My second day at Rotten Tomatoes, I went to lunch with some of the site’s editorial staff. These are the front-facing Tomatopeople, separate from the curators. They interview movie stars. They schmooze at film festivals. They write hot takes for the site. I asked if, as de facto brand ambassadors, they find that people understand Rotten Tomatoes. No, came the reply, they do not. One editor, Jacqueline Coley, said that she tells Uber drivers she’s a traveling nurse, so they don’t start accosting her about scores she can’t control. She also hears complaints about “the algorithm.” Says Coley, incredulous: “We don’t have an algorithm!”
Indeed not. This is why review-bombing trolls caused such grief not just to studios but to Rotten Tomatoes itself. When audience scores for The Last Jedi began plummeting to suspiciously low depths a couple of years ago (it’s currently at 43 percent, with a Tomatometer score of 91), casual users couldn’t know if the criticism was representative of the film-going public or just Gamergate runoff protesting the film’s casting inclusivity (or some other niche superfan grievance, for that matter). Absent its reputation for accurate ratings, Rotten Tomatoes is nothing.
To bolster that trust, Rotten Tomatoes fixed an obvious problem: It forbade people from rating movies before they actually came out. It also began verifying the reviews of tomato throwers who could prove they bought their tickets on Fandango. The new verified rating is now the site’s default Audience Score. (Rotten Tomatoes says it is working with cinema chains to verify their ticket stubs too, but for now this arrangement obviously benefits … Fandango.) Still, there’s nothing stopping people from bombing a movie for nefarious purposes after it comes out.
These changes took place in tandem with a parallel overhaul of its critics’ criteria, designed to make its Tomatometer more representative. Prior to August 2018, Tomatometer-approved critics were almost exclusively staff writers from existing publications, who tended to be whiter, maler, and crustier. Since the site changed its policies, it’s added roughly 600 new critics—the majority of whom are freelancers and women. But that also means there are now a stunning 4,500 critics, some of whom inevitably will be terrible. A couple of years ago, an approved critic named Cole Smithey, who writes for Colesmithey.com, bragged about intentionally tanking Lady Bird‘s then-100 percent rating with a negative review.
It’s hard to know how much of a difference high or low scores make at the box office. In late 2018, Morning Consult conducted a national poll and found that one-third of Americans look at Rotten Tomatoes before seeing a movie, and 63 percent of those have been deterred by low scores. Whatever the effect, appearance is everything in Hollywood. Nobody wants a green tomato. Studios hold screenings for critics as close to release dates as possible, to delay splats, while disputing rotten ratings to curators like Giles.
“I’ve noticed over the last year that Certified Fresh is more important for studios and filmmakers,” he says, referring to the little badge movies get if the Tomatometer is 75 percent or higher for a minimum of 40 film reviews. “They know the value we add to their marketing.” The AMC movie chain—the largest in the country—displays the Tomatometer on its websites, but only next to movies that are Certified Fresh.
In any case, Fandango did not buy Rotten Tomatoes to discourage people from seeing movies. To that point, the site doesn’t have its own boss. Instead, it’s led by Fandango’s president, a fit, ageless-looking Canadian named Paul Yanover. He started out developing software for animators working on Disney’s original Beauty and the Beast, and he doesn’t seem like a suit, exactly. But he knows how the popcorn gets buttered. “I think we actually see ourselves as a really useful marketing platform for the studios,” he told me.
Fandango makes money in several ways. It earns a cut of the “convenience fee” you pay when you buy a ticket on its platform. It also strikes licensing agreements with content providers who want to use the Tomatometer.