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Attacked by Rotten Tomatoes

Chris Lyons | The New York Times

Hollywood had a horrible summer.

Between the first weekend in May and Labor Day, a sequel-stuffed period that typically accounts for 40 percent of annual ticket sales, box office revenue in North America totaled $3.8 billion, a 15 percent decline from the same span last year. To find a slower summer, you would have to go back 20 years. Business has been so bad that America's three biggest theater chains have lost roughly $4 billion in market value since May.

Ready for the truly alarming part? Hollywood is blaming a website: Rotten Tomatoes.

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"I think it's the destruction of our business," Brett Ratner, the director, producer and film financier, said at a film festival this year.

Some studio executives privately concede that a few recent movies — just a few — were simply bad. Flawed marketing may have played a role in a couple of other instances, they acknowledged, along with competition from Netflix and Amazon.

But most studio fingers point toward Rotten Tomatoes, which boils down hundreds of reviews to give films "fresh" or "rotten" scores on its Tomatometer. The site has surged in popularity, attracting 13.6 million unique visitors in May, a 32 percent increase above last year's total for the month, according to the analytics firm comScore.

Studio executives' complaints about Rotten Tomatoes include the way its Tomatometer hacks off critical nuance, the site's seemingly loose definition of who qualifies as a critic and the spread of Tomatometer scores across the web. Last year, scores started appearing on Fandango, the online movie ticket-selling site, leading to grousing that a rotten score next to the purchase button was the same as posting this message: You are an idiot if you pay to see this movie.

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.

Kersplat: Paramount's "Baywatch" bombed after arriving to a Tomatometer score of 19, the percentage of reviews the movie received that the site considered positive (36 out of 191). Doug Creutz, a media analyst at Cowen and Company, wrote of the film in a research note, "Our high expectations appear to have been crushed by a 19 Rotten Tomatoes score."

Kersplat: "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword" got a Tomatometer score of 28 — anything under 60 is marked rotten — and audiences stayed away. After costing Warner Bros. at least $175 million to make, the movie took in $39 million at the domestic box office. In total.

How did a clunky website that has been around for 19 years amass such power?

The 36 people who work for Rotten Tomatoes hardly seem like industry killers. The site's staff occupies a relatively ordinary Beverly Hills office complex — albeit one with conference rooms named "La La Land" and "Oz" — and includes people like Jeff Voris, an easygoing former Disney executive with graying hair who oversees operations, and Timothy Ryan, a former newspaper reporter who is a Rotten Tomatoes senior editor and lists "Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide" as favorite reading.

The employee with the pink mohawk is Grae Drake, senior movie editor. She does a lot of video interviews and lately has been helping to fill a void created when Matt Atchity left as editor in chief in July for a bigger job at TYT Network, an online video company.

Jeff Giles, a 12-year Rotten Tomatoes veteran and the author of books like "Llanview in the Afternoon: An Oral History of 'One Life to Live'," writes what the site calls Critics Consensus, a one-sentence summary of the response to each film. (Disney's latest "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie was summarized as proving "that neither a change in directors nor an undead Javier Bardem is enough to drain this sinking franchise's murky bilge.")

"Everyone here sweats the details every day," said Paul Yanover, the president of Fandango, which owns Rotten Tomatoes. "Because we are serious movie fans ourselves, our priority — our entire focus — is being as useful to fans as we absolutely can be."

Hold on a minute. Fandango?

Yes. In an absurdist plot twist, Rotten Tomatoes is owned by film companies. Fandango, a unit of NBCUniversal, which also owns Universal Pictures, has a 75 percent stake, with the balance held by Warner Bros. Fandango bought control from Warner last year for an undisclosed price. (All parties insist that Rotten Tomatoes operates independently.)

Mr. Yanover said it was silly for studios to make Rotten Tomatoes a box office scapegoat.

"There is no question that there is some correlation to box office performance — critics matter — but I don't think Rotten Tomatoes can definitively make or break a movie in either direction," he said. "Anyone who says otherwise is cherry-picking examples to create a hypothesis."

