The animosity between the film industry and internet “aggregators” has been simmering since the summer, but it’s just kicked up a notch with the introduction of legendary director Martin Scorsese into the fray.
Scorsese penned an excoriating essay against Rotten Tomatoes, Cinemascore, and other digital aggregation sites, calling them “hostile to serious filmmakers,” and a bane on the film criticism community. It’s another entry in the ongoing debate over the influence Rotten Tomatoes has over film studios and the box office.
“Like everyone else, I’ve received my share of positive and negative reviews. The negative ones obviously aren’t much fun, but they come with the territory. However, I will say that in the past, when some critics had problems with one of my pictures, they would generally respond in a thoughtful manner, with actual positions that they felt obliged to argue. Over the past 20 years or so, many things have changed in cinema.”
Scorsese argued that entertainment journalism has become too fixated on box office reporting, fed by the rise of platforms like Rotten Tomatoes or market research firms like Cinemascore, which he says has diminished the movie-going experience. Scorsese lambasted “aggregators” like “Rotten Tomatoes” for having “absolutely nothing to do with real film criticism.” He continued:
“They have everything to do with the movie business and absolutely nothing to do with either the creation or the intelligent viewing of film. The filmmaker is reduced to a content manufacturer and the viewer to an unadventurous consumer.”
The ubiquity of these platforms, Scorsese says has led to the demise of “film criticism written by passionately engaged people with actual knowledge of film history” and an increase of “people who seem to take pleasure in seeing films and filmmakers rejected, dismissed, and in some cases ripped to shreds.”
In Defense of Rotten Tomatoes
While Scorsese has a point about entertainment journalism becoming increasingly focused on box office returns (guilty), I don’t think Rotten Tomatoes is wholly to blame for it, or for turning moviegoing into a “consumer-driven” experience. That can be blamed on the rise of the blockbuster and how it’s changed the industry, but that’s a whole other issue. Rotten Tomatoes is an aggregator like Scorsese said, but it aggregates real film reviews, by real critics. Those reviews are available to anyone who uses the site, and none of them set out with the intention of ripping a movie to shreds. Cinemascore is also an issue of audience reaction — an intensified version of word-of-mouth — that studios depend on more than actual audience-goers. In both cases, the platforms themselves aren’t reductive, but the way they’re used arguably are.
Scorsese isn’t the first director to condemn Rotten Tomatoes. Brett Ratner called the aggregator “the destruction of our business,” and Hollywood executives have made it their “mission” to destroy the site. However, Scorsese’s reasons for condemning the platforms is far different from Ratner and the executives, who see Rotten Tomatoes as a powerful influencer of audience opinion and thus, box office — which we now know is not true. Scorsese wants more original, ambitious films like mother! to be greenlit and developed — but Rotten Tomatoes awarded mother! a fresh score.
In this case I think Scorsese is barking up the wrong tree, but he gets to a good point: cinema can be fresh, original, and weird. Just look at recent polarizing films like mother! or Blade Runner 2049. Audiences, and by extension critics, are craving original films too — just look at the success of mid-budget and original films over the summer. But it’s a two-way street, as the studios have to get it into their heads that unique films will be rewarded critically and commercially. But the one thing I know of this changing movie landscape is: Rotten Tomatoes is not at fault. And without much of a solution that I can offer myself, I’ll leave you with Scorsese’s final words in his essay:
“Good films by real filmmakers aren’t made to be decoded, consumed or instantly comprehended.”
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