something that almost everybody misunderstands about Rotten Tomatoes

Max Sparber at has written a frankly bizarre essay about film criticism that makes a lot of often contradictory assumptions that I’m not going to bother with because they’re a lot of the same-old, same-old. But there’s one thing I want to pick out because I see it represented in many, many places where people complain about film criticism, and it’s completely untrue:

Many of you are already familiar with the website Rotten Tomatoes, which aggregates film reviews from a variety of critics. The site assigns a score to each film reviewed, based on whether the critic liked the film or didn’t…

There are a few problems with this. With Rotten Tomatoes, it starts with an assumption that reviews are going to fit a simple binary — the critic either will like a film or not like it. And so reviews are weighted as “fresh” or “rotten,” despite the fact that this binary is sometimes impossible to divine from a review. There are a lot of “meh” films out there, and a good critic will reflect their critical ambivalence. Rotten Tomatoes can’t use such reviews, and so decides for the critic whether they like the film or not based on the punchiest sentence in the review, which the site highlights.

(Sparber’s emphasis in bold. Mine in bold and underline.)

Here’s what’s wrong with that: Except for a few of the very biggest critics, the ones Rotten Tomatoes could not do without, we critics ourselves choose our own “punchiest sentence” and Fresh/Rotten score. (The really big critics, presumably, can’t be bothered to add their own links and quotes, which is why RT editors do it for them.)

RT does not — except in a few cases — have to “decide” or “divine” anything about a critic’s review. RT does not — except in a few cases — have to choose a quote from a critic’s review. RT does not — except in a few cases — have to “assign” anything or guess what any critic was trying to convey.

We critics, for the most part, decide ourselves how our criticism is represented at Rotten Tomatoes. Presumably we may be trusted to know our own minds, even if, as Sparber implies, we can’t be trusted to do much else.

I agree with Sparber that the Fresh/Rotten binary is often problematic. In my own work, anything I assign a green light to is automatically a Fresh when I post it at Rotten Tomatoes, and anything I assign a red light to is automatically Rotten. But with my yellow-light movies, it’s not so easy. It often comes down to simply my own gut sense of whether a yellow-light film is more worth seeing than not worth seeing. It’s impossible to explain how I make such a decision — it happens on a case-by-case basis.

Same goes for the quotes I chose to link at RT. Often my writing cannot be boiled down to a pithy quote (though sometimes it can), and so again it becomes a matter of judgment: Which bit, taken out of context, is not too distorted and still represents my overall take on a film?

Rotten Tomatoes may not be perfect, and there may well be lots and lots of issues it raises that are worth complaining about. But no one should be complaining that RT misrepresents critics. We critics represent ourselves at Rotten Tomatoes.

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