Graphic by Darrel Frost.

Certified Mess

Even Rotten Tomatoes admits that movie-review aggregation is biased and broken. Is anyone ready to fix it?

August 9, 2019

Last year, the release of Ocean’s 8, a spin-off of Steven Soderbergh’s popular film franchise, left critics largely unimpressed. The movie, starring all female leads including Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Anne Hathaway, and Mindy Kaling, received a score of 69 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. But the film’s stars felt that the critical consensus didn’t reflect the way many women felt about the movie—69 percent of its early audience was female, helping it garner higher opening weekend ticket sales than each of the three previous Ocean’s films. Kaling and Blanchett accused the film industry of giving unfair prominence to the voices of male critics. “If I had to base my career on what white men wanted I would be very unsuccessful,” Kaling said.

Indeed, data shows that male critics often give a thumbs-down to films that female critics review positively. Male reviewers of 2016’s Ghostbusters, which starred four women, rated the film an average of 10 percentage points lower than female reviewers did. 

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Though Rotten Tomatoes is often thought of as neutral, its critics, like film critics at large, skew mostly white and male. Only 34 percent of all critics featured on Rotten Tomatoes are women, according to a recent study by Martha M. Lauzen, executive director at the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. This matters because the site has an outsize influence over our selections and opinions—as the largest aggregation site for critical reviews of movies and TV series, it’s consulted by 36 percent of American moviegoers before they buy a ticket. 

For Miranda Bailey, a film producer and director whose production credits include The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Swiss Army Man (2016), the bias in film criticism evident on Rotten Tomatoes posed an urgent problem. She decided to develop her own formula for aggregating reviews, by featuring female-identifying and nonbinary critics. Last year, Bailey launched Cherry Picks, a site that gives films a percentage-based rating and ranks them on a scale from “Don’t Bother” to “Run Don’t Walk”; it was rolled out fully in March. She hopes that when movie-seekers plug a title into a Google search, “we can have our Cherry scores next to the Rotten Tomatoes scores to provide a little bit of balance.” 

Beyond ratings, Cherry Picks calls attention to gender inequality in film and applauds progress. The site notes whether a film passes the Bechdel Test (do two named women characters talk to each other about something besides men?), whether producers hired women for significant roles, and whether the director or screenwriter is a woman. The site also pulls together movies on a single theme, such as women and space exploration or dance. Cherry Picks aggregates about a thousand critics and has profiles on more than 1,200 films. 

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Bailey says that with the site, she’s seeking not to overtake Rotten Tomatoes as a destination for criticism, but to provide more options for finding reviews. “Women and men often see and experience the world differently,” she tells me. “The same applies to how we see art and film.” She adds, “Rotten Tomatoes has its audience—it’s primarily a fanboy audience; you can tell by the colors they use and the content they have—and that’s great.”

In recent years, after repeated accusations of bias, Rotten Tomatoes has made moves to improve gender parity, adding 500 new critics from smaller outlets. “We absolutely feel a responsibility,” Joel Meares, the site’s editor in chief, says. “Which is why we make changes and revamp things.” The company did not say how many of the additional critics were women or writers of color, however—and the number of women with the “Top Critics” designation (those who write for the largest and most prestigious publications) has actually declined, by six percent over the past year.

Of course, it’s beyond the power of any single aggregation site, be it Rotten Tomatoes or Cherry Picks, to solve a problem found across media. For Lauzen, a solution can’t be found in a binary rating like “rotten” or “fresh.” “It’s not that moviegoers should read reviews primarily written by members of the same sex,” she says. “The critical sphere should reflect the points of view of the moviegoing population so that we can have a robust discussion about the cultural products in our world. Otherwise, the deck is stacked in favor of the dominant critical voice.”

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Jed Gottlieb spent a decade as the music & theater critic at the Boston Herald. He has written about arts, politics, and Back to the Future for Newsweek, Paste and many more publications. Follow him on Twitter.