Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Girl with the Rotten Tomatoes

 As tiresome as "Denbygate" has become to discuss — the Internet certainly moves quickly — I believe there's a side of the entire controversy that has been largely overlooked.

 If you aren't aware of David Denby's antics, I guess you could consider yourself lucky. But really, as "controversies" go, this one is a pretty black-and-white issue: Denby, a film critic at the New Yorker, reviewed David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake. However, by doing so, he broke the press embargo in the process. It's caused much stir in the film world, but there really isn't much to it: Denby agreed he would do something (or rather, he agreed not to do something) as part of a written agreement with Sony Pictures, who graciously screened the film. Denby did what he said he wouldn't do. But most of you know all this already. So what's the angle?

Your attention, please: I turn to Rotten Tomatoes, a movie criticism aggregator that evaluates reviews and lumps them as positive (red tomato) or negative (rotten tomato). What does a film buff do when they want to see early buzz on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? They go to Rotten Tomatoes, like any other film — provided they aren't embargoed, of course. At the time of writing this post, however, Rotten Tomatoes has only one listing for Dragon Tattoo: David Denby's embargo-breaking, taboo review. To me, that's a problem. So I asked them about it:

My tweet to Rotten Tomatoes.

I wasn't expecting their reply:

"plus, good traffic"

The decision to curate Denby's review on their website is a completely squandered opportunity for Rotten Tomatoes, and honestly, it reflects incredibly poorly on them. Do they really see this as just "good traffic" for them?

Sony Pictures' Scott Rudin, producer of Dragon Tattoo (and prosecutor in the case of Denby vs. Embargo) has sent explicit messages to any critics who has seen the film, essentially threatening the wrath of God upon people who follow suit with New Yorker's embargo break. For anybody in the position to review Dragon Tattoo, seeing Denby's lone article on Rotten Tomatoes is likely frustrating, and these people are probably eager for the day they can "legally" add their opinion. But really, that's irrelevant to the main issue: most importantly, Rotten Tomatoes does not seem to respect the embargo itself. By listing Denby's review, they seem to tolerate his errant behaviour entirely for the sake of page views. Had they posted a message saying they would honour Sony Picture's wishes by keeping it off their page, it could have earned them major karma and respect with a symbolic gesture of good faith. Not just from other film critics, but from people who know that saying one thing and doing another is just not right.

 I'm a long time fan of Rotten Tomatoes, and so is the film world. Movie nerds like me reflect on the website very affectionately. On what feels like a (mostly) professional website, movie geeks can gather on Rotten Tomatoes and see a film's ranking, without the arbitrary "percentage guessing" rival Metacritic inherently must do. I suppose my point is applicable to Metacritic as well, as they also list Denby's review. But because Rotten Tomatoes' main focus is cinema, I direct the brunt of my objections towards that particular website. (And because no self-respecting film lover goes to Metacritic for movie criticism)

Why does Rotten Tomatoes have to stoop to Denby's level? You're better than that, RT. If anyone who works at Rotten Tomatoes is reading this, you would be wise to take Denby's review down until the embargo goes. No question. Do it for the sake of professionalism, for the sake of fairness, and for the sake of respecting important contractual agreements.


  1. #1: Denby's dumb - no question there.

    #2: Why do you think that Rotten Tomatoes cares at all about the integrity of film criticism? Rotten Tomatoes is a plague upon film criticism! The entire purpose of the website is to let audiences avoid the irritating process of actually reading reviews and engaging with a film, instead grinding reviews into the indistinguishable meat paste that is the handy Rotten Tomatoes percentage. The modern process of consensus that unjustly elevates certain films and makes it that much harder for other possibly deserving films to find an audience also wouldn't exist without Rotten Tomatoes.

    #3 Metacritic is vastly superior to Rotten Tomatoes. They still play the game of helping you avoid critical thought, but at least there's a degree of selectivity in who they use for their scores that suggests that they have some value for quality in critical thought. The process by which critics are let into Rotten Tomatoes is entirely based on quantity - write X reviews every year and you're in - which means that any yammering moron can affect the score as long as they yammer consistently enough. And the fact that Metacritic does that "arbitrary percentage guessing" at least indicates that they really have to engage with each review - I'm not convinced that Rotten Tomatoes does anything besides looking for words that mean "good" or "bad".

  2. I agree with RTs and MCs. As long as the publication that published Denby's review has it up, they have a duty to post it on their site. They are not reviewing the film and they are not bound by the embargo. They only post existing reviews. The whole idea of RTs is to get a consensus percentage from a large number of reviews. With only one review up, there can be no consensus until after the film opens anyway.

    I see what you meant though. By publishing the review a larger audience may be reading it, not doing the studio any favors. But I don't see why RTs would care about curing favor with a studio.