Rotten Tomatoes Scores Continue to Freshen. What Does This Mean for Movies?

Some experts say continuously rising scores could dilute the value of the well-known rating system
Kerr Lordygan poses during a CBS Films special screening of "Seven Psychopaths" celebrating the Certified Fresh Rating from Rotten Tomatoes at AMC Century City 15 theater on Oct. 19, 2012. Research shows that Rotten Tomatoes' average critics scores have been increasing since 2014. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for CBS Films)
October 29, 2019 at 12:33 pm UTC

In recent years, Rotten Tomatoes has been ripe for the picking by movie marketers that want to tout a film’s high critics score from the website in their advertising. But as the Tomatometer’s average score continues to increase, experts are divided on why this is happening and how the industry will harvest Rotten Tomatoes’ ratings going forward.

David A. Gross, a movie consultant that runs Franchise Entertainment Research Inc., found that scores for wide-release films have been fluctuating since 1998’s recorded average of 46. However, averages have been increasing every year since 2014, with this year’s average coming in at 59.3, as of Oct. 28, 1.4 points higher than 2018’s 57.9.

On its website, Rotten Tomatoes defines a Tomatometer score as a representation of “the percentage of professional critic reviews that are positive for a given film or television show,” but it gives few additional details about how these scores are compiled. Films can fall into three categories: rotten (a score of less than 60 percent), fresh (60 percent and higher) and certified fresh, the last of which depends on the share of positive reviews they receive and whether or not they meet certain additional metrics.

When reached for comment, a spokeswoman for Rotten Tomatoes said the company’s goal “is to accurately capture critical sentiment via the Tomatometer.” She added that “many layers of information, including links to hundreds of full reviews,” are available for people who want to “go beyond the score.”

In August 2018, Rotten Tomatoes pledged to increase the diversity of its Tomatometer approved critic body, and the company recently announced that it had added 600 new critics to the group. Gary Faber, president of ERm Research, a research and marketing firm specializing in the film industry, said “the addition of more critics and the inclusion of overseas critics” could be one of many factors increasing scores.” Faber noted that as the critic pool changes, it becomes difficult to make an “apples to apples” comparison between years, since different critics may be included on a year-to-year basis.

Another expert suggested a different cause: an effort to drive ticket sales. Rotten Tomatoes was acquired by movie ticket service Fandango Media LLC in 2016, and while it’s difficult to draw conclusions without knowing exactly how Rotten Tomatoes aggregates its scores, Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst for Exhibitor Relations Co., points out that it’s to Fandango’s advantage “to make sure the Rotten Tomatoes scores are as high as possible.” Rotten Tomatoes did not respond to a request for comment on this particular point.

And Allen Adamson, a founder and managing partner of brand marketing firm Metaforce, offered yet another theory. 

“The quality of content in many areas is continuing to get better,” he said, adding that competition from television programs has “forced the movie business to step up.”

Rotten Tomatoes has the potential to be a valuable marketing tool, especially for smaller films that aren’t based on known intellectual property: Faber noted that smaller films coming off the festival circuit, such as the upcoming “Waves” and the recently released Palme d'Or winner, “Parasite” -- which saw the highest platform opening since 2016’s “La La Land” -- are examples of films that could reap the rewards of a high score.

Rotten Tomatoes licenses scores on platforms such as Apple, Google, Yahoo and Comcast, according to a spokeswoman, who said that when it comes to “Rotten Tomatoes scores you may see in TV ads or other marketing materials, we allow the use of those scores for no cost, but require that the parties follow our brand guidelines.”

But critical praise isn’t the only factor in a film’s success: While Jordan Peele’s“Get Out” received a 100 percent fresh rating before its release -- a feat that was touted in several of the film’s marketing campaigns -- and brought in more than $33 million in its opening weekend, Faber noted the film was bolstered by other factors such as word-of-mouth marketing and a smart release strategy.

And Bock said that while a Rotten Tomatoes critics score is generally used for marketing purposes, a high audience score is more likely to indicate the success of a film, because it “usually coincides with the box office take.”

In a research report, Gross noted that the average critics score reached a notable threshold in the past year, coming in at approximately 60. He said this is “an important number because movies with a score of 60 or better receive a shiny red tomato with their score” -- unlike the green splat that films with a lower score receive. He added that the average hovering around 60 isn’t bad, but “if the average were to climb much above 60, it would dilute the power of a high score."

But experts are split on whether the rising scores -- or Rotten Tomatoes scores in general -- make a difference.

“Most people are savvy enough to read between the lines these days,” Bock said. “The multiplex masses may consider a Rotten Tomato score, but it’s certainly not a big-enough factor to sway most people one way or another.”

A 2018 Morning Consult survey found that 63 percent of U.S. adults do not check Rotten Tomatoes before they see or rent a film.

And if the regular consumer isn’t familiar with Rotten Tomatoes, that prized high score is just “a nice little icon that can be added to promotional materials,” according to Barbara Jones, professor of practice in the television, radio and film department in the Newhouse School at Syracuse University.

But Adamson warned that a continued score increase could dilute the power of the Rotten Tomatoes brand.

“The value of Rotten Tomatoes is helping you separate great from good from terrible,” he said. “And if everything is good or great, it becomes less valuable.”

Sarah Shevenock previously worked at Morning Consult as a reporter covering the business of entertainment.

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