He cited "Wonder Woman," which was the No. 1 movie of the summer, with $410 million in ticket sales. It was undoubtedly helped by a strong Tomatometer score of 92. "Dunkirk," "Spider-Man: Homecoming" and "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" all received high scores and drew huge crowds. Other films did not do well on the Tomatometer ("The Hitman's Bodyguard," "The Emoji Movie") but still managed to find audiences.

Some filmmakers complain bitterly that Rotten Tomatoes casts too wide a critical net. The site says it works with some 3,000 critics worldwide, including bloggers and YouTube-based pundits. But should reviewers from Screen Junkies and Punch Drunk Critics really be treated as the equals of those from The Los Angeles Times and The New Yorker?

Mr. Yanover rejected those complaints, pointing to the site's posted requirements. ("Online critics must have published no less than 100 reviews across two calendar years at a single, Tomatometer-approved publication," for instance.) He also noted that critics at traditional outlets tended to be white men and that Rotten Tomatoes wanted to include female and minority voices.

'Incredibly layered' process

For the studios, the question of how individual reviews get classified as fresh or rotten is also a point of contention. Only about half of critics self-submit reviews and classifications to the site. Rotten Tomatoes staffers comb the web and pull the other half themselves. They then assign positive or negative grades.

"We have a well-defined process," said Mr. Voris, the vice president of Rotten Tomatoes. "Our curators audit each other's work. If there is any question about how a review should be classified, we have three curators separate and do independent reads. If there still isn't agreement, we call the journalist."

Staff members also fact-check what critics have self-submitted. In one recent instance, a review of "Alien: Covenant" that was submitted as fresh seemed rotten. The site reversed the categorization after contacting the critic for clarification.

Mr. Voris brushed aside the studios' protests — shared by many critics — that the Tomatometer ratings damage films because they reduce nuanced reviews to blunt scores.

"I actually think it's the opposite of simplified," Mr. Voris said. "It's incredibly layered." Yes, the Tomatometer scores are the site's best-known feature, he said. But Rotten Tomatoes also carries snippets of dozens of individual reviews. Beyond that, there are also links to full reviews. The site also generates its own news articles and feature stories ("75 Best Heist Movies of All Time") that try to put new films into context.

Still, it is the Tomatometer scores that have become ubiquitous across the web. Rotten Tomatoes makes money through partnerships with companies like Apple, which lists the scores next to iTunes movie rentals and purchases. And to the dismay of movie marketers, Google has started to prominently display the scores even when users do not specifically search for them: Enter the name of a film into the search bar and the Tomatometer results pop up on the top right side of the results page, directly under the film's poster.

"Rotten Tomatoes isn't new, but its omnipresence is," said Tim Palen, Lionsgate's president of theatrical marketing. "The scores are even part of the local TV news on Friday going into the weekend."

The battle between movie companies and critics is a perennial one. There was an outcry when some publications started using a series of stars to summarize reviews. (By some accounts, that system started in 1928, when The Daily News gave one star to the silent film "The Port of Missing Girls.") Cries of harmful reductionism resurfaced in the 1980s, when the critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert brought their thumbs up or down edicts to syndicated television.

Rotten Tomatoes was founded in 1998 by students at the University of California, Berkeley who wanted reviews for kung fu movies in one place. The name harkens back to medieval Europe, where people would lob spoiled food, often eggs, at petty criminals in the stocks. The practice spread to some theaters in the 19th century. In 1883, The New York Times reportedthat "a large tomato thrown from the gallery" hit a Long Island actor "square between the eyes."

In past years, studio publicists would occasionally lobby Rotten Tomatoes to include positive reviews from far-flung publications as a way of improving scores, especially for films with a 59 — on the line between receiving a red, plump fruit label (fresh) or the dreaded splotch of green goo (rotten). But Hollywood more or less lived with it.

Four things changed.

