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Rottentomatoes is Killing my Movie-Going Mojo

Maybe it’s the fact that I no longer work at a movie theatre or enjoy the free screenings that came with it. Maybe it’s the fact that my new off-shift job has sapped most of my weekend hours and leisure-time energy. Maybe it’s all the television, Netflix and Hulu I’ve been watching. Maybe it’s a combination of all these things that’s dampening my movie theatre interest. But what really feels like the main culprit behind my box office lethargy are all those damned critic and review amalgamation websites.

While a slew of such websites are out there, Rottentomatoes is my review drug of choice. Shortly after it launched I plugged in, using its Tomatometer percentage as a barometer of movie quality to temper my own opinions, expectations and interest in upcoming releases. Back then I regarded the website as a quirky way to conveniently obtain a cross-section of a film’s critical reception, though it didn’t really matter to me what the reviews actually said.

You see throughout most of my high school and college careers I worked at movie theatres, three different chains to be exact. An abundance of boredom, a lack of spending capital and a promotion to Assistant Manager at one of them created the perfect storm for rampant movie theatre enjoyment... especially during the awkward years of high school when sanctioned locations to booze at were hard to come by. Luckily for me upper management didn’t bat an eye at after-hour screenings and the lack of an updated security system for the 6-plex meant there wasn’t really any way to track my comings and goings. Around this point sites like Rottentomatoes were really starting to catch on. Soon the question of how to gauge a movie went from “What’d Siskel & Ebert give it?” to “What’s it holding on Rottentomatoes?”

But when you have tens of thousands of dollars in auditorium time and projector use at your disposal, not to mention unlimited supplies of popcorn, soda and Kid’s Pack candy (which weren’t inventoried), then it really didn’t matter how bad of a review percentile a movie received. In fact my friends and I regarded a really terrible “Rotten” rating as a unique badge of honor. Watching good movies was great, yet sometimes watching terrible movies was just as much fun. “Eight Legged Freaks is only pulling a 47%? Who cares! Crack open the Natty and be here by 12:30AM when the last movie’s out.” In short it was a movie-goer’s paradise even when the movies themselves weren’t always up to snuff.

It’s now several years later and I barely get to a movie once every three months. What happened to me? Sure I have to pay for movies and concessions now, I no longer have the luxury of hosting private screenings for me and my friends or have the opportunity to get borderline inappropriately drunk in a projection booth. But the thing is I love going to movie theatres. I don’t limit my theatre-going experiences to just the big blockbuster spectacles; I prefer to watch any and every type of film in a theatre.

The lack of free time is definitely a factor, but the truth is most of my enthusiasm for a new release usually gets drained by the harsh light of its critical consensus long before I schedule a trip to go see it. Before I could tolerate seeing bad movies in the theatre because I had the time to waste, but now I avoid them like the plague and not just because I catch so much flack from my fiance every time I drag her to a lackluster flick (though she still gives me shit for taking her to see the abysmal ass train known as Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, which by the way scored a 77% “fresh” rating on RT). I realize I’m growing nostalgic as I age; now every time I get disappointed by the big screen it’s a blow to the memories of all the truly great theatre experiences I’ve enjoyed in my life.

That fear of movie theatre disappointment, combined with critics’ over-eagerness to pan a film, has led to my sharp decline in theatre attendance. It’d be easy to just avoid the reviews, but they’re everywhere. Shrugging off a lone critic review in the local paper is one thing, but how can I ignore thousands, especially when they’re all conveniently lumped on one website? Rottentomatoes is now a prominent and respected film entertainment site; it’s on my Flixter iphone app, soon to be on the new Apple TV, continuously referenced in feature films’ wiki pages, and, up until last September, had its own dedicated half-hour television show (though I hear it’s returning in the future as a shorter segment of Current TV’s infoMania series). As hard as I try I can’t resist checking it.

While I still love Rottentomatoes, I hate how movie skeptical it’s made me. I realize that nothing about the site really changed, rather my perception and relationship with it has. Before I was interested in a film’s RT percentage solely out of curiosity, but somewhere along the line I started to rely on that number to determine whether or not I made it to the theatre. About a year ago Armond White, Chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle, articulated a valid point on the matter by stating that Rottentomatoes provides “consensus as a substitute for assessment.” In White’s view the Internet and its associated culture is denigrating all of traditional film criticism, a topic that’s far too large for this rant, but something worth considering. Even if they do provide full article links or lengthy preview snippets, the truth is aggregate review sites end up pigeonholing critiques into neat, quantifiable rankings that diminish the critic’s individual voice.

Compiling services are great for easily viewing lots of information, but in terms of compiling movie reviews the act of such vast aggregation also presents an unwelcome side effect: dulling the overall result and creating a case where the whole of reviews is not greater than the sum of its individual pieces. I guess its a simple matter of statistics that the masses will usually grind down movies to mediocrity, another facet of the bell curve principle that insulates rather than entices. Amongst the large swath of Internet reviewers I need to remember that only a handful are really like me. Instead of relying on bottom-line numbers I need to put my trust in people who actually share my taste in movies. I need to stop being so discouraged by negative reviews, especially reviews of controversial or avant-garde flicks that will naturally be targeted by the mainstream for their eccentricities. But most of all I need to stop being such a nancy boy and get my ass to the theatre.

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Total Comments: 6
BK    Feb 8 2011 4:25am
Haha nice read. Sounded like fun times!

The site design is rather rudimentary and rough on the eyes but have you heard of Criticker?

Might take awhile to get up all the movies you've seen and rated but once you do, or you just need 10 or something, they'll generate a predicted score based on your own taste. Pretty cool, not exactly very accurate as it depends on comparing your taste to others and back or something but it is something.
Patrick Ferrara
Patrick Ferrara    Feb 8 2011 4:30am
Haha BK it was the bomb, still the best job I ever had. When I strike it rich I'm doing two things: 1) Building my own castle and 2) Building my own multiplex which I'll operate when I retire. I'll have to check out Criticker cuz that is a cool idea and now that Netflix and other sites are doing something similar with their recommendation algorithms they should only get better.
Karl Schneider
Karl Schneider    Feb 8 2011 5:00am
Oh god, here we go with the castle.
Crux    Feb 8 2011 5:55pm
I vaguely remember a movie we watched at your theater. It was an animated flick about cows...I have no idea what it was called. The movie I'm sure had terrible ratings was surely something I would have never gone to see if I had to pay for point well made.

On a less related note....when you get rich and open a theater I'll work there if you let me live in the castle!
be.redy    Feb 9 2011 3:44pm
Oh my. Calling upon a thing Armond White said. That's just wrong. No matter how right he might be. No one should pay any attention to him.
previte01    Feb 15 2011 8:19am
Awesome article. My friend and I have been talking about the rottentomatoes effect for some time now. While it has kept us from seeing a wide selection of movies, it also made us give a few films a chance that we normally would have brushed to the side. I remember when the 2005 movie, "The Descent," came out in theaters, we had barely heard anything about it. Yet rottentomatoes had it as a 93% fresh, so we gave it a try and loved it. I've known some people who were so amped about seeing Avatar, that they purposefully avoided watching trailers and going to sites like RT because they were afraid it would taint their experience.