A lot of people want to throw things at Rotten Tomatoes.
The movie-review aggregator waited more than 24 hours to post a poor critics’ score for the new Warner Bros. film “Justice League,” breaking with tradition of posting right after a studio-imposed ban. It incensed critics and fans alike.
Fueling the fire: WB parent Time Warner owns a 30 percent stake in Rotten Tomatoes.
More than just a kerfuffle over one superhero movie, however, the incident raises larger questions about the relationship between reviewers and the public, the editorial objectivity of aggregators and how much studios should be empowered to control the pre-release messaging of their films.
“I think we need more transparency and equality on Rotten Tomatoes,” said Guy Lodge, a critic who writes for Variety. “An aggregation site should practice absolute objectivity. You mix Time Warner into it,” he added, “and it becomes very confusing.” A WB spokeswoman declined to provide a comment for this article.
With a budget approaching $300 million, “Justice League” is among the most expensive movies ever made. Warner Bros. has a lot riding on the DC Comics film, seeking its own ensemble superhero blockbuster to rival the “Avengers” series from Disney/Marvel.
The Rotten Tomatoes affair began when the site postponed its release of the “Justice League” critics’ score — the percentage of reviewers who certify a movie as “fresh,” or good — from late Tuesday to early Thursday, just hours before the movie was to begin playing in theaters. The move was rare, but the site said it wanted to reveal the number on a new Facebook video segment. The score would turn out to be a subpar 43 percent.
Some saw the withholding of the score, which was widely expected to be low, as an attempt to bury bad news about a sister company and not deter ticket sales ahead of opening weekend.
"Warner Bros is a minority owner of Rotten Tomatoes' parent company. I respect a lot of people who work there but this is a BAD bad look," Katey Rich, a VanityFair.com editor, tweeted before the Facebook segment aired. Rotten Tomatoes is owned by the ticket-sale site Fandango, of which Warner Bros. owns 30 percent and Comcast Universal owns 70 percent.
A Rotten Tomatoes spokeswoman, Dana Benson, said the decision to withhold the score was governed solely by the Facebook show time. The program, which is new, has a set debut of Thursday midnight Eastern time, she said. Warner Bros. was not involved in the “Justice League” decision, she said.
“We are absolutely autonomous, like any news organization,” Benson said. “There is no outside influence on anything we put on the site.”
The news came as some have wondered whether articles in nontraditional entertainment outlets maintain the same standards as mainstream journalism platforms. Eyebrows shot skyward on social media Wednesday at a Rotten Tomatoes story suggesting Marvel and DC — the two comics giants whose fans root for their respective movies like Cowboys and Redskins supporters root for touchdowns — were basically churning out films of equal quality, despite Marvel films getting overwhelmingly better reviews.
“We looked at every title with a Tomatometer and did the math, and the results were closer than you think,” the Time Warner-owned site said, before noting that both sides have “produced some fantastic films [and] guilty pleasures.”
The results were indeed close, but only because Rotten Tomatoes in its tally included all DC-related TV shows, an area in which Rotten Tomatoes is not often relied on.
But media types weren’t the only ones up in arms about the “Justice League” move. DC fans suspected an agenda, too — of the opposite sort. They asked whether the grand reveal was meant to highlight DC’s creative struggles.
“RT is very aware of the fact that DCEU [DC Extended Universe] films haven’t gotten good critic ratings (the audience rating is always fresh, but they NEVER emphasize that, they just want to focus on the negative) and they’re using that to their advantage and that isn’t right,” Donnia Harrington, a writer for the fan site Comic Book Debate, wrote in a message to The Post.
Other DC fans focused on the score itself. Sergio Ramos Ladecima, who tweets under the account @DCEUNews, posted "Guys . . . If even Man of Steel couldn't get a fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. Did we really [think] that Justice League would get it?" referring to an earlier Superman film.
The incident highlights the challenge faced by review-aggregation sites.
Rotten Tomatoes, along with its more complexly designed rival Metacritic, were launched in the late 1990s as a kind of snapshot of critical opinion, a portal to further study instead of a replacement for it. But as their readership has grown, they have embraced a more important and even activist role.
That has not sat well with many in the film community. Last month, Martin Scorsese penned an essay in The Hollywood Reporter blaming the site for the commodification of the movie business.
“They rate a picture the way you’d rate a horse at the racetrack, a restaurant in a Zagat’s guide, or a household appliance in Consumer Reports,” the Oscar-winning film director wrote.
Critics say the system is too vulnerable to exploitation by studio marketing departments and too uninterested in creating a fair representation. They note that the percentages fail to weight critics — Pulitzer winners and unknown writers count equally — while a mildly negative review is not distinguished from one that pans the film.
“I think Rotten Tomatoes’ influence on the industry is pernicious,” Michael Philips, the Chicago Tribune film critic, said in an interview. “While I don’t wish extinction on the site, I live for the day when people are enslaved to it less.”
For their part, studios have been mostly supportive, knowing that a high Rotten Tomatoes score can be a digestible marketing morsel at a time when much traditional TV and even digital advertising is ineffective.
But reviewers say they would rather not be corralled into that process; they worry that Rotten Tomatoes sets up false dichotomies between fans and critics. Many of the poorly scored movies on the site have turned into rallying cries for fans in the way that legacy news media has become a target for populist voters.
The self-described "modern geek" blogger who runs a site called The Flite Cast tweeted this week of Rotten Tomatoes: "[I]t's time to finally stop giving that site and that score our attention. WE have the power, not them." He also posted an item on Flite Cast headlined "Why movie critics have become a useless burden to the audience."
Lodge, the Variety writer, said fans would be wrong to blame critics for negative reviews: “I don’t see the breach getting resolved as long as studios churn out films as bad as ‘Justice League.’ ”
Then, realizing that might come off a little like Rotten Tomatoes-style reductiveness, he added a more nuanced touch.
“The truth is studios are not as artistically invested in their blockbusters as they used to be, and that is damaging the culture to a degree,” he said.