There was Fandango's integration of Tomatometer scores with its ticketing platforms, which service about 28,000 movie screens in North America. Now, when Fandango customers buy tickets to a movie in the days leading up to its release, they are confronted by the film's Tomatometer score. After the movie is released, a different Rotten Tomatoes rating — one based on audience response, which is invariably positive — begins to pop up on Fandango next to the Tomatometer score.

Then there is Rotten Tomatoes' growth into a very popular hub. In 2009, the site, which sells advertising, attracted about 1.8 million unique visitors per month. It now attracts as many as 14 million unique visitors a month. The broader Fandango portfolio of sites reaches 60 million unique visitors a month.

Consumer behavior is also changing. People increasingly rely on review aggregation sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor to make all kinds of spending decisions. The trend is especially visible among young people, who make up Hollywood's most important audience. According to National Research Group, a movie industry consulting firm, 34 percent of American teenagers now check Rotten Tomatoes before buying a ticket, up from 23 percent in 2014.

Hollywood fights back

Most importantly, studios are panicking because moviegoing is no longer a habit for most Americans. Because of climbing prices and competition from other forms of entertainment, a trip to the multiplex has become a special event. In particular, more movie fans are ignoring low- and mid-budget films when they are in theaters: Ehh, let's wait until they show up on Netflix.

Studios are trying to battle Rotten Tomatoes on multiple fronts.

Marketers have discovered that early positive reviews can produce a bandwagon effect later, as some critics, especially those at less prestigious outlets, seek to go with the flow instead of against it. Studios have also started screening films early for pockets of critics. In some cases, studios create spreadsheets of which critics to invite to early screenings — often at festivals — based on questions such as who liked what in the past and who gives positive reviews more often than not.

It is notable that "Leatherface," a horror movie scheduled for release in late October, already has a very positive Tomatometer score of 86 based on seven reviews. (Rotten Tomatoes requires a minimum of five reviews before calculating a score.) The seven reviews came after an August screening at a London festival called FrightFest that was attended by reviewers from sites like Dread Central and HeyUGuys, which bills itself as an outlet for "love letters to cinema."

Another way to undercut Rotten Tomatoes involves restricting reviews until the last possible minute. Sony set a review embargo of opening day for "The Emoji Movie," which left the Tomatometer blank until after many advance tickets had been sold and families had made weekend plans. "The Emoji Movie," which ultimately received a Tomatometer score of 8, squeezed out decent opening-weekend ticket sales of $24.5 million.

If Rotten Tomatoes is a monster, the studios helped create it. As much as they fear and loathe low scores, they love high ones. Sony recently ended its trailer for "Baby Driver," a heist thriller, by flashing the Rotten Tomatoes logo and "100 percent," the film's Tomatometer score at the time. (It later slipped to 94.) Annapurna did the same thing for "Detroit" in television ads. (Not that it helped; that drama flopped.)

And Rotten Tomatoes is getting stronger. The site is working to build its Tomatometer scores for TV shows into a more formidable force. Also in development are a half-dozen video series, including one built around a cheeky event created by Ms. Drake, the senior movie editor, called Your Opinion Sucks.

At that event, which started at the Comic-Con International fan convention in San Diego a few years ago, movie fans debate critics. The hourlong sessions can get heated.

"Let's just say that it's not an accident that I chose a costume than needs a whip," Ms. Drake said as she prepared to co-host one of three sessions at Comic-Con in July. (She was dressed as Catwoman.)

On stage were online critics from The New York Observer, Screen Junkiesand Schmoes Know. One member of the audience came to the microphone and offered an opinion: "The Fate of the Furious," which got a "fresh" Tomatometer score of 66 in April, deserved an even higher score.

Snarky wisecracks from the critics and hosts started to fly. The stars have as much chemistry as "a mop and a bucket," one said. Ms. Drake's co-host, the comedian Scott Aukerman, said that "The Fate of the Furious," the eighth movie in the action series, should have been called "No one wants to act with Vin Diesel anymore" because the actor had a separate storyline for much of the film.

It was time for the audience to vote. Most of the 200 or so people assembled raised green paddles, and so the movie was pronounced rotten.

With an intestinal gurgle sound effect.