believed to be universally beloved. It was a powerful experience the first time I saw it, and it’s a movie I’ll never forget. Well, “Forrest Gump” scored 71 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. “Top Critics Tomatometer,” with a large number of its contemporary critics feeling that it made American history too cutesy. To put that in perspective, “Forrest Gump” was sixteen percentage points lower than “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” an animated film in which the main character devises a machine capable of city-sized spaghetti.

Excuse me?

How have we not come to the conclusion that the system is broken. If it has decided that “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” is a superior film to “Forrest Gump,” then I’ve decided that I can never trust another of its judgments. What’s even more frustrating, though, is that it seems like the inaccuracy of the Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” could hardly have been more obvious from the start. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that movies affect me on an intangible level. There’s no perfect formula for what I like and don’t like. Personally, I tend to think it’s actually a good sign if others are strongly divided — sometimes brilliance is controversial. In fact, often it is.

Plus, Rotten Tomatoes relies on the perspective of film critics, which is just as erratic as my own. Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” is perhaps my favorite film, and it performs fairly well on Rotten Tomatoes. One of the critics who did not like it, however, was Andrew Sarris of the New York Observer, who was quoted to have said, “What this film may have needed to get on its feet is some honest-to-goodness violence.” Are you kidding me? Your negative review is that the drama in the movie was disconnected from violence. I don’t have anything against violence in the right circumstances, but to me “Magnolia’s” restraint in that regard was compelling. Too often violence is used as a cheap sucker-punch to create interest where by rights none exists.

Look, as far as this carries over into my feelings about Rotten Tomatoes, we might understand that in my case (and, I’m sure, in yours) sometimes a movie is hurt by a critic’s preference, especially if it directly contradicts my own.

I think anyone who could successfully distill quality into an algorithm would rightfully be a millionaire. The problem in the case of Rotten Tomatoes is that, despite their millions, their judgment of quality is still far from perfect.

Ben Moss gives Rotten Tomatoes a measly 41 percent.

This is a Daily Nexus online exclusive.
Views expressed on the Opinion page do not necessarily reflect those of the Daily Nexus or UCSB. Opinions are primarily submitted by students.
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19 Comments

  1. One should always take criticism as subjective.. & your criticism of Rotten Tomatoes is ultimately a criticism of RT’s combined critics (algorithm or not).. in fact I’ve read many complete essays by critics on RT & often it suggests other than the quote used by RT itself
    (subjectivity of algorithms).. in fact RT would just as soon you read critics’ complete essays.. anwhooo, I always take into account the subjectivity of RT & RT’s critics.. I also only read their ‘Top Critics’; their not only published in the ‘Top’ journals, their are also more than enough of them…

  2. You know there’s a problem when someone is believes that a website should dictate the quality level of anything. What ever happened to thinking for yourself and, you know, deciding what films to see based on whether it sounds interesting to you? Why should one need to be told what is good and what isn’t?

    Rotten Tomatoes gives a general score of the level of critical reception a film has received……. nothing more, nothing less. It’s something to keep in the back of your mind, but by no means should it be the defining factor in your movie choices. There are films I love (such as An Awfully Big Adventure) which were rated Rotten, and films in the high 90% range that I wouldn’t watch under threat of waterboarding (such as Before Sunrise). It’s nothing to get butthurt over. Who the hell cares if critics don’t rate a film as high as you think it deserves? If you like it, isn’t that what really matters?

  3. I don’t get the point of this article. Seems the author is annoyed that his favorite films aren’t more well loved. I don’t personally know anyone who would consider Forrest Gump a classic. If he wants a barometer that includes professional and amateur film critics along with the public he should us Letterboxd rather than RT. Besides, nobody pays any attention to RT scores. Look at Metro Manila, still 100% yet nobody saw it.

  4. I don’t LOVE Rotten Tomatoes, but this article makes no valid points against the website. If Mr. Ben Moss would actually look on the website, he would see that while Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs got an 87% and Forrest Gump got a 71%, their average scores are very similiar (7.3 and 7.4 respectively). But Moss failed to even realize this. There are fundamental problems with RT, but the article does not identify any of them. Instead, Moss just seems to be arguing about critics in general, which is pointless. Film criticism is subjective, but apparently Moss doesn’t understand that.

    Oh, and Forrest Gump is good, but very cheesy. Get over it.

    • I doubt if anyone ‘Loves’ RT but it is the only place of which I know that lists so many critics & ‘Top Critics’ + one can also choose to read the whole article by individual critics.. anywhooo, your point is well-made…

  5. in general I like Rotten Tomatoes – as a night at the movies is more and more expensive, RT is simply a great tool of the consumer. It is best used as a general barometer that cant factor in all tastes- the 60% goal is a little tough to attain, especially by top critics. I find that any movie that scores above 60% on TOP critics is generally going to be good- there are a ton of great movies in the 40-50 % range as well whereby you have to dig deeper, read the reviews, find a favorite critic etc – if something is 30% or lower – I will generally save my money- I have found an interesting way to use RT – I like at the variation between the general score and the top critic score – if there is little variation ( usually the general score is higher for most movies) that may push me to see the movie – if I see a movie right at 60% or so, general score – with a wide variation with the top critics score ( lower) I will not see it- I have wondered for such films if RT can be manipulated ? A movie with a top star gets right around 60%, with a wide variation downward on TOp critics score – but the movie will generally suck to me – somehow a group of very general reviewers pushed the score up – Jack Reacher & Two Guns are two very mediocre movies that come to mind -

    • you make a very good & important point.. I also like RT.. it is the only place of which I know that lists so many critics & ‘Top Critics’ + one can also read the whole article by individual critics…

  6. “appears to be vomit splatter?” ….I always assumed it was a rotten tomato…

  7. I would have to agree. The critics on rotten foam at the mouth over any g-rated movie that comes out. They also seem to have an obvious bias towards any type of action movie. a bunch of dweebs really.

  8. I’m not sure I get the point. Any review will be subjective (at least partially) and one of the points of RT is to gain some insulation from that subjectivity by mass sampling (through both the tomatometer AND the average score). This is why the magnolia example fails: it is a CREDIT to RT that it distances itself from any one reviewer’s opinion: something that was notoriously hard to do before (getting one’s reviews from the news paper or Roger Ebert say, were far MORE subjective).

    More than this, it is hard to take seriously a criticism of a website that gets largely SUBJECTIVE scoring WRONG. Foremost, though, I think that these criticisms stem from taking the tomatometer as the end-all be-all of the site’s scoring. It is not:

    Take the Forrest/Cloudy example. The tomatometer score represents the percentage of people who had a positive review. There is a sizeable gap (no doubt partly due to differing expectations). However, the average scores are nearly the same (7.2-7.3). This gives us interesting and valuable information. Forrest Gump is a polarizing movie while Cloudy is generally agreed to be a mildly entertaining movie.

    RT gives a much deeper insight into the nature of a movie than just a raw score, and you allude to this in your post “Personally, I tend to think it’s actually a good sign if others are strongly divided — sometimes brilliance is controversial.” RT offers more information than a one-off score for the savvy consumer.

  9. …quite right…Now You See Me for example is a great movie…better than they rated. Wolf of Wall street to me is better than the rating…and on and on

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