Attack of the Rotten Tomatoes

Rotten Tomatoes ruined the summer 2017 boxoffice.

The New York Times published this article on film review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes (read here). The site has been around almost twenty years. I was first introduced to it back in 2003-2004. As the Internet gained more of a foothold, Rotten Tomatoes expanded its base; and now, according to this article, its power to influence box office performance.

Sounds like those parents who subscribe to the “not my kid” mentality. Couldn’t possibly be US, it has to be the school, society…anyone but us and the bad product we made.

I wrote a similar article, which could be a companion piece (here) a few months earlier when another finger pointing article on RT got some press.

Can a website that amasses critical reviews have so much impact on a film’s box office performance? Hollywood spins it both ways whenever convenient. When it comes to a franchise like Transformers, the studios love to point out that these films defy negative reviews and point to their massive cash hauls. Most of the Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween and Friday the 13th films received less than glowing reviews but managed to avoid financial impact as a result. Granted those films were before the Internet, however people still listened to reviews and they had their impact in a relative sense.

We had a handful of reviewers dictating the culture of good and bad to us: Rex Reed, Siskel & Ebert (who had their own revolutionary impact), Janet Maslin, Pauline Kael, Vincent Camby, Leonard Maltin, Janet Maslin, Gene Shalit, Jeffrey Lyons, Joel Siegel and a handful of others. Yet the studios survived and a healthy number of truly bad films thrived before Rotten Tomatoes came along.

Audiences who consume the mediocre product coming from the studios allow more of it to be made. If they are not expecting better from their entertainment, the studios will act in kind. Studios will provide overblown, expensive, mediocre product because there is a demand. Even those who love fast food will admit, there comes a time when enough is enough. You’re beyond glutted–it makes you sick. So you swear off the shit for awhile. You’ll likely go back, but for now you wanna puke.

The summer 2017 movie season is a case of overeating a lot of garbage. Superhero films are Big Macs. These films are assembly-lined processed and slapped into their happy meal boxes. They are thrown out there and as a result, are interchangeable. They are repackaged at any time to adjust to consumer demand.

We’ve reached a saturation point. Constant reboots, studio regime changes, and audience fickleness have convoluted the efforts to build detailed cinematic universes.  The Guardian supports my statement hereDen of Geek notices this issue too with the mess brewing like a hurricane out to sea with conflicting Joker movies here.

When your “cinematic universe” lineup starts looking like the timeline from Back to The Future II, there is a problem.

Disney seems to have it right. They winnowed down the Star Wars canon and disposed of the rest. Their control over the Star Wars universe is shown through the public changes of directors and statements of a vision. Whether fans are behind that vision is irrelevant. They’re in charge and they are letting the world know it.

The Marvel world seems overloaded they’re making an attempt to keep it all straight. On the flip side, messes like the Spiderman franchise show the issues of reboots, swapping actors and a host of other things.

Universal stumbled out of the extended universe gate with this summer’s The Mummy. Social media loves posting the latest stumbles inside the DC comic universe. There is no denying a problem…but how much of it can be blamed on Rotten Tomatoes.

Let’s find out.

Before I launch into the lamented summer 2017 lineup, let’s look at the lay of the land.

My upcoming horror film, Death House, will open on just over 100 screens in January 2018. It will have to fight for viewers and fight even harder for expansion to more screens and markets. This is a time when Rob Zombie and Eli Roth have to fight for 500 screens. 40 years ago dozens of films a year were made and even more distributed in a single year. Now a studio is lucky to make 10 pictures a year and the number of independent and smaller films has dwindled down to a handful if we are lucky.

Christmas and summer screens are dominated by giant studio franchises and tent pole films. Remakes and reboots further close the spigot. As a result, audiences have been dazzled by CGI-laden, green screen, over the top designer product that is all style over substance. With the advent of streaming technology, smaller pictures heavier on story and nuanced performances have found homes on the small screen and mobile platforms. Television has a renaissance in high-quality drama and horror. Better horror is being produced for the small screen than the theaters.

What does it all mean? Can a website that compiles dozens of “critical reviews” into a single score have a real effect on a film’s performance? A better question to ask: is there any film that has been financially crippled by scathing critical reviews? I can’t think of one? Don’t hand me Heaven’s Gate or even Halloween III as their failures are attributed to a number of things, with bad reviews at the very end of the list. Some have offered Popeye, but the reviews were mixed not overwhelmingly negative and the film was NOT a financial failure.

The critically reviled Jaws 3D was making good money when it was pulled from its theatrical run at the end of the1983 summer season. The Transformers franchise overcame almost uniformly bad reviews and Batman vs. Superman was almost bullet proof to fan and critical hatred. Even Jaws the Revenge, widely regarded as the worst motion picture ever made, turned a profit and there was no intention to aim high with that one.

“That was 30 years ago! The Internet changed everything!” Let’s get a little more current and see if that argument holds water. I am not taking into account the dubious data that Rotten Tomatoes is owned by Fandango, Universal and until recently Warner Brothers. Each insists RT operates independently. However, the studios cry foul over the fact that national and local coverage incorporates “The Tomatometer” into their broadcasts and individual reviews. Rotten Tomatoes is omnipresent, ubiquitous and therefore has a monopoly over critical reviews.

“If it doesn’t gel, it isn’t aspic, and this isn’t gelling,” Martin Balsam told Norman Bates in 1960’s Psycho. That adage applies to studio complaints about Rotten Tomatoes. I’ve cited Occam’s Razor in a previous article on Making a Murderer and am invoking it here. The simplest answer to studio complaints is: “Make Better Movies.”

