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Is Rotten Tomatoes reliable? Daisy Ridley movie removed from site over score ‘manipulation’

Rotten Tomatoes has removed 2018 film Ophelia from its site after a report alleged that its score had been hacked (Covert Media / IFC Films)
Rotten Tomatoes has removed 2018 film Ophelia from its site after a report alleged that its score had been hacked (Covert Media / IFC Films)

Rotten Tomatoes has become a leading arbiter for our viewing habits. The site, which distils hundreds of reviews to give movies and shows “fresh” or “rotten” ratings, is often the first port of call for tentative film-goers and binge-watchers. At the same time, the sway it has over the populace has turned it into the scourge of Hollywood film studios, which have previously laid the blame for their flops at its doorstep.

Now, a report is casting doubt over the validity of its influential ratings. In a scathing article, pop culture site Vulture says that PR firms are paying lesser known critics in order to “game” Rotten Tomatoes scores. Rotten Tomatoes has since removed the film at the centre of the expose – Daisy Ridley’s Ophelia – from its site.

How does Rotten Tomatoes calculate scores?

In a nutshell, Rotten Tomatoes employs curators to read through hundreds of reviews to give films “fresh” or “rotten” scores on its Tomatometer scale.

Anything with less than 60 percent of positive reviews is marked rotten, while films and shows that garner a score of 75 per cent or more receive the vaunted “certified fresh” rating.

Rotten Tomatoes also offers a way for viewers to share their opinions by way of its audience score. Denoted by a popcorn bucket on the site, the rating works in a similar manner to the Tomatometer average.

Basically, if 60 per cent of people give a film or show a star rating of 3.5 or higher it gets a fresh status. Rotten Tomatoes updated the system for audience scores in 2019 in an effort to address review bombing. This online phenomenon is when users make a coordinated effort to leave negative reviews in order to reduce an aggregate score.

Are Rotten Tomatoes scores accurate?

The site has faced criticism over the rigid way it reduces reviews into positive or negative ratings, often missing the nuance in critiques. Even if a film or show receives a three-star score, normally implying that it had a mixed reception, Rotten Tomatoes classifies it as a good review.

The site has also come under fire for its vague definition of who qualifies as a critic, with equal weighting given to writers from established news outlets and DIY bloggers. A film or show also only requires five reviews to qualify for a Rotten Tomatoes score.

Now, it seems that outsiders are actively trying to hack the site’s system. Vulture claims that a publicity firm called Bunker 15 has tried to influence the site’s ratings by paying “obscure” or self-published critics to write good reviews.

The article said the tactic had been used to boost the score of a 2018 film called Ophelia, a revisionist take on Hamlet starring Daisy Ridley. Rotten Tomatoes has removed the film from its site since the report.

Vulture said it had spoken to several critics who said they’d been paid up to $50 by the same PR firm to write positive reviews. Another writer reported being lobbied by the company to change a negative review of Ophelia.

Bunker 15’s founder, Daniel Harlow, disagreed with the suggestion that his company buys reviews to skew Rotten Tomatoes: “We have thousands of writers in our distribution list. A small handful have set up a specific system where filmmakers can sponsor or pay to have them review a film.”

Of course, that’s not to say that all bloggers are in the pockets of publicists. In fact, lesser known critics have helped to add some much needed diversity to a field that is predominantly white and male.

Still, the revelations will once again draw scrutiny to the uneven way Rotten Tomatoes dishes out scores.