Audiences, critics, and whether Rotten Tomatoes actually helps

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As The Super Mario Bros Movie divides audiences and critics, a few words on looking past the Rotten Tomatoes score and forming a nuanced opinion on films.

Every few months, the internet battles it out over who to believe when it comes to movies: critics or the audience.


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Read some of the discourse, and the public seem to require arbitrary numbers to dictate if they seek out a film, with such numbers usually perpetuated by the website Rotten Tomatoes and their system of having quantifiably objective data for both sides.

These numbers divide consistently, and frustratingly, far too often. While both sides of the argument usually come from a misunderstanding of the other’s frustration, what neither side seem willing to realise is that films are not made in a vacuum to ostracise the other. Should a review from a critic be based on how effective it is at engaging with its target audience? Should audiences listen to those industry professionals who are telling you a film is bad? Yes and no. The situation is more nuanced than any single number can dictate.

Firstly, let’s clarify how Rotten Tomatoes determines their scores. Contrary to all-too-common belief, the site is primarily an aggregator. It means that Rotten Tomatoes collects reviews from critics and audiences to calculate a score; which is quantified in the Tomatometer.

This score is based on a binary principle. If a film is scored by a user as 6/10 or higher, it indicates a positive (fresh) response to the film – and if below 6/10, the film’s response is negative – i.e., ‘rotten’. This has fed into the confusion surrounding how people perceive both critic and audience scores.

A film could be universally seen as perfectly fine, meaning everyone who submits a review rates the film at 6/10. This would give the film in question a 100% positive rating. It’s important to note that this is a percentage, and doesn’t transpose into a decimal placed score. So 100% does not mean 100/100, no more than 0% means 0/100.

The most recent instance of this divide can be seen with The Super Mario Bros. Movie. As of time of writing, Rotten Tomatoes holds the animated film at a 59% critic score with 245 reviews aggregated, only 1% off from how they determine a film is of a ‘fresh’ rating. Their audience score is sitting at 96% with their site citing 5000+ ratings calculated, indicating universal acclaim from those who have submitted a score. The difference between the two is that a critic review submitted to Rotten Tomatoes can only happen if that reviewer – or an individual publication – is verified.

The verification process to submit a review that will contribute to the tomatometer mandates professional and consistent review output for two years prior to applying, a high standard of grammatical competence and demonstrating work that reflects their key values. For video reviewers, it requires 30,000 subscribers on an individual platform which qualifies them as having broad audience reach. The process also involves a 1000-character essay on why you became a film critic. The applications to verify your professional status as a film critic – according to Rotten Tomatoes, at least – are only open once a year, from March 1st to March 31st.

In comparison, the audience score is calculated by any person who wants to submit their score for the film. In the past, this has led to ‘review-bombing’ upcoming releases – where a film is rated negatively by a contingent of fans who don’t agree with the politics of a movie before they see it – for which Rotten Tomatoes changed their process to only allow audience responses after the film screened publicly.

To help combat this, they introduced purchased ticket verification for those submitting, meaning there are now two separate audience scores. Those who can verify they have purchased a ticket to the film – which is the score on display – and one with scores submitted unverified.

This verification is only available to US residents who have access to the Fandango (Rotten Tomatoes’ parent company) app and purchased their movie ticket through that app, meaning the audience score is skewed massively in favour of American audiences. There’s also an inherent bias towards positivity. With Rotten Tomatoes‘ audience score being rated out of five stars, there are two options – 1 star or 2 star – for a negative score, with three options – 3-star, 4-star or 5-star – for a positive contribution to the score.

The comparison is quite stark. Industry professionals who have a deeper knowledge of the landscape of film history and technical competency must jump through hoops to become verified, while Rotten Tomatoes demands a relaxed minimum from audience submissions. For all intents and purposes, this should indicate that critic reviews are the score to take heed of. However, critics are just as human as the next person, prone to hyperbole and – especially in the age of the internet – clickbait responses.

In a recent Film Stories article that talked about Seth Rogen’s comments on how criticism affected him, film critic Calum Cooper discussed the critics who review negatively for the sake of reviewing negatively, stating “it’s an approach bathed in bad faith, as it assumes that the reviewer is all-knowing and that the film is inherently valueless – especially if it doesn’t cater to the reviewer’s specific needs or beliefs.”

A review from a critic can provide context for their opinion, while audiences are not required to add context to their opinion. But when, as Cooper states, that review is in bad faith, should it be allowed to contribute to a critical consensus? There is no arbiter allocated from Rotten Tomatoes to verify whether these reviews are coming from a place of genuine criticism or from a fallacy of clickbait, as the critic score for Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t discriminate against these reviews. There’s no room for nuance in the Rotten Tomatoes critic framework as they take that score on face value.

