How Does Rotten Tomatoes Work? An Analysis of the “Review-Aggregation Website for Film and Television”

Most people read a movie review before watching it. Little do they know that it’s of little use.

Rotten+Tomatoes+has+made+its+foray+into+the+movie+industry%2C+featuring+multiple+certified+critics+and+quickly+becoming+one+of+the+most+trusted+movie+review+sites., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Rotten Tomatoes has made its foray into the movie industry, featuring multiple certified critics and quickly becoming one of the most trusted movie review sites.

Filmmakers often find themselves struggling to satisfy their audience. How often do you find yourself annoyed by the ending of a film or television series? Was it because the ending was too rushed? Why did you watch it in the first place? Did you see that the reviews were good? Films and television series depend significantly on their reviews to survive in their enormously competitive industry. 

If you’re an avid movie watcher, you’ve likely heard of the “tomato meter” on the popular “review-aggregation website for film and television,” Rotten Tomatoes. Maybe you’ve even used it yourself. Based on the tomatometer scale, movies are assigned a status like “fresh” or “rotten” depending on how positive or negative the views are, respectively. A good movie has a high rating, and a bad movie has a low rating– or so we believe. 

Launched by Senh Duong during the summer of 1998, Rotten Tomatoes was a spare-time project meant to allow people to have easy access to various critics from the United States. However, it quickly gained popularity, as it was the first time people had seen anything like it. 

Several critics from Chicago were featured in the panel, “Your Opinion Sucks,” at the 2015 Chicago & Entertainment Expo. (Ben, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Back in the days of the open theaters, when a play was particularly atrocious, the audience expressed their dissatisfaction by not only booing and hissing at the stage, but also throwing whatever was at hand – vegetables and fruits included,” Rotten Tomatoes notes on their website

It became easier than ever to find out whether a movie was worth watching or not. Movies with high reviews became noticed faster than ever before. People were able to read professional critic reviews before a movie’s release, meaning that they would no longer have to depend on friends, family, or a radio review that discussed the movie days after the release. Good reviews left by critics would lead to a larger audience and vice versa. This seems like a simple concept, but the box office reveals otherwise. 

Movies with hundreds of positive critical reviews were quickly noticed. Rotten Tomatoes was a hit, but not all movies benefited from it. Not only were “good” movies blowing up faster than ever before, but movies that were deemed “bad” saw a sharp decline in popularity and viewership. 

When certified television critics write their reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, they tend to lean towards the technical side of things. “Film criticism usually offers interpretation of [a film’s] meaning, analysis of its structure and style,” notes The University of Vermont’ research guide website. These critics often notice details that the general audience would not notice. Sure, this further analysis may provide for a better outlook on just how artistically groundbreaking a film is, but analyses like these are often not that useful for people who are not critics, those who are generally just looking for films that make them feel something. Viewers and critics look for different things in a film, and critics dominate review sites. It’s difficult for casual watchers to get the reviews they’re looking for. To combat this, Rotten Tomatoes offers two sections, a critique section and a review section. Interestingly, visitors of this website will find that many of the movies have opposing viewpoints from the critics versus the audience movie ratings. Venom, for example, received a heavy divide in ratings between critics and audience, a majority of the audience believing that the movie was good while the critics thought otherwise. The opposite happened with Spy Kids 2. Casual viewers were eager to watch the movie after seeing the mostly positive critic ratings, only to be disappointed, a majority of them, leaving low ratings and negative reviews. 

“The real concern with Rotten Tomatoes was that it became such a go-to place for people [that it] could kill a movie much more quickly than was traditional,” said Bruce Nash, founder and publisher of the movie industry data provider, The Numbers.

If it so happens that the people attending the movie or film preview screening leave bad reviews, then people who originally planned on watching it may take a step back or reconsider. Though this could arguably be a good thing, preventing people from seeing bad movies. However. it could also harm a good movie from being able to reach its target audience. The rating of movies may hurt movie productions more than any of us could have imagined. In a podcast, filmmaker Seth Rogen said on Entertainment Weekly that negative reviews were a very personal thing to the production crew, adding that “it is devastating when you are being institutionally told that your personal expression is bad. That’s something that people carry with them… their entire lives.” 

As much as negative reviews sting, there are plenty of people who would argue that every review – even the negative ones – are necessary. Dan Murrell, a film critic, commented on GrantConnected that “film criticism absolutely matters because criticism is an essential key to art, and I think that part of the cycle of art is that there’s a conversation around it. You don’t want to hang up a painting in an empty museum.” Despite their harm, criticism offers new ideas and room for improvement, possibly leading to better quality or performances. But to what extent do these negative reviews help? Upon further inspection, it becomes clear that negative reviews have impacted the industry more than we could have imagined; it does more than just hurting the feelings of the filmmaker. 

“Negative criticism… is not only bad for the media being critiqued, but in turn, directs traffic and attention to the writer of the criticism, not just the media,” said Jack Filsinger, an author for Creative Screenwriting. This issue applies heavily to ongoing series or anticipated movies with large fan bases.  

Dutch actress and singer Carice van Houten has won multiple awards and gained an overwhelmingly positive reputation in Europe, despite having received negative criticism for her role in the popular television series Game of Thrones. (Sachyn, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons )

In 2017, Carice van Houten revealed that she had received death threats from fans who were unhappy with – what they deemed to be – controversial scenes that she took part in. Instead of criticizing the character or the writer’s choice of plot direction, they placed the blame and hate directly onto the actor who simply presented watchers with scenes believed to have been necessary for plot progression.

Cyberattacks such as this occur frequently within the film industry. Actors carry the great burden of ensuring that the content is engaging through a multitude of techniques such as developing their character, maintaining physical and emotional stamina, improv, and so much more. They spend substantial amounts of time studying them and yet actors, actresses, film writers, and producers alike are all at risk of suffering from public persecution. But what does this mean? Should we stop leaving bad movie reviews? 

Though there’s no definite answer, there are the pros and cons to anything, and that includes movie reviews. There is much room for flexibility and improvement, as we see society moving towards a more open-minded mindset. As the movie industry progresses, the influence of movie reviews likely won’t be as great as it is now. 

In order to gain popularity, a movie must appeal to its target audience. With the help of well-developed algorithms on streaming services such as Netflix or HBO, more movies will find their way to their ideal audiences, which thereby lessens consumer’s need for review systems. 

A possible solution to this would be to create websites with sections for individual movie genres, allowing people to differentiate the reviews from people who do not usually watch a certain genre compared to those who do so frequently. However, this is unlikely to happen, as it is tedious and would take time to generate reviews. 

So at the end of the day, what really matters is one’s personal preference. Though an individual may use reviews to see whether or not a movie is worth watching, it is inefficient for anyone to base their entire viewpoints of a movie on a review. They are helpful– to an extent. 

“The real concern with Rotten Tomatoes was that it became such a go-to place for people [that it] could kill a movie much more quickly than was traditional,” said Bruce Nash, founder and publisher of the movie industry data provider, The Numbers.