Rotten Tomatoes – Can Consumer Reviews Redefine An Industry?

by Phillip López Jiménez

In this blog Phillip contemplates the question – can consumer views of a movie affect what the movie industry ultimately produces and shows at the theater?  Phil Jimenez is the owner of Lucky Bastard Productions which a full service production company. Clients include Warner Brothers and PBS SoCal and many more.

Former employee of Warner Brothers Entertainment.
View some his work at

“The critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising.”
-Pauline Kael

When I was young, going to the movies was a lot simpler. You handed the girl in the box office a five spot, out popped a ticket she’d hand you, you would walk over to the usher and half the ticket was ripped. You bought popcorn, soda and walked into the cinema. Nowadays with 20 dollar tickets, reserved seating, artisanal popcorn and such, one has to be more discerning. With websites like Rotten Tomatoes ( and Metacritic ( the average consumer can make a more informed decision on what picture, if any, to blow their hard earned money on for overpriced tickets. Which begs another question; are movie review websites hurting the bottom line of the major movie studios and, if so, do we really care?

The Audience has spoken:                                                                                                A Brief History of Chucking Fruit From The Solanum Lycopersicum Plant At Entertainers.

One of the first recorded instances of an angry audience throwing rotten tomatoes at a performer was in 1883 and though I do like the idea of Sid Ceaser’s caveman artist being critiqued by a fellow cave dweller urinating on his petroglyphs in Mel Brooks’ classic picture The History of The World Part 1, according to the October 28 edition of The New York Times, performer John Ritchie has the unfortunate claim to have been the first to be pelted with a bushel full of the feculent fruit while performing an acrobatic act at Washington Hall; at least Tom Cruise didn’t have to literally be smothered with the juicy fruit after his acrobatic act in this summer’s The Mummy.

For those who may not use sites like the aforementioned, Rotten Tomatoes gathers all the reviews on a picture from “top critics” and then ranks them with a percentile rating. “Users” of the site can also leave reviews and these are ranked as well,  then further dumbed down to CERTIFIED FRESH, FRESH, or just plain ROTTEN. This all can happen very fast, sometimes days before a picture’s release. You can understand why the major studios and highbrow cineastes such as director Brett Ratner think Rotten Tomatoes is bad for business. But is quick access to film reviews, good or bad, such a negative thing?


Film critics have been around since the beginning of cinema. Most critics were just regular journalists or gossip columnists who also wrote quick reviews to put in the entertainment section. There were some standouts like Otis Ferguson, who wrote for The New Republic, but his career was cut short after he was killed in WWII. James Agee, who was also a credited screen writer on Walter Huston’s The African Queen, Charles Laughton’s southern gothic picture The Night of The Hunter, and the New Yorker’s scholarly Bosley Crowther. Then there was a change.

The New Wave

The Italian Realists and Direct Cinema/cinéma vérité of the 50’s as well as The French New Wave of the 60’s filmmakers were taking it out of the studio and into the streets. Gone was the Hollywood veneer of happy endings and in was ambiguity, nihilism and freedom. This was a revolution of intellectualism and film criticism was part of that revolution.

One could say that criticism changed with the French publication Cahiers du Cinema. Writers included future filmmakers Jean Luc-Goddard and Francois Truffaut among others and edited by Eric Rohmer. Truffaut’s criticism was often harsh so much so that in 1958 The Cannes Film Festival banned him from attending. Along with Editor Andre Bazin, Truffaut rocked the status quo by suggesting that the director was the sole driving force and auteur, on a picture.  They had ardent followers across the pond that agreed.

When American film critic Andrew Sarris coined the term Auteur Theory, I don’t think he realized the impact that that phrase would have on young filmmakers at the time.  I believe cats like Scorcese, Coppola, Spielberg, Bogdanovich, Lucas, Friedkin etc. loved the idea of being the sole visionary force on their pictures.

Pauline Kael, on the other hand did not.

As Roger Ebert said of her “She had a more positive influence on the climate for film in America than any other person in the last three decades…no theory, no rules no objective standards. You couldn’t apply her approach to a film. With her it was all personal.”

Then came Bonnie & Clyde.

When Bonnie & Clyde was originally released it was a disaster. New Yorker critic Bosley Crowther lambasted it as “a cheap piece of bald-face slapstick.” a “blending of farce and pointless killings is as pointless as it is lacking in tastes.” A few months later Pauline’s 9000 word review resuscitated life into the film and other critics whom had once panned it were now changing their reviews.

Beatty was then able to convince the suits at Warner Bros. to give it a re-release and different marketing campaign. It would eventually gross over $70 million, making stars of actor/producer Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, winning two Oscars, one for Best Supporting Actress, Estelle Parsons and Best Cinematography by Burnett Guffey, and changing cinema for years to come. The New Yorker gave Bosley the boot and replaced him with Pauline Kael thus proving that one loud voice can have the power for change.

By the 80’s the “Auteur” pictures mostly vanished. Left in their wake were the beginnings of the corporate blockbuster, tent-pole franchise’s we have today and again film criticism changed. Shows such as At The Movies, starring reputable film critic Gene Siskel and the Nobel Prize winning Roger Ebert, with their now iconic Thumbs Up® had yet to be invented and their film criticism as consumer reporting was just beginning. They would eventually move to network television and become household names.

“I’ll tell you, I think that the Internet has provided an enormous boost to film criticism by giving people an opportunity to self-publish or to find sites that are friendly.”
-Roger Ebert

So, we will end at the beginning. Will Rotten Tomatoes and their compilation of criticism from top critics and Joe six-pack help usher in a new era of filmmaking, much the way Pauline Kael’s helped to usher in the American New Wave of the 70’s?  I don’t know. We have yet to see anything monumental to compare. I think the biggest problem with reduced attendance isn’t with sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic or from stuffy old film critics but from the studios and marketing teams themselves that think the average consumer of cinema is stupid and need to be spoon fed the same concepts and ideas over and again.

People want good stories, they want to be transported to another place or another time whether it’s outer space, a dystopic future, a nostalgic past or an introspective present. People want to see characters they can relate to and with and maybe reflect on their own lives whether consciously or subconsciously. It boils down to this; people want solid storytelling to come back, not just commercials for products and if the democratization of reviews can give voice to the silent majority of consumers and make the studio heads re-think their choices, like Pauline’s Bonnie and Clyde review did, than it can be a good thing for us all.