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The movie-review aggregator waited more than 24 hours to post a poor critics’ score for the new Warner Bros. Film “Justice League,” breaking with tradition of posting right after a studio-imposed ban. It incensed critics and fans alike.
Fueling the fire: WB parent Time Warner owns a 30 percent stake in Rotten Tomatoes.
More than just a kerfuffle over one superhero film, the incident raises bigger questions about the relationship between reviewers and the public, the editorial objectivity of aggregators and how much companies should be empowered to control the pre-release messaging of their movies.
“I think Rotten Tomatoes needs more transparency and equality,” Guy Lodge said, a critic who contributes to Variety. “An aggregation site should practice absolute objectivity. You add Time Warner into it,” he said, “and it turns out to be very confusing.”
A Rotten Tomatoes spokeswoman declined to give a comment on this story, as did a WB spokeswoman.
With a budget of nearly $300 million, “Justice League” is among the most expensive films ever made. Warner Bros. has a lot riding on the DC Comics movie, finding its own ensemble superhero blockbuster to face against the “Avengers” series from Disney/Marvel.
The Rotten Tomatoes stuffs started when the site delayed its release of the “Justice League” review’s score – the notion of reviewers who certify a film as “fresh,” or good – from late Tuesday to early Thursday, just hours before the film was to start rolling in theaters. The move was rare, but the site said it wanted to reveal the number on a new Facebook video segment. The score would turn out to reach a subpar 43%.
Some regarded the withholding of the score, which was globally expected to be low, as an attempt to hide bad news about a sister company and not deter ticket sales ahead of opening week.
“Warner Bros is one of the owners of Rotten Tomatoes’ parent company. I respect a lot of those who work there but this is a very BAD look,” Katey Rich, an editor at VanityFair.com, tweeted. Rotten Tomatoes is owned by the ticket-sale site Fandango, of which Warner Bros. owns 30 percent and Comcast Universal owns 70 percent.
Dana Benson, a Rotten Tomatoes spokeswoman, said the decision to withhold the score was governed only by the Facebook show time. The program, which is new, has been set to be debuted of Thursday midnight Eastern time, she said. Warner Bros. wasn’t involved in the “Justice League” decision, said Benson.
“We are absolutely autonomous, like any news organization,” Benson said. “There is no outside influence on anything we put on the site.”
The news arrived as some have wondered whether articles in nonconventional entertainment outlets remain the same standards as mainstream journalism platforms. Eyebrows shot sky-rocket on social media Wednesday at a Rotten Tomatoes tale showing that Marvel and DC – the two comics giants whose fans root for their respective films like Cowboys and Redskins supporters cheer for touchdowns – were basically producing movies of equal quality, despite Marvel movies getting overwhelmingly better reviews.
“We saw each title with a Tomato-meter and did the math, and the results were much closer than you might have expected,” the Time Warner-owned site said, before noting that both sides have “produced some fantastic films [and] guilty pleasures.”
The results were indeed very close, but only due to Rotten Tomatoes in its tally included all DC-related TV series, an area in which Rotten Tomatoes is not often depended on.
But mediums weren’t the only ones up in arms about the “Justice League” move. DC fans also suspected an agenda – of the opposite kind. They wondered whether the big reveal was meant to prove DC’s creative struggles.
“RT is very aware of the fact that DCEU [DC Extended Universe] films haven’t gotten good critic ratings (the audience rating is always fresh, but they NEVER emphasize that, they just want to focus on the negative) and they’re using that to their advantage and that isn’t right,” a writer from the fan site Comic Book Debate who goes by the name Donnia wrote in a message to The Post.
Other DC fans focused on the score itself. Sergio Ramos Ladecima, who tweets under the account @DCEUNews, posted “Guys . . . If even Man of Steel couldn’t earn a fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes. Did we actually [think] that Justice League would be able to reach the bar?” referring to an earlier Superman movie.
The incident raises the challenge dealt by review-aggregation sites.
Rotten Tomatoes, together with its more complicatedly designed rival Metacritic, were launched in the late 1990s as a way of snapshot of critical opinion, a portal to further study rather than a replacement for it. But as their readership has grown, they have played a more crucial and even activist role.
That has not sat well with many in the film community.
Last month, Martin Scorsese penned an essay in The Hollywood Reporter blaming the site for the commodification of the movie business.
“They rate a picture the way you’d rate a horse at the racetrack, a restaurant in a Zagat’s guide, or a household appliance in Consumer Reports,” the Oscar-winning film director wrote.
Critics claim the system is too vulnerable to exploitation by company marketing departments and too uninterested in bringing a fair representation. They note that the percentages fail to weight critics – Pulitzer winners and unknown writers count equally – while a mildly negative review is not distinguished from one that pans the film.
“I believe Rotten Tomatoes’ effect on the industry is pernicious,” Michael Philips, the Chicago Tribune movie critic, claimed in an interview. “While I don’t wish extinction on the site, I live for the day when people are enslaved to it less.”
As for their part, most studios have been supportive, knowing that a high Rotten Tomatoes score can be a digestible marketing morsel at a time when much conventional TV and even digital advertising is ineffective.
But reviewers say they’d rather not be corralled into that process; they worry that Rotten Tomatoes sets up false dichotomies between fans and critics. Many of the poorly scored movies on the site have turned into rallying cries for fans in the way that legacy news media has become a target for populist voters.
The self-described “modern geek” blogger who runs a site called The Flite Cast tweeted this week of Rotten Tomatoes: “[I]t’s time to finally stop giving that site and that score our attention. WE have the power, not them.”
Lodge, the Variety writer, claimed fans would be wrong to blame critics for poor reviews: “I don’t see the breach getting resolved as long as studios produce movies as bad as ‘Justice League.'”
Then, realizing that might come off a little like Rotten Tomatoes-style reductiveness, he added a more nuanced touch.
“The truth is studios are not as artistically invested in their blockbusters as they used to be, and that is damaging the culture to a degree,” he said.