The 2017 Summer Boxoffice was a bomb because the studio product was mediocre at best. Superhero fatigue, remake disdain, sequel fatigue and a tiring of franchises left audiences asking for something more…something fresh. The industry now looks to Stephen King’s clown to salvage the fall and looks on course to do so. What was was that you say? IT is a remake? No. It can be easily argued that this is a true translation of the original book material, very much like Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing.

While we are on that subject, don’t cite bad reviews for the financial disappointment of that film. It was a botched marketing campaign and being up against Spielberg’s ET that kicked that film to the theater curb.

My answer stands: “Make better movies and people will come see them.” Give a variety. Stop remaking beloved classic films (*cough Ghostbusters). Do something original. Take a chance and release more independent and smaller product. Stop rebooting/remaking franchises that are sequels but really aren’t (*cough Jurassic World). Just make good shit.

Here are some of the pronounced failures from this year’s box office. I’ve given my reason for their failure. Which sounds more likely, critical thinking or a “Tomatometer” for their failure?

Ghost in the Shell (“Shell” is the Operative Word)

Tomatometer: Rotten  

Cynema Assessment: Does this count as a summer film? They’re opening blockbusters earlier for a reason: the films are seen as weak, without legs to withstand a strong summer lineup. Batman vs. Superman tried this with success with a record-breaking opening March weekend. Fans were pissed off with the “whitewashing” of Scarlett Johannson, but this was a flat, style over substance translation that came and went. On top of it all, was anyone really asking for this? Keep with Black Widow, that’s what audiences seem to want.

King Arthur (Does a Subtitle Really Matter?)

Tomatometer: Rotten  

Cynema Assessment: With Game of Thrones do we really need yet another dry, over-produced version of the King Arthur legend that, aside from Excalibur, has never performed well at the box office? Hell, I think Excalibur is incredibly boring, so why did anyone think this big-budget project that no one was asking for would do well? With a summer lineup of Wonder Woman and Spiderman, why would an executive think, “yeah, King Arthur is what people wanna spend ten bucks on.” No one asked for this and subsequently, no one cared.

Alien Covenant (More Monsters Chasing People)

Tomatometer: Barely Fresh

Cynema Assessment: Another installment in the Alien franchise gets a barely “fresh” rating. With Ridley Scott’s return to the series, fans hoped for more. A lot more. Prometheus was convoluted. It was heavy on the dogma and light in the wonder factor, but still an interesting start to a prequel adventure. Covenant tosses out an important character Alien 3-style and puts the entire show on Michael Fassbender. We get beautiful sets, high production value but no memorable characters, scenes or script. We do get a retread of “monster chasing people through dark spaceship to be blown out into space situations. ” The whole thing was too long, over-hyped and just plain tired. None of it comes close to the original 1979 Alien or its stellar 1986 sequel. The movie showed up and audiences yawned but gave it a free pass because of its pedigree.

Johnny Depp Plays Keith Richards V

Tomatometer: Rotten

Cynema Assessment: I never got the appeal of this whole franchise aside from Depp’s work. That wore thin by the second film and the rest has made money off silly fanboys and their geek love for the material. CGI green screens, big scope vistas and Johnny Depp slurring for his paycheck brought him back out for another round to ease his personal debts. Just what was different about this one than the others? The original didn’t offer much, and really, when it’s based on a Disney ride, how much was there in the first place? It’s amazing this got past a trilogy, so kudos for that, but again, can you really tell the difference between any of these expensive, all flash no meat Disney products?

The Mummy: Superhero Monsters Unite!

Tomatometer: Rotten

Cynema Assessment: The old Universal monsters like Frankenstein’s Monster, The Wolfman or The Mummy are not meant to be superhero action franchises. Someone at Universal thought it would be a good idea to reshape classic monster movies into action vehicles for the likes of Tom Cruise. You can hear the pitch, “Mission Impossible meets The Mummy!” No one was asking for this. Many are still loyal to the Brendan Fraser campy films. If you’re going to come out of the gate with this kind of movie, why start with The Mummy? Didn’t anyone remember the remake of The Wolfman a few years ago and how that did? Russell Crowe is wedged in as Dr. Jekyll, lots of CGI and explosions. Problem is…there’s no story here or more importantly…any fun.

I can’t wait for Charlize Theron’s Atomic Blonde take on The Bride of Frankenstein.

The Emoji Movie (8% Is Too Kind)

Tomatometer: Rotten

Cynema Assessment: Idiocracy had a scene where audiences went to the movies to see a film titled Ass. It was 90 minutes of a bare ass farting. The Emoji Movie is the precursor to this. If you fail to see why this movie deserves its scathing rating, yet still made some money, then you are part of the problem. People came to see it. Money passed through windows. Concessions were sold. This type of product defines why Hollywood gets exactly what it deserves.

The Dark Tower (How To Fuck Up A Franchise Right Away)

Tomatometer: Rotten

Cynema Assessment: Four screenwriters to write this. Stephen King handled an entire book series all on his own while cranking out bestsellers in between. Sony’s desire for a new franchise by mashing up action, Game of Thrones and Star Wars translated to a shitty Tomatometer and likely dashed chances for a sequel. This film is a mess. There is a long story behind this project as it’s been in development for decades. The wrong people got their hands on it. The wrong people wrote it. The wrong people got the rights to it. The bottom line is no one knew what to do with King’s detailed saga and went the safe route with a truncated 90-minute version. No regard for the novelist. No regard for the actual material. No regard for the audience. The result? The audience didn’t show any regard as well.  Get ready for another “reboot” of this as Hollywood attempts a do-over of this royal fuck up.

So…did Rotten Tomatoes ruin the summer box office? Or are the studios right, saying “not my kid?”

Sometimes the simplest answer is the one.Your kid’s an asshole.

 

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