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Is Something Rotten in the State of the Tomatometer?

A news story broke this week about a PR firm called 'Bunker 15' and their dealings with Rotten Tomatoes certified critics around the Shakespearean film adaptation, Ophelia. While the company believe it's "a reach", citing their links to thousands of writers, they've been connected with manipulating the trusted Tomatometer percentage by urging movie critics to reconsider their reviews and quarantine bad reviews to websites Rotten Tomatoes "never sees". The Vulture article calls the aggregator into question and explains how it's open to abuse stating "The Tomatometer may be the most important metric in entertainment, yet it’s also erratic, reductive, and easily hacked.".

The Tomatometer has been a good indicator of a film's perceived worthiness when it comes to box office opening weekends. While many audience members actually don't know how the percentage really works, getting an 80% rating will often be enough to warrant a ticket purchase for someone who's thinking of seeing a movie. After all, 80% equates to 'A' material, right? The Tomatometer % is basically an indication of how many film critics rated a movie fresh. It's not necessarily a 4-star rating, it's simply deciding that a movie isn't bad or unoriginal enough to be considered rotten. However, as the article suggests, something's rotten in the state of "Denmark".

Is Something Rotten in the State of the Tomatometer?

Movie critics shape public opinion on films with reviews that can make or break a film's box office success. Offering up their opinions on movies, these thoughts are often repackaged into conversations or social media interactions and have a part in getting the word out there about new releases. Visiting IMDb to get an /10 rating or checking out the % numbers or audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes can have a bearing for audience members as well as industry professionals who don't always get a chance to watch everything but need to know how a film lands. Acting with integrity and honesty is essential when it comes to this level of film criticism, holding the industry accountable and ensuring films get a fair representation.

It's no wonder that much like election tinkering in recent years, this middle ground has become incredibly valuable in the business of movies. From downgrading the outreach of bad reviews to tipping middling reviews into slightly positive ones, this cutting edge can have a dramatic effect on perception, ticket sales and thus earnings, especially in such a fickle time for cinema attendance. Affected by the pandemic delays and habit reset, it's becoming more critical than ever for movies and the film-making industry in general to get the proverbial thumbs up. There shouldn't be anything to stop someone from being lured back to the theatre and with the odd lingering cough here and there, it's become a much trickier ordeal than anticipated.

Not having the backing of a superhero dynasty or legions of fans from an established franchise, one can understand why movies have become so caught up in reboots, spin-offs and sequels without many willing to risk backing something truly original without a big name star or acclaimed director attached. The onset of superhero fatigue has complicated matters even further, which means that even staple cash cow film "products" from the House of Mouse are having to fight to pique interest and get butts into seats.

The argument that everyone's a movie critic with the rise of the internet is something that's crept into the conversation. Not only does anyone with an internet connection have a platform to voice their opinion but the establishment of influencers has had a bearing too with films often being punted for pay by people with considerable sway whatever their apparent expertise. This muddies the waters with a cluster of varying opinions and makes it even more difficult for film pundits to have their voices heard above the noise.

The flagging position of the lowly journalist now has a bearing with entertainment reporting, more specifically film, being pushed to the sidelines. Fast news arising from the instant gratification generation and the speed of on-the-ground reporting via social media has led to a refocusing of news in general. Instead of fact-finding missions involving actual reporting and conversations with key witnesses or leads, the new format involves more in the way of rewriting to keep in line with demand, time constraints and payment schemes.

While the integrity of news in general has been called in question recently, the very concept of journalism is under attack with the proliferation of fake news and next generation threat that is artificial intelligence. The junior-fication of journalism means that not enough tough questions are being asked with the next wave content to generate newsy content. The art of being a journalist worth your salt and redoubling accountability is now falling prey to yesterday deadlines and an overall downgrade of what's considered permissible in terms of robust news reporting standards.

All of these factors have created the perfect conditions for film journalists to be softened up by PR firms to the idea of incentivised suggestion. Generally-speaking, journalists are underpaid and no one really delves into the profession to make a fortune. Not having the luxury or security of a permanent make-ends-meet newspaper affiliated job, means most budding film journalists have to work twice as hard to pay the bills.

This isn't an excuse but more of an attempt to understand the landscape when it comes to entertainment journalism. Being swayed by a $50 payment doesn't seems like a victimless crime a once-off but this slippery slope is how passing a blind eye or beefing up a review can inadvertently harm the profession and the industry in the long run. Most films will have a spectrum of opinion from movie critics, but just like we've seen with PR firms such as Bell Pottinger, the outcome of "playing God" when it comes to influence over a reputation, country, people or person can have disastrous consequences.

Trust is earned over time but film critics must aim for complete transparency. This starts with personal preferences, which can be relayed to readers or watchers over time, but includes a level of consistency to ensure a fair and objective standpoint when it comes to film reviews. Every movie should be given a fair chance and while politics seem to have entered the fray when it comes to this form of assessment to make it more punchy and relevant, there should be an attempt to offer honest unbiased judgement. This extends to incentive to avoid conflict of interest, which includes gifts, favours or payment.

The Rotten Tomatoes scandal is deeply concerning, reinforcing the notion that some critics have given favourable reviews in exchange for gifts or favours from film-makers and studios. Film critics are not above criticism and it's in getting feedback from readers and shining the spotlight into these unethical situations that we can hold them accountable. A lapse in judgement is one thing when a film reviewer gets something wrong in a review but it's a much more serious matter when influential platforms and integrity is put up for sale.

A hugely influential proponent of the film-going experience, one hopes that Rotten Tomatoes will be open to conducting their own internal investigation into these accusations. An insidious business of twisting the truth, it's difficult to pinpoint these infractions making this form of unethical behaviour more about the devil in the details. Interrogating movie critics who are under suspicion, getting newly certified critics to sign a code of ethics and holding film critics (both platforms and readers) to higher account are just some of the ways one would hope this dirty business would be stamped out.

Film critics are tasked with getting the word out there, provoking thought, instilling a love for cinema, rewarding good work and forwarding an engaged movie culture. Together with critical film opinion platforms like IMDb, Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, one would hope that we're able to restore the role of a movie critic in society. Perhaps Quentin Tarantino's upcoming film, The Movie Critic, will appeal to the nostalgic value associated with the once noble profession and help instill or invigorate honour within the field once again.