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Wednesday 18 October 2017

Is Rotten Tomatoes destroying the movie industry? Or are the movies themselves simply rotten?

Henry Cavill, Jesse Eisenberg, Ben Affleck in Batman Vs Superman Dawn of Justice
Henry Cavill, Jesse Eisenberg, Ben Affleck in Batman Vs Superman Dawn of Justice

Chris Wasser

From the man who brought us Rush Hour and the badly received Batman v Superman, Hollywood producer, Brett Ratner blames the likes of reviewer site, Rotten Tomatoes — not his movies — for destroying the film industry. But could there be a more simplified reason? Could the films themselves be pants? Surely not...

Rotten Tomatoes is destroying the movie industry. Just ask Brett Ratner, businessman, director and Hollywood producer extraordinaire.

A few weeks back, Ratner — co-founder of RatPac Entertainment, the film production company that co-financed 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — was speaking at the Sun Valley Film Festival in Idaho, when he decided to go off on one about why he thought Batfleck had performed lower than expected.

“The worst thing that we have in today’s movie culture is Rotten Tomatoes,” said Ratner. “I think it’s the destruction of our business.” He didn’t stop there. “I have such respect and admiration for film criticism,” he continued. “When I was growing up film criticism was a real art. And there was intellect that went into that… now it’s about a number. A compounded number of how many positives vs. negatives. Now it’s about, ‘What’s your Rotten Tomatoes score?’ And that’s sad.

We’re getting heavy. The man who also gave us the Rush Hour films (jaypers), Red Dragon (ah, here now) and X-Men: The Last Stand (that’s it, grab your coat), eventually got around to the point he was trying to make: that critics almost killed the Man of Steel’s cinematic fist fight with the Dark Knight. And he was in an awful mood about it.

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Brett Ratner directed Dwayne Johnson in Hercules

“The Rotten Tomatoes score was so low on Batman v Superman I think it put a cloud over a movie that was incredibly successful,” he explained. “People don’t realise what goes into making a movie like that. It’s mind-blowing. It’s just insane. It’s hurting the business. It’s getting people to not see a movie.”

Ratner eventually wrapped things up with a particularly ballsy statement: that “film criticism has disappeared”. Oh, and that it’s sad. Really, really sad. We should go back to the beginning. We should go back to that Rotten Tomatoes yoke.

For the uninitiated (of which there are many), Rotten Tomatoes is a review aggregator website, first launched in America in 1998. They collect hundreds of professional film and TV reviews from around the globe, post the average ‘scores’ online, and tell people everything they need to know about what’s hot (fresh) and what’s not (rotten), in accordance with said reviews. It has its problems. There is no room for subtlety or debate. We mustn’t take it seriously.

Basically, Rotten Tomatoes offers a critical consensus — generally a snappy one-liner — and the aforementioned ‘score’ based on their findings. If a film garners a 70pc approval rating (or higher), it is “certified fresh”. Anything between 60-69pc is simply “fresh”. Anything below 59pc is “rotten”. That’s a bad thing.

The point is this: Rotten Tomatoes counts film reviews. They do not write film reviews. It is merely providing a service. To blame Rotten Tomatoes for ‘destroying’ a poorly-reviewed film is like picking a fight with Sky Sports because they told you your favourite club was relegated from the Premier League. They aren’t to blame. You’re wasting precious brain power. Leave the Tomato people alone.

It isn’t necessary to check a film’s ‘score’ before buying a ticket. I’d be willing to bet that most people don’t. These things are easily avoidable. And bad reviews tend not to kill major blockbusters — at least, not the ones in which troubled, billionaire vigilantes throw alien boy scouts through walls. Batman v Superman grossed $873 million at the box-office — more than three times its budget. Ratner is correct, it was a huge commercial success — and, it had a 28pc “rotten” rating. So what? Do you think if the film had been better reviewed, it might have made more money, Mr Ratner?

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Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice - Henry Cavill (Superman), Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman), Ben Affleck (Batman)

Let’s discuss this “cloud” he mentioned. Again, he’s right — the negative reviews followed Batman v Superman around like a bad case of BO. They still do. But Ratner’s argument is that the film wasn’t nearly the earth-shattering success it could have been — i.e. it didn’t cross the billion dollar mark — and that was the critics’ fault. That was Rotten Tomatoes’ fault.

