Anybody who has been online for more than five minutes can tell you that user scores for movies are basically useless in any context. IMDB is infamous for simply being a cesspool of toxic fanboys downvoting movies that “steal the spotlight” from their personal favorites rather than promoting movies that they actually like (or even negatively reviewing movies that they actually dislike). Although they legitimately does act as a platform for many great and insightful voices, websites like Twitter and YouTube equally promote informed critics and raging wannabes with an axe to grind.
Notable even among this cesspool of movie fandom, however, is Rotten Tomatoes. As the de facto face of movie fandom of the last two decades, its become a cultural battleground of sorts: between critics and laymen, between regular users and “motivated sellers,” between fandoms of each and every stripe.
The broad service it provides is actually incredibly useful and has a place in the larger discourse, but people constantly, almost willfully, use it incorrectly as if to prove some point that matters only to them. The website is a review aggregator, meaning that they average a number of different critic reviews together to simply show you what percentage of them liked a given movie. They don’t review movies themselves and the scores don’t show how deeply loved a movie is (that is to say, if people are extremely passionate or dispassionate for a movie): it merely shows how many critics rated it favorably in the broadest possible terms, on a binary, pass/fail scale.
And while that is useful information that might reasonably tell the average moviegoer something of value about a movie that they’re considering paying good money to see, nobody uses it that way. To most people, a movie rated 90% is believed to be qualitatively better than one rated 89%, as if the same singular person was sitting down to review these movies and not a random assortment of critics with varying motives, tastes and opinions that inform their reviews.
Making matters even worse is the fact that the website plays part in creating a false dichotomy between “average” and “professional” moviegoers: that is to say, between critics and fans (as if the critics were somehow themselves any less a part of the various fandoms that define modern pop culture purveyance). It holds informed opinions of people who actually saw the movie alongside those who maybe watch a couple movies a year (and maybe not even the movie that they’re supposedly here to review) and acts as if these reveal the same thing, or are even comparable in any meaningful way. Even worse is the fact that Rotten Tomatoes allowed users to review movies as soon as critics could, even though this often meant that regular Joes who don’t have access to early critics screenings could review movies that weren’t even released to the general pubic yet (in some cases, weeks and even months in advance of their first opportunity to do so).
Obviously, this is a problem, as it allows people to not only review movies that they haven’t seen, but to do so to movies that they couldn’t possibly have had the opportunity to see yet. It platforms these people ahead of the movies release and has been used over the past few years in naked, tribalistic attempts to hurt one movie or another at the box office.
Well, Rotten Tomatoes has finally caught on to this and are doing something to correct it, at least in part. After the review bombing of Captain Marvel (2019) far and away before its users could ever see it, Rotten Tomatoes announced its plan to “modernize its audience rating system through a series of product enhancements,” the first of which includes banning “user reviews and comments prior to a movie’s theatrical release.” In other words, the website will now disallow users from rating and reviewing movies before those movies get released to the public.
This does nothing to fix every other issue with Rotten Tomatoes – from its continued misuse in public spheres to the problematized user ratings in general to the suffocating effect that it’s having on film discourse in the larger pop culture – but it’s at least a first step to maybe redressing some of these more egregious faults in its presence and prevalence in the larger film discourse. At the very least, before users can review bomb movies that they haven’t even bothered to see yet, they have to wait until everybody else has had a chance to not see it as well.