Rotten Tomatoes Criticized for Paid Film Reviews

By: Nick Gambino

Rotten Tomatoes is a relatively new addition to the world of film criticism. Back in the day, there was only one type of film criticism that we paid any attention to – critics employed by established news outlets and their sometimes grating but always informative and erudite review of films.

Now, the review aggregator and its resident Tomatometer sums up all reviews in a single percentage score. Anything below 60% is considered rotten and anything above that mark is considered fresh. This allows users to gain a bird’s eye review of critic reaction and at a glance.

Individual critics, especially your favorites, could sway you to see a movie or not. I remember reading Owen Gleiberman’s reviews in Entertainment Weekly or tuning into Siskel and Ebert to see where the thumbs pointed on a particular movie. Truth is, film criticism rarely pushes me one way or the other. If I want to see something, I’m going to see it.

A new report by Vulture criticizes the film review aggregator site for allowing a loophole that skews the Tomatometer in favor of the film. In other words, there’s a way to get a dishonest number of positive reviews to secure a fresh rating.

Vulture details a scheme by film-PR company Bunker 15 where they round up a number of lower-tier film critics, some who have no real sway on the general public but are counted by Rotten Tomatoes, and pay them $50 to write a positive review.

It’s not that Rotten Tomatoes is involved in this scheme, they even say they prohibit paid reviews, but it’s happening underneath their noses nonetheless. There’s even an accusation in the report that suggests one employee of Bunker 15, lobbying a critic to change a negative review, said they knew the editors over at Rotten Tomatoes and could get them to change it if the critic had a change of heart.

It’s not that an aggregator is a bad thing or even a bad idea, it’s that Rotten Tomatoes has become the overriding validation metric for the film industry and has almost single-handedly destroyed intelligent film critique. I’m not saying this was by design, but that is what has happened.

With this new report shining a light on a murky practice that suggests the Tomatometer is compromised, I wonder if this disruptive system will itself be disrupted by a better film critique system that benefits filmmakers and audiences alike.

Maybe I don’t wonder, but I hope.