This week in non-Harvey news, Martin Scorsese penned an op-ed for The Hollywood Reporter about how Rotten Tomatoes is ruining movies and everyone should stop obsessing over box office and Cinemascore and also he liked mother!. Blaming Rotten Tomatoes for a movie’s failure became a favorite pastime this summer—but studios are still quick to use a “Certified Fresh” rating as a marketing tool—and Scorsese sounds about as “get off my lawn” as everyone else complaining about the internet’s impact on the film industry. But is Rotten Tomatoes really the problem? Or is Cinemascore or Box Office Mojo? Or is the problem that all these things make it harder to trick audiences into seeing bad movies, and bad movies are the problem?
Scorsese makes a good point, that there are movies audiences reject initially that later are revised upward to classic status—Blade Runner 2049 may turn out to be this kind of revision—and a Rotten Tomato or Cinemascore rating shouldn’t be the final word on a movie. As for the box office obsession, I can only point to the popularity of fantasy sports. Following the box office is no different than playing fantasy football—there are even websites devoted to the “game”. Also, an interest in box office doesn’t necessarily translate into judgment of a film. I follow box office and I can tell you it has never affected how I think of a movie. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is one of my favorite movies of the last few years, and it absolutely bombed. I still love it.
But Scorsese’s biggest issue is Rotten Tomatoes and its impact on film criticism. Thanks to aggregators, there is now “a tone that is hostile to serious filmmakers”. Scorsese also observes a decline in “film criticism written by passionately engaged people with actual knowledge of film history”. I suppose he means a lack of people like Pauline Kael and an increase in people like me, who started out writing on a personal blog (and is also aggregated on Rotten Tomatoes). If he feels that deeply about it, maybe he should start a fund to support film criticism, and that is not a joke. Film criticism is no longer a viable career path, and that undoubtedly has an impact on the landscape of who is doing the criticizing and how they’re doing it. I would love to make my living writing full-time, and have the time and resources to do more in-depth criticism and write long-form, comparative essays, but I have a day job. My ambitions are limited by my resources, which is the case for most of the film writers I know.
This Rotten Tomatoes-inspired hostile tone and slathering pack of carnival barkers had it in for mother! from the beginning, according to Scorsese. He says, “Many people seemed to want to define the film, box it in, find it wanting and condemn it. And many seemed to take joy in the fact that it received an F grade from Cinemascore. This actually became a news story — mother! had been ‘slapped’ with the ‘dreaded’ Cinemascore F rating…” People wrote about mother!’s Cinemascore because it keeps the lights on. (Again, you want to see less of that kind of coverage, figure out how to help people make their living just writing criticism.)
But it’s also of legitimate interest to some people. I mention Cinemascores as a way to predict a movie’s performance, its “legs”, because box office can impact Oscar campaigns, and it can influence the deals we see get made. Do you think Patty Jenkins signs a record contract if Wonder Woman wasn’t a crowd-pleasing, runaway hit? Of course not. She got record money because she made one of the biggest movies of the year, and the metrics of that success are box office, Cinemascore, and Rotten Tomatoes. Those three things tell us that Wonder Woman is wildly popular with critics, fans, and casual movie goers—the success trifecta.
Maybe Scorsese would prefer us to limit our conversations to the artistic merits of various films, to debate mother! and its many interpretations, but while I will happily talk movies as long as anyone wants to engage, interest in film goes beyond the artistic, it goes into the industry of it, too. For better or worse, people are interested in how movies get made, they’re interested in the sausage factory (and a lot of film writers rely on that extra-curricular interest to pay bills because criticism alone doesn’t). And I’m not sure that’s really a bad thing. Because an interested, engaged audience is NEVER a bad thing. But an interested, engaged audience is also harder to fool. There have been a lot of high profile bad movies this year, and no one was fooled by them.
There is a problem with the state of film today and it has more to do with the franchise-ification of the studios than any website. There’s too much money on the line for truly risky films, and when you do get something daring, like Blade Runner 2049 or mother!, studios are paranoid about making back their investment so they lean into tricky marketing that sets up the audience to expect something other than what they’re going to get—a recipe for disaster. Movies don’t fail because of Rotten Tomatoes or Cinemascore, they fail because they’re bad and audiences are too smart to be suckered by marketing gimmicks.