Do audiences even trust movie critics anymore? The downfall of Rotten Tomatoes and media criticism

An exposé revealed that some critics were paid for positive reviews, but criticism has already been seen as suspect

By Nardos Haile

Staff Writer

Published September 7, 2023 6:02PM (EDT)

Mario (voiced by Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) in "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" (Nintendo / Universal Pictures)
Mario (voiced by Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) in "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" (Nintendo / Universal Pictures)

As a person who is passionate about film, television and criticism in media — my first move to assess whether a movie is hot or not is usually decided when I see a Rotten Tomatoes score. I tend to go down all the way to the bottom of the page to do my research. I end up inhaling all the criticism I can until I've ingested all the typically highbrow but thought-provoking critiques and then I eventually decide how I feel about a film. 

There is conflicting data on whether ... criticism in general can affect a movie's performance at the box office.

But not everyone is as invested in criticism the same way a culture writer is — it's a part of our job. The moviegoers' job is to experience a film in its entirety and form an opinion afterward on the content of the film but also the theatrical experience. And the film studios' job is to create that experience for us as fans and critics. There are specific roles that we inhabit in the realm of movie-watching and the role that Rotten Tomatoes has always played as a trusted, review aggregate website has been apparently compromised. According to Vulture's puzzling Rotten Tomatoes exposé, the integrity of criticism is at stake due to publicists and public relations firms buying off critics to game the review aggregate website's critical scores. 

The extensive article details the allegations that a PR firm called Bunker 15 has been recruiting and lobbying small, self-published critics who are still part of the countless critics that Rotten Tomatoes monitors. Bunker 15 then allegedly paid specific critics $50 or more for each seemingly positive review, several critics told Vulture. The review site says it prohibits "reviewing based on a financial incentive." Reportedly, Bunker 15 said journalists are free to write whatever opinions they'd like of their films but "super nice" critics often agreed not to publicly post bad reviews on their usual website. They would shelf the negative reviews and eventually post them on their smaller blog that Rotten Tomatoes would never see. If successful, then Rotten Tomatoes would only log those positive reviews not negative ones.

In a statement to Vulture, Rotten Tomatoes said, "We take the integrity of our scores seriously and do not tolerate any attempts to manipulate them. We have a dedicated team who monitors our platforms regularly and thoroughly investigates and resolves any suspicious activity."

Simply, one of the most coveted review aggregate websites is under fire for allegedly being a breeding ground for paid reviews, inaccurately affecting the fresh vs. rotten tomato score that determines the success of a film. Can we even trust Rotten Tomatoes after this? Or has the decline of trust in authentic critical commentary and reviews been the case for a while? 

There is conflicting data on whether Rotten Tomatoes or criticism in general can affect a movie's performance at the box office or favorability with the general public. A study from 2017 by USC's Data & Analytics Project found that the scores have not played a "very big role in driving box office performance, either positively or negatively." But a deep dive by Ringer said it found that there is a correlation between a film's score and box-office returns, specifically for comedy and horror films. 

Although, this isn't guaranteed 100% of the time. Recently, there has been a notable divide between the audience's and critics' scores. Audiences loved films like Adam McKay's satirical climate activism plea in "Don't Look Up" even though it has a 55% on the Tomatometer versus the audience's 78% score. Meanwhile, "The Super Mario Bros Movie" released earlier this year was a hit with audiences and made $1.36 billion worldwide box office while also becoming the highest-grossing video game adaption film. It's rated 59% on the Tomatometer while the audience score is at a whopping 95%. Other fan-favorite films that are critically panned but positively received by audiences include the Tom Holland-led "Uncharted" and the iconic children's film "Spy Kids." IMDb's user ratings system, which pre-dates Rotten Tomatoes, could also be a reason why there has been a shift towards ambivalence about critical reviews, enforcing the idea that critics don't matter, only a viewer's opinion does.

Criticism provokes a response that then sparks larger discourse — remember the night terror that was "The Idol"?

But sometimes audiences use their influence to spew hate onto critically lauded films like the Brie Larson-led "Captain Marvel." The Marvel film was review-bombed by misogynistic comic book nerds after Larson critiqued that 67% of the top critics reviewing the 100 highest-grossing movies in 2017 were white men. Following the baseless negative reviews, the website announced it would no longer allow people to have early reactions to films without seeing them because the website saw "an uptick in non-constructive input, sometimes bordering on trolling." 

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Without a doubt, the review system is irreversibly mangled, and it happened long before Vulture's article. I mean Rotten Tomatoes is literally owned by the movie ticket seller Fandango (which is owned by Comcast) and partially owned by Warner Bros. The website is one tangled net that almost seems like it is too much of an unbeatable boogeyman to kill or at least to gut out its rotting insides. All of these conflicts of interest further erode the unspoken power we hand over to critics as they make or break the validity of a film.

But also, do we even care about what some critics have to say if they can so easily be bought and sold for a measly $50 positive review? If films are performing well at the box office regardless of their negative or positive critical score, doesn't that prove that what really matters is how the audience responds to a film? To me, criticism's importance only comes to light when it negatively or positively critiques a film, television or a specific actor that we love. That criticism provokes a response that then sparks larger discourse — remember the night terror that was "The Idol"?

Most importantly, criticism has lost its value because most people don't seem to be engaged in understanding that criticism isn't an attack on art. We criticize things because nothing exists in an immaculate, untouchable form. The rise in anti-intellectualism and American culture wars has eliminated any space for nuance, and that's what criticism requires. But maybe that's why social media apps like Letterboxd are having a moment with cinephiles and even people removed from the film world. It has made criticism increasingly more accessible and less snobbish for people who seek it out and want to engage with opinions that differ from their own. Ultimately, the exposé has revealed that some critics can be bought, and as hard as the industry tries to drown out authentic criticism — this scandal only amplifies that we need to spotlight the importance of criticism to drown out the bogus white noise.

By Nardos Haile

Nardos Haile is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She’s previously covered all things entertainment, music, fashion and celebrity culture at The Associated Press. She resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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Commentary Criticism Critics Hollywood Movies Rotten Tomatoes