As box office figures piled up and critical raves poured in, there was a curious note of dissent on the issue of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” While the film clocked a 93 percent fresh rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes and an 86 on Metacritic, audience scores were sharply negative. Only 54 percent of audience members gave the film a thumbs up on Rotten Tomatoes. Metacritic’s audience score is even uglier: As I write this, its score is a 4.8, with more than 1,600 negative ratings to go with more than 1,400 positive ratings and almost 500 mixed ratings.
I wouldn’t say this sort of disjunction is unprecedented, but it is certainly unusual. Typically, critics are harsher on a franchise feature than audiences. Consider, for instance, critics’ 40 percent fresh rating for “Justice League,” compared to its 79 percent fresh rating from audiences on Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic’s 39 for “Pirates of the Caribbean,” compared to the 6.2 that audiences gave Johnny Depp’s fifth turn as Jack Sparrow. So when we see audience dissatisfaction outpace critical angst, it is noteworthy.
Those who didn’t particularly care for the film — including yours truly — highlighted this break as a sign that audiences weren’t quite as enamored of the film as critics were. As more reputable polling services weighed in, however, it was clear that something was off: Deadline reported that ComScore audiences weighed in at 89 percent positive, and CinemaScore polling gave the film an A. And, sure enough, the alt-right has claimed credit for dragging the score downward.
What gives? Well, in one way, it’s simple: ComScore and CinemaScore poll audiences who have seen the film, while Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic don’t.
CinemaScore, as it notes on its website, “provide[s] unbiased measurement of audience response that helps gauge movie appeal and success by polling movie audiences on opening night for their reaction to the latest major movie releases.” Now, CinemaScore isn’t a particularly useful gauge of artistic quality — “Last Jedi” defenders pointing to its “A” as a surefire sign of greatness need only remember that each of the prequels received “A-minus” grades — but it is an extremely useful way to gauge how people feel coming out of theaters and whether the expectations of general audiences have been met.
But one thing CinemaScore definitely is? A measure of the reaction from people who have seen the movie in question. And one thing we have to keep in mind when discussing Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and IMDB user scores is that they are, well, not. At least, not necessarily. They could be! I would guess that most people who bother to vote on these sites have seen the film in question. But, like any Internet poll, they are subject to all manner of shenanigans: Angry fanboys can manipulate the scores by engineering downvote campaigns on social media sites such as Reddit, 4chan and Facebook.
This is a real problem for Rotten Tomatoes et al. If you can’t trust that people have even seen the films they are voting on, how are consumers supposed to trust the recommendations that are, supposedly, coming from their fellow viewers?
Fortunately, it seems to me that there is a relatively simple solution. Consider the case of Rotten Tomatoes, which is owned by Fandango. Rotten Tomatoes offers viewers a chance to buy tickets from Fandango right from the landing page of every new release, and Rotten Tomatoes scores show up on the Fandango site and on the Fandango app. There’s a great deal of synergy in play already.
So why not restrict user voting on new releases at Rotten Tomatoes to those who have purchased a ticket through Fandango?
You could expand it further, of course: Allow members of the loyalty programs run by AMC and Regal Cinemas and whoever else to vote. Basically, anyone who can verify that they bought a ticket to a show can be given the opportunity. And maybe, after a certain period (say, a month), open it up to everyone else.
Now, look: This wouldn’t be a scientific poll, and it would still be open to shenanigans of various stripes. Pressure campaigns could still be cooked up in the depths of the angrier portions of the social web. But we don’t consider primary elections illegitimate just because the people who vote in them tend to be more motivated, more energetic and more radical. Indeed, it would give us another interesting data point to consider: If there’s a sharp discrepancy between CinemaScore and an RT user score made up of people who can confirm they bought tickets, we’d find that quite intriguing. Intensity of feeling is always something worth measuring.
Regardless, something needs to be done if Rotten Tomatoes and the rest of these sites want us to take user ratings seriously. Otherwise, potential customers and cultural commentators alike will have little choice but to disregard customer scores such as the one given to “The Last Jedi.”