Can Rotten Tomatoes Make or Break a Film?

Fascinating results from an abundance of data

"Rotten Tomatoes" costume
A special screening of "Seven Psychopaths" celebrating the Certified Fresh Rating from
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for CBS Films

If you’re a cinephile or just someone fond of exploring a whole lot of data, you’ve probably spent some time on Rotten Tomatoes in the last few years. The site aggregates reviews of assorted films — both from critics and from audiences. Last year, the site changed some of its policies in the wake of online trolls’ efforts to review-bomb a host of films. It remains an omnipresent way for countless moviegoers to decide whether or not a certain film is worth their time and money.

A new feature at The Ringer takes an extensive look at Rotten Tomatoes’ history and data and asks a provocative question: does the site actually have a significant impact on whether certain movies succeed or fail?

The article, by Ben Lindbergh and Rob Arthur, notes that Rotten Tomatoes has had a lot of power ascribed to it since 2017. In 2016, the site was bought by Fandango, bundling its ratings as part of the process of buying a movie ticket. Lindbergh and Arthur write that a host of would-be blockbusters that underperformed were low-ranking on Rotten Tomatoes — suggesting that the site could make or break a franchise.

The Ringer offers less of a definitive answer and more of a portrait of an industry in flux. “[O]ur analysis reveals that Rotten Tomatoes scores are reliably correlated with box office performance, especially for certain genres,” write Lindbergh and Arthur. “But the aggregator’s influence may have been on the wane before the coronavirus struck, and it may matter less than ever in the present uncertain circumstances.”

The article also offers some fascinating pieces of information on the evolution of Rotten Tomatoes rankings over time, as well as how the service handles films from different genres. It leaves the reader with a lot to think about, both in terms of how we use Rotten Tomatoes and in terms of how the service does and does not affect the larger industry.

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