Let’s name off a list of movies. I want you to tell me what they have in common.
The Greatest Showman
The thing these movies have in common are their backward Rotten Tomatoes scores. Either the critic score is much higher than the audience score or the other way around.
Once is a coincidence. Twice is mysterious, but as many times as this scenario has happened as of late, this has now become a mystery that needs to be investigated.
What is Rotten Tomatoes and Why Does it Matter?
Rotten Tomatoes is like the creepy old guy in your neighborhood that collects newspaper clippings and compares them. While you may not want to stay at his house long, you can’t deny that he is well informed.
Rotten Tomatoes job is to compile all the professional critical reviews of movies that they can find and give the move a definitive and final score based on a nationwide average. The key word here is ‘average’. So if there are two critics who reviewed a film, one gave it 10/10 stars and the other gave it 1/10 stars, then the movie would look like it was given a 5/10.
The reason why Rotten Tomatoes is talked about so much though is that it’s become a somewhat effective way for movies to be ranked. A “fresh” rating warrants celebration from the producers and, as of late, has become a strong selling and advertising point. A low score on the site could potentially mean huge losses at the box office on release.
Rotten Tomatoes also accounts for audience approval and has a separate meter for audience perception of the film.
But nearly every major film release this winter season has had a backward disconnect with moviegoers claiming a movie is “good” and critics claiming a movie is “bad” and vice versa. The first question to investigate is where the disconnect comes from and then we need to see if a “fresh” rating really makes a difference on the bottom dollar.
What Critics Want
Roger Ebert was one of the most important people to the movie business in their post-release. He was a movie critic with weekly cable show titled “At The Movies” which housed a couple secondary hosts through the years. Anyway, Ebert is the prime example of what a film critic needs to be and what they need to look for in a movie.
In 2000, Ebert gave an interview where he talked about his favorite movies and we learn a lot about what he is looking for. One aspect he brings up is that he likes to get lost in the film’s visuals “if it works, I shouldn’t be thinking about the animation” is something that he says.
Next thing of interest is his mentioning of how a great actor works. He points out that the great actors don’t really have “edges” to get caught up on. They’re there and they’re dependable. “[The actor’s] personality doesn’t get in the way of the character. It just augments it” he then cites Harrison Ford and allows Jimmy Stewart into that club of actors.
The next thing that really catches me in this interview is when Roger Ebert says that the movie in question didn’t abide with what the fans were telling them to do but went where the story took it.
Now to be fair, all of these items are prevalent in the movies of this winter season save the case of Star Wars, which is a special situation. Justice League was canned for it’s last-gen visuals, The Greatest Showman was hit for not going anywhere with it’s themes (making a story that felt forced and choppy). The Star was another incident, but we’ll get to that one later.
What Audiences Want
The typical audience only has one question when they leave the movie: Did I enjoy it?
Now there are a million different ways that this can go because there are so many different people from different walks of life that are seeing this movie and so there is no perfect way to explain why people like the things they like. One tested and similar way to understand what people want though is contained in the advertising fronts. There are four major trends that advertisers use to appeal to the masses that I say apply to audience reactions to movies.
Humor is the element that says something is funny or exciting (another word would be lighthearted). You remember Budweiser commercials not necessarily because they’re your choice of beverage, but because they’re hilarious. Similarly, the flight scene in Man Of Steel is well loved for it’s lighthearted nature in which it was executed, causing a sense of wonder.
Nostalgia is a “coming home” kind of thing. Your mother’s cookies, images of holiday gatherings, sharing memories with the next generation all share this sentiment with a thousand more options based on the target audience.
A testimonial is a thought that people will like something more if someone else says they like it. you’ll try a different medicine because the person on-screen liked it. you’ll see a movie because a person you trust has approved it. etc. In movies, testimonials would be like accepting the critics word on the film. If a critic pans a movie, you already go in with the impression that the movie is not great.
Sex Appeal hits on the heavy parts of a person’s natural chemistry. This doesn’t have to be scandalous in order to work. This could be as simple as wanting two characters to get the happy ending together. It also applies to people seeing a movie because a particular actor/ actress is involved and we find them attractive. Historically this is used is to tell you what kind of person you are. “A REAL man would…” or “Perfect women use…”
Any of these can be combined to create a different kind of experience to get people excited.
In the case of the above-discussed movies, Justice League was liked by fans for its humor elements, Nostalgia callback to comics and fan-favorite ideas from the franchise. The Greatest Showman held onto a strong sex appeal element between Zandanya’s and Efron’s characters as well as a general excitement and lightheartedness.
Star Wars is the case that was the opposite. Critics praised the movie for going in a story direction that few would dare, practicing Ebert’s theory on story steered movie making. However, fans had a hard time digesting it for mostly nostalgia reasons in Luke Skywalker’s portrayal.
The Special Case with Religious content
The special case in all of this is The Star, an animated film from Sony Animation centered around the birth of Jesus Christ. The thing I kept seeing from critics about this film is that it was unable, though trying, to branch from it’s religious roots and appeal to a more general audience.
Now I don’t want to generalize and say critics are anti-Christian because I don’t believe that in the slightest. I don’t think that anyone really can be upset with any religion’s origin story being presented and the movie was released for Christmas which we have to accept is centered on Jesus Christ (regardless of where certain traditions started, the purpose of the continued celebration is religious in nature). Religion in movies works just fine usually, and people don’t generally have a problem with it since religion is widely considered a good and positive thing in the world. Critics do have to attack it though on the basis of being impartial. This may be overcompensation. If a critic said a Christian movie was good, could he be trusted to be impartial to a movie about Islam or Judaism?
This is still a relatively new area of critique that we are still navigating through.
Critics must always remain impartial since they aren’t just reviewers, but also journalists and their reputations rely on being impartial. The best way to do that is to set your own personal feelings and excitement aside and judge the movie for what it is as an art piece.
Audiences are a different story and are set on the all-important question of whether or not they enjoyed the movie. This is based on our feelings of nostalgia, testimonial, humor, and sex appeal in all of their varying colors and varieties.
So is Rotten Tomatoes broken? No. Are critics broken? No. Does this dis-credit either one of them? No. Critics are just trying to find the artistic end of a film much like a classical art critic would. New trends are now that people are following specific people and their tastes rather than generalizing it all, and while Rotten Tomatoes is a great resource for determining people’s reviews and opinions of a movie, only you know what you like best and that is a beautiful thing. We critics are just there to help you find out why you like those things.