With reviews of The Super Mario Bros. Movie indicating it on Rotten Tomatoes as a ‘rotten’ movie, does that equate to a bad film? Rotten Tomatoes scores may have you believe as such, but is it? Every critic has their own individual criteria for scoring and interpreting a film, but the fundamentals of the disparity is that each critic is not the child that Mario is targeted towards.

the super mario bros. movie

Should critics review the film in a vacuum with their mature and adult values for art, or attempt to review from the perspective of the 6-year-old vibrating in their seat at the vibrant colours and simplistic – if regressive – narrative featuring characters they will now want to play as? Illumination and Nintendo want the latter with Mario and, as critics are saying, insultingly so.

The script is dog-eared with references to the games – only a few of these are actually ‘easter eggs’ with the rest existing as world-building within an adaptation of game symbology – and the film works as an advertisement for the games themselves. An extended montage sequence obtrusively soundtracked to Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out For A Hero feels very symptomatic of this. A child doesn’t notice the inherent capitalistic villainy at work, though, so should critics then ignore that on the basis that a bad film is fun for a certain demographic?

No. Because while kids may enjoy the film, a film is and should be more than just entertainment value. In her Independent review of The Super Mario Bros. Movie, critic Clarisse Loughry states “it’s hard to demand all that much from a Mario Bros film when its source material has been historically devoid of plot, but shouldn’t we be allowed to demand a little more than mere competency?” She is right, of course, and what should be added to that is that kids themselves deserve better than this from media aimed towards them.

So-called ‘kids movies’ can just be dumb fun. 2001’s Shrek has had a long-lasting legacy for those who grew up with the highly competent and infectiously fun romp that was aimed at children. It wasn’t highbrow or the kind of thematically resonating film that critics devour, but was acclaimed by critics and audiences alike.

The same is to be said for the recent Best Animated Film Oscar nominee, Puss In Boots: The Last Wish. Those of the same age as I grew up on ‘kids films’ like Disney’s Aladdin and Pixar’s Toy Story. They aren’t always deep, but they hold their head up high as competent, engaging pieces of fiction that feel made by enthusiastic creators with a narrative that transcends the confines of the 6-year-old’s attention span.

Even media aimed at toddlers such as Paw Patrol or Dora The Explorer are about coming together on their own merits, through self-belief or teamwork. The Mario movie’s titular brothers save the day by being the first to get to an invincibility star, with not a single moral lesson to be learned by this. Every film that is geared towards children teaches them something, through the themes embedded into the film or through the correct decisions made by the protagonists. It’s important that these films have good messages as what they see on screen provides the foundation of a child’s moral compass, of which critics have noted in their reviews.

Critics, with their knowledge of the industry and wider understanding of media, pay attention to the passion behind the camera, which they’ve identified and argued as lacking in Mario. The passion behind the Disney renaissance films helped to create an entire subset of adults still obsessed with those properties. Without its prior video game connection, critics don’t believe Mario would have that same legacy as those Disney films, but Illumination continues to surprise. Their Despicable Me franchise – which isn’t lauded by critics – has led adults who were born post-millennium to partake in social events as their Minion character. Kids do deserve more than this kind of white noise art for their malleable minds but at the same time, who can say that adults don’t have ‘bad movies’ that they cite as a comfort film?

Critics aren’t wrong in their assessment of Mario, even if both sides of this debate are gesticulating hyperbolically. The audience’s score is skewed towards the positive, and reviews like that from the Telegraph’s critic Robbie Collin calling it a ‘monstrosity’ are only going to get the backs up of the audience who enjoy the film.

But even then, this is a minority. The score is 59% which indicates that over half the critics who have reviewed it gave it a positive score. Most critic reviews for Mario are balanced, nuanced takes that also discuss the film from the perspective of the children that will enjoy seeing Donkey Kong make his pecs dance. Critics are not out of touch, as the pro-audience side of this debate tries to claim. If they were, no blockbuster – or any mass marketed media – would receive critical acclaim, and yet Top Gun: Maverick and John Wick: Chapter 4 were both acclaimed financial successes.

It’s good that there’s disparity between critics and audiences, because they are both human beings with different lived experiences, who are viewing art within different parameters. There is no objective measurement in art, even art designed with almost heinously capitalistic ideals. As much as Rotten Tomatoes dilutes emotions and words down into a single score, the ‘tomatometer’ is only a measurement intended to be interpreted.

Every critic review collated by the website will link to writing which can help assist and inform the opinion that has been dissolved down into a single number. It’s up to us to engage with the film on our own merits and not to take a score at face value, whether it’s from an audience perspective or from a critical one. It’s not Rotten Tomatoes’ fault. It’s ours.

Image: BigStock

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