“Wait, before we watch this, let me check Rotten Tomatoes.” How many times have you heard a friend or family member declare this before precious time or money is shelled out on a prospective movie night? Maybe it is not Rotten Tomatoes; maybe you use Metacritic. The point is, movie-goers often rely on professional film critics for either the green or red light in terms of watching a movie. From July of 2018 to December of 2018, Rotten Tomatoes (a rating aggregation site which primarily collects and averages reviews from top-tier professional sources while placing very little emphasis on audience ratings) garnered nearly 40 percent of online traffic from the US, with 88.7 million visits worldwide. With such a popular source, shouldn’t we be asking if we can trust what it is saying? Survey says we probably cannot.
For one, there is a difference between the severity that critics view films with and the severity that audiences view films with. According to Stephen Follows, a credible data researcher who has lent his expertise in the film industry to highly regarded publications ranging from The New York Times to The Telegraph, critics are usually tougher on movies than audiences. By studying the numbers from 1994-2013, Follows found that films featured on Metacritic (a rating aggregation site dominated by professional opinion which places very little emphasis on the audience) averaged 10 points lower than those found on IMDb (a rating aggregation site dominated by users, “the people” which places very little emphasis on professional critics). Aggregation sites have been brought up a lot here; The Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones speaks more to the consequences of aggregation. Rotten Tomatoes is often incorrectly perceived as this spunky, “us-against-the-world,” independent source of knowledge, but this is incorrect. The company may have started that way, but today, it is in the pockets of Fandango, NBC, and Comcast- all popular and powerful corporations. These corporations, naturally, have some sort of self-interest in how Rotten Tomatoes is run (such as which reviews are collected and averaged into the final critic scores). While it is not completely clear how deep that influence goes, the website is not a pure, unbiased source of cinematic knowledge.
Forbes’ J.V. Chamary, in conjunction with psychologist Dr. Pascal Wallisch, further advances this idea. In reporting on Dr. Walliasch’s study, Chamary relayed the doctor’s bold claim: “critics don’t help you at all”. That sounds harsh, but perhaps it makes sense in conjunction with statistics. There is only a three percent agreement between the professional reviewers and the common man. Further, critics enjoy films for different reasons than audiences. Star Wars: Episode VIII: The Last Jedi received only a forty-five percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, but it earned over twice that from critics. The reason? Chamary hypothesizes that it is due to the highly politicized nature of some of the film; elite critics are drawn to that component for intellectual reasons and praise it as a wonderfully integrated talking point. The reality is that audiences are not watching a movie about magical space knights for insightful social commentary. Doug Walker, the popular independent film critic and YouTube sensation also known as The Nostalgia Critic, displays similar divides. The Shining was panned by critics upon release and loved by audiences, and Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace was loved by critics and hated by audiences.
As you may imagine, though, the issue is not entirely cut-and-dry. Obviously, critics are humans just like the rest of us. They can be emotionally swayed or culturally pressured into liking or disliking a film. As Follows notes, there are some genres (horror, romantic comedy, and thriller) that will, as a rule, polarize audiences and professional reviewers. His and Dr. Walliasch’s studies are subject to selection bias as well; only certain types of film-goers score and review the movies they have watched. Not every audience member has an active presence on websites, such as IMDb.
The next time you are about to watch a film, whether it be through streaming, television, a DVD player, or a theater, just remember that the voice of professional critics may not mean as much as you think. Obviously, there are times when they have been correct, but their positions are still, in my opinion, far too venerated by the majority of screen junkies. In an age in which we are all too eager to just blindly follow the “professionals,” do not be just another sheep.