A new investigation by Vulture reveals the alarming lengths movie studios will go to manipulate scores on Rotten Tomatoes, severely undermining the credibility of one of the world's foremost review aggregation sites.
Under the microscope is a PR company called Bunker 15, which Vulture reports targets small, often self-published critics to help boost "Tomatometer" scores, paying them upwards of $50 for each review.
In one case, Bunker 15 reportedly used these tactics to drown out the negative response to the 2018 feature "Ophelia," which eventually saw its score go from a firmly "rotten" 46 to a "fresh" 62 percent.
In an email to a critic it was trying to recruit, a Bunker 15 employee wrote that the "teams involved feel like it would benefit from more input from different critics."
Adding in no less slippery terms, the employee hinted that "super nice" reviewers would publish only the good reviews on their main website, to be picked up by Rotten Tomatoes. The bad reviews, meanwhile, would get relegated to "a smaller blog that RT never sees."
These kinds of lobbying tactics can pay off. "Ophelia's" climb from rotten to fresh? It was driven by seven positive reviews, most from critics that had already reviewed a Bunker 15 movie.
Rotten Tomatoes' pivotal role in the movie industry is an unlikely one. It started as a postgrad project. Now, many industry heads consider it a critical determinant of box office success — or, at least, of public perception.
"The studios didn't invent Rotten Tomatoes, and most of them don't like it," filmmaker Paul Schrader, who wrote or directed classics including "Taxi Driver" and "American Gigolo," told Vulture.
"But the system is broken. Audiences are dumber. Normal people don't go through reviews like they used to," he added. "Rotten Tomatoes is something the studios can game. So they do."
Beyond gaming Rotten Tomatoes, the movie industry has also outright bought it. It's now owned by the parent company of Universal Pictures, after changing hands from Warner Bros.
One of its biggest vulnerabilities, though, is arguably the over one thousand critics it added to its roster in 2019, many of them coming from small publications.
On its own, platforming the little guys is a good thing. But a significant portion of these sites are fan operations, like those explicitly geared towards comic book movies — practically ensuring that even the most slipshod blockbusters of the year can get a fresh rating, as long as they're tied to a certain franchise.
That's before you add studio meddling to the mix. Glitzy press screenings and proximity to movie stars can intoxicate any critic, big or small. Regardless, Rotten Tomatoes has supplanted the importance of any of these individual voices, distilling them all into one unhelpful percentage.
Bunker 15's response didn't seem to address the thrust of the investigation.
"We have thousands of writers in our distribution list," its founder told Vulture. "A small handful have set up a specific system where filmmakers can sponsor or pay to have them review a film."
Rotten Tomatoes' own response was to quietly delist several Bunker 15 movies, including "Ophelia."
"We take the integrity of our scores seriously and do not tolerate any attempts to manipulate them," it told Vulture. "We have a dedicated team who monitors our platforms regularly and thoroughly investigates and resolves any suspicious activity."
One PR firm may take the fall, but the damage is done. Who knows how many more scores have been tampered with?
Share This Article