The truth is Batman v Superman wasn’t nearly the earth-shattering success that it could have been because Batman v Superman is all over the shop. It may have had another one of those ‘record-breaking’ opening weekends ($166 million, stateside), but once everyone told their mates that it was rubbish, the figures began to drop significantly ($51.3 million in its second weekend, thank you very much). Things got even worse when Warner and DC followed up the Bruce v Clark debacle with Suicide Squad, aka, Batman’s Enemies Form a Band. Again, Suicide Squad stank. Critics tore it a new one. That’s when the keyboard warriors came out to play.

Rib-tickling accusations were thrown into the ring. Some folks (DC fans, mainly) went as far as to suggest that Disney and/or Marvel Studios must be paying critics to diss DC. “How come Marvel films get good reviews and DC ones don’t?” was the big question of the day. The answer is simple. Marvel makes good films. DC titles are in an awful state.

Most of them look as though they were written and directed by a gang of moody teenagers armed with a dog-eared copybook, a bag of crayons and a Fisher-Price camcorder. But no, critics were definitely being bribed. Yep, that was the only logical answer. Please. Disney couldn’t afford it. You might also remember that an online petition was started to shut down Rotten Tomatoes. Seriously. Someone activated a Twitter page and everything. I don’t even have the energy to check and see if they’re still accepting signatures.

Indeed, these are interesting times for professional reviewers. Film criticism is still something of an art form — quit laughing down the back. Or, at least, it should be. For obvious reasons, there are now more critics, more reviews and more dialogue between film-makers and journalists. Twitter has made it so much easier for readers to engage in a war of words with their least favourite scribes. You’ve been on Twitter. You’ve seen the evidence. Everyone is always ‘wrong’ about something.

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Gerard Butler in 'Gods of Egypt'.

But it’s when people like Brett Ratner start throwing their toys out of the pram that things begin to get silly. Just last year, Australian film-maker Alex Proyas became a laughing stock (in reviewer circles, at least) when he penned an open letter to critics on his Facebook page. 

The unintentionally hilarious fantasy epic, Gods of Egypt (a Proyas effort), had been the subject of some very bad buzz indeed. It had garnered a 16pc ‘rotten’ rating. Proyas, therefore, flipped, referring to critics as “diseased vultures pecking at the bones of a dying carcass…trying to peck to the rhythm of the consensus”. Poor Proyas. The press had touched a nerve. Someone should have had a word. But, to paraphrase the late, great American scribe, Roger Ebert, his movie still sucked. 

British film-maker Ben Wheatley (Sightseers, A Field in England) also had a pop at critics following the decidedly uneven response to the abysmal High-Rise. “It’s a job that I wouldn’t want or seek out,” said Wheatley. “As a creative person I think you should be making stuff…and if you aren’t, why should you have a voice to complain about things until you’ve walked a mile in someone’s shoes?” By the way, Ben Wheatley is something of a critical darling — or, at least, he used to be. Ben Wheatley wasn’t happy that he’d finally made a film that rubbed his biggest fans (critics) up the wrong way. But he should probably have kept his mouth shut.

Again, professional criticism isn’t dying. No more than, say, the film business is falling apart. How can it be? Sure, the major studios are probably spending too much money.

If you keep on throwing upwards of $180 million behind every blockbuster — and expecting it to make at least five times that in just six weeks — then it’s only a matter of time before the bottom falls out of the business and we all lose everything. We’ll lose The Avengers. We’ll lose the Pirates. We’ll lose Transformers. I don’t mean to make it sound like a good thing. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, of all people, warned us about this in 2013 (the irony of those lads worrying about blockbuster fatigue isn’t lost on us). I believe Spielberg used the word “implosion.”

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Avengers

They’re probably right. But the catastrophe appears to be on hold. Have you seen the 2017 figures? They ain’t too shabby, folks. Of the major blockbusters released thus far (Logan, Kong: Skull Island, Beauty and the Beast, Fast & Furious 8), each of ‘em has already crossed the $500 million mark. Beauty and the Beast made a billion in one month. Fast & Furious 8 recently had the biggest opening weekend of all time, grossing $531.9 million worldwide in just three days.

What was it that Ratner said? Something about the destruction of the business? True, these titles fared well on the, er, ‘Tomatometer’, but do you honestly think Fast & Furious 8 would have made less money had its approval rating been lower than 66pc?

Let’s not forget, word of mouth plays a key role in how you choose which films to spend your money on. A bad review from a professional critic is one thing. We’re strangers. We’re here to inform, entertain (hopefully) and, occasionally, give warning. That’s our job.

But a bad review from your best mate is a different matter entirely. You trust them. You’ll take their word for it. Maybe you trust certain critics. And I hope you do. Some of us put a lot of effort into our art, i.e. sitting on our backsides, watching terrible films so you don’t have to. After all, those carcasses won’t peck themselves…

Herald

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