Graham: Tomato scores not always what they seem
The 1978 cult film “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” depicted a grim reality where tomatoes let loose and attacked the inhabitants of a small town.
Something similar is currently happening in Hollywood, except the tomatoes are film critic blurbs and box office receipts are under siege.
Rotten Tomatoes has become one of the most powerful tools in Tinseltown. The website, founded in 1998, rounds up film reviews from publications far and wide and boils them down to a simple pass/fail grade, and then assigns each film a score on its “Tomatometer” that correlates to its numerical percentage of positive reviews. Films with 60 percent positive reviews and above are considered “fresh” (and are awarded a juicy looking tomato logo) while those with scores below 60 percent are deemed “rotten” (and are given an ugly green splat.)
In recent years, Rotten Tomatoes has grown more powerful as more stock has been put in well-received films’ Rotten Tomatoes scores. Earlier this year, the hit horror film “Get Out” used its 100 percent fresh rating as a cornerstone of its marketing campaign. (The movie was eventually bumped down to a 99 percent rating when a pair of dissenting reviews trickled in, one from infamous contrarian Armond White.) “Dunkirk” and “Baby Driver” — sitting at 93 and 95 percent fresh, respectively — have also touted their high Rotten Tomatoes scores in their marketing campaigns.
Celebrating good reviews is nothing new. Where Rotten Tomatoes has drawn criticism recently is when films are panned, and studios are using poor Rotten Tomatoes scores as a scapegoat for bad box office.
Last weekend, “The Emoji Movie” opened to $24.5 million, this despite a dismal 7 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It was the first time this summer that a movie held to its pre-release tracking figures despite a brutal Rotten Tomatoes drubbing.
Films getting knocked at the box office this summer include “Transformers: The Last Knight” (15 percent — the lowest of the series), “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” (29 percent — also the lowest of the series), “The Mummy” (16 percent) and “Baywatch” (19 percent), all of which performed below expectations.
Meanwhile, films like “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “Wonder Woman” (both 92 percent) have outperformed their box office forecasts, and the link between Rotten Tomatoes scores and box office has not gone unnoticed.
Film fans don’t have to go far seeking out a film’s Rotten Tomatoes score. They’re right there on Fandango if you buy movie tickets online or on your phone, and AMC’s site also includes “fresh” ratings on its site. (Fandango acquired Rotten Tomatoes and its parent company, Flixster, last year.)
To avoid receiving poor Rotten Tomatoes scores, studios are screening films perceived to be critical losers for critics closer and closer to their release dates. (Or sometimes not at all; “The Emoji Movie” did not screen in advance for critics in Detroit.)
Rotten Tomatoes gives a good sense of critical consensus, but it’s not the whole story. Take a film like “Detroit,” which has earned strong, but not glowing reviews from most critics. Because the majority of those reviews are positive, the film has a 92 percent “fresh” rating on the site, which should be read as 92 percent of critics agree the movie is good, not that reviewers give it a 92 out of 100 score.
Similarly, critics across the board could give a movie a middle ground review, say a letter grade of a C, and because that is technically not an endorsement, that movie would receive a low percentage score, or a “splat.” Because it generates a score based on a simple pass/fail scale, nuance is lost on the Tomatometer.
What this means for the ticket-buying public is they could get hyped up to see what they think is the best movie of the year because of a strong Rotten Tomatoes score and wind up feeling disappointed, or they could miss out on an interesting film because a low score kept them from taking a chance on a particular film.
What it means for studios that want to blame low Rotten Tomatoes scores for under-performing box office is simple. If you want to avoid low scores, stop making bad movies.