Is Rotten Tomatoes Responsible For A Terrible Summer Box Office?

Hollywood just had one of its worst summer seasons at the box office in 20 years. And rather than blame sequel fatigue, cinematic universe fatigue, or rapidly increasing ticket prices, executives are pointing their finger at one culprit: Rotten Tomatoes.

The movie review aggregation website has been the bane of the industry — and some film critics — for years, getting accused of reducing nuanced film reviews to a good-or-bad scale. And industry insiders say that its growing omniscience on Google and ticket sales websites like Fandango are steering audiences away from movies that get bad Rotten Tomatoes scores. But is Rotten Tomatoes really solely at fault?

U.S. movie theaters had their slowest summer movie season since 1992, with the domestic box office grossing around only $3.606 billion from May to August. "Surefire hits" like Transformers: The Last Knight and Baywatch tanked, leaving Hollywood executives and directors scrambling to find a culprit. And they found one in review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, according to a new piece from the New York Times.

"I think it's the destruction of our business," said director Brett Ratner, who more recently produces and finances films, told New York Times reporter Brooks Barnes

Barnes continued to describe the industry animosity against Rotten Tomatoes, writing:

Mr. Ratner's sentiment was echoed almost daily in studio dining rooms all summer, although not for attribution, for fear of giving Rotten Tomatoes more credibility. Over lunch last month, the chief executive of a major movie company looked me in the eye and declared flatly that his mission was to destroy the review-aggregation site.

The article cited Rotten Tomatoes "rotten" or "fresh" scoring system, in which movies that are rated below 60% are deemed "rotten," as one of the reductionist qualities that the website has been accused of. However, allegations of harmful "reductionism" have been thrown about constantly between the film industry and critics, ever since the star-rating system was introduced in the 1920s, and again in the 1980s when Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel introduced their thumbs up and down scores in the syndicated TV show Siskel and Ebert At the Movies.

Another accusation thrown against Rotten Tomatoes: their inclusion of reviews from movie blogs (hi) and YouTube channels like Screen Junkies. Filmmakers complain the site is casting "too wide a critical net," the New York Times piece says. But, Fandango (which owns Rotten Tomatoes) President Paul Yanover defends Rotten Tomatoes' vetting system and counteracts that it's a way of including more minority and female voices into the fold when most traditional outlets hire older white men.

The big question is whether audiences actually look to Rotten Tomatoes as a deciding factor in whether or not they'll see a movie. The ongoing popularity of the site could indicate that this is true, with a 32% increase in unique visitors to the site than last year, the New York Times reports. But critics are not all powerful, and word of mouth still is — look at the exponential rise of Wonder Woman's box office haul. So maybe there are a few other reasons people didn't go to see the newest Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean at the movie theater this summer.

Bad Movies Are Tanking, And Good Movies Aren't

Just as the timing of movie review embargoes have come to predict Rotten Tomatoes scores, so have the scores themselves come to predict the box office haul for these movies. But are bad reviews directly responsible for a movie's ticket sales? Probably not.

Let's take a look at the movies that flopped domestically: the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean, the fifth Transformers, the second reboot of The Mummy, and a reboot of a not-that-great '90s TV show. In summers past, these movies would have been guaranteed hits no matter their Rotten Tomatoes score, but in 2017, they only lost money or barely made back their gargantuan production costs. And maybe it's not because Rotten Tomatoes has become some sort of dominating figure for moviegoers, but because audiences are tired of reboots and sequels that are obviously made to sell tickets rather than tell stories. Shocker, I know.

But you know what movies did do well? Original stories or fresh takes on genre movies like Wonder Woman, Girls Trip, The Big Sick, Dunkirk — which lead to one of the most varied summer movie seasons in quite some time. I wrote a piece a few months ago about the box office power of mid-budget and female-led movies this season, and how audiences are more willing to seek out original fare rather than the next tepid reboot, and news of the floudering box office expectations of tired tentpoles only supports that.

Critics are not all-powerful beings set on bringing down blockbuster juggernauts. Like /Film's Josh Spiegel wrote earlier this summer, they just want to see good movies and share those movies with fellow fans. And maybe audiences are warming to that idea, too.

Tickets Are Expensive

There's a reason that MoviePass was met with an overwhelming demand when it dropped its subscription fee to $9.95 per month.

Movie tickets can average $12 or $13 now, even more if audiences want to shell out for an IMAX screening. And with the abundance of streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, or digital rentals, audiences are more particular about the movies they want to see in theaters.

The China Effect

It's not just the U.S. theaters that are suffering. There's evidence that the illustrious love affair between Hollywood and the Chinese market is starting to flounder, with Chinese audiences turning away from this summer's biggest tentpoles.

Instead of surpassing the U.S. box office, Chinese movie markets are slowing down, according to a report by The Outline. The Outline wrote:

In 2017, blockbuster after blockbuster has flopped in both North America and China. The Mummy starring Tom Cruise landed with a thud. The live-action remake of the popular Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell starring Scarlett Johansson (which had investment from Chinese companies, a practice that has become more common in recent years as Hollywood and the Chinese film industry seek to work together) enjoyed a whitewashing casting controversy before it grossed a paltry $70 million at the US and Chinese box offices combined, failing to recoup its $110 million budget.

Hollywood has banked on Chinese audiences to make up the box office for flashy movies that were met with poor reviews or showings in the U.S., inserting Chinese characters or product placements to appeal to the international audiences. However, the Chinese fans are starting to catch on, and box office receipts have suffered.

"Viewers reportedly laughed openly at obvious, forced Chinese product placement, like Wahlberg drinking the dairy drink Mengniu in a South Dakota scrapyard" in Transformers: The Last Knight, and the movie grossed only $229 million in China compared to the last Transformers film's $320 million.

Box office analyst Jeff Bock told The Outline that in order to gain back these audiences, Hollywood should go "back to the core: story, story, story." It's good advice not just for the industry's success internationally, but domestically too. This summer has proven that audiences around the globe don't care about the next Tom Cruise vehicle, next franchise entry, or Rotten Tomatoes score. They just want a good story.