2017 hasn't been a very good year for Hollywood, and The New York Times has an idea why:
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.
The voice of Hollywood is no less than Mariah Carey's favorite video director, Brett Ratner, who first voiced his concerns in an Entertainment Weekly article earlier this year:
“I think it’s the destruction of our business. I have such respect and admiration for film criticism. When I was growing up film criticism was a real art. And there was intellect that went into that. And you would read Pauline’s Kael’s reviews, or some others, and that doesn’t exist anymore."
“People don’t realize what goes into making a movie like [Batman v Superman],” Ratner continued. “It’s mind-blowing. It’s just insane, it’s hurting the business, it’s getting people to not see a movie. In Middle America it’s, ‘Oh, it’s a low Rotten Tomatoes score so I’m not going to go see it because it must suck.’ But that number is an aggregate and one that nobody can figure out exactly what it means, and it’s not always correct. I’ve seen some great movies with really abysmal Rotten Tomatoes scores. What’s sad is film criticism has disappeared. It’s really sad.”
For starters, Pauline Kael gave negative reviews to plenty of so-called "critically acclaimed" movies (notably Blow Up, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Raging Bull).
But Ratner's point is twofold: Modern film criticism lacks the intellectualism of its heyday, and the lumpenproletariat of flyover country are incapable of forming their own opinions about bad movies. Put another way, the moviegoing public these days is dumber than the studio heads producing films in which the key unifying element between two lead characters is that both their mothers have the same first name.
And maybe that's true. I don't know if anyone who's endured eight months of a Trump presidency (Christ) can objectively comment on a debate over intellectualism in America. The heavy hitter film critics of yore, like Andrew Sarris, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Janet Maslin, all had college degrees, but only The New Yorker's David Denby actually has one in journalism (many — unsurprisingly — were English or literature majors).
Where Ratner may be right (though not in the way he intends) is that film criticism has disappeared. Not in the sense that nobody is doing it anymore (RT works with some 3,000 critics worldwide), but in that there are precious few whose individual reputation is strong enough to sway audiences in meaningful numbers. Roger Ebert was the most powerful movie critic who ever lived, and he died in 2013. The most likely critic names you're likely to see on ads for coming attractions often belong to quote whores like Peter Travers, Pete Hammond or Shawn Edwards.
Or, curiously, Rotten Tomatoes itself.
As the Times article points out, studios aren't shy at all about including "Certified Fresh" (a Tomatometer score above 60 percent) on advertising for upcoming movies. Just as they aren't opposed to offering advanced screenings to certain subsets of critics whose past history indicates they might be more...amenable to certain films:
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.”
This is only slightly less disingenuous than withholding the movie from critics altogether, a tried and true practice that's still in use, the better to preserve a robust opening weekend before negative word of mouth gets out of the bag.
Unfortunately for Ratner — the director of all three Rush Hour movies (the textbook definition of "diminishing returns") and that segment in Movie 43 where Johnny Knoxville and Seann William Scott murder a leprechaun — data doesn't support his assertions:
The math is pretty overwhelming in saying there was no (positive or negative) correlation in 2017 between Rotten Tomatoes Scores and box office returns.
What is clear, from looking at all film data since 2000, is that Rotten Tomatoes scores have never played a very big role in driving box office performance, either positively or negatively.
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Lashing out at critics isn't new, which is all the more depressing because it shows Hollywood continues to ignore the real issues behind dwindling box office performance, among them:
- $150-$200 million budgets (or higher) shrinking profit margins
- Industrywide inability to cope with competition from streaming media, the web, and over-the-top content
- Overreliance on a handful of tentpole-friendly properties instead of funding original concepts
- The fact that physically going to the movies is often a miserable f***ing experience
Ratner's production company (RatPac-Dune Entertainment) produced Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which grossed $873 million worldwide in spite of a "Rotten" 27 percent Tomatometer score. Perhaps Ratner and his fellows think a higher aggregate would have helped the movie clear the billion-dollar mark, but what's abundantly clear is they need to concentrate on making better movies. And if a bunch of freelance smartasses holding down day jobs in addition to their writing gigs (*cough*) help them down that road, so be it.
Full disclosure: I have been a "Tomatometer" critic since 2005. If my negative review of BvS had anything to do with its failure to reach the big B, as the cat said: "Good."