Rotten Tomatoes: One Filmmaker's Critical Conundrum

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Rotten Tomatoes score is key for some movies

It’s no secret that a long-term career making movies is a numbers’ game. How well a movie did at the box office, how much it cost, and how many Blu-rays it sold are all figures that directors and producers have to juggle. But there’s another number filmmakers’ may have to keep track of now: their Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer score. The website has become a powerful online presence by aggregating critics’ reviews and calculating a “Fresh” or “Rotten” rating, that has arguably replaced “Thumbs Up” and “Thumbs Down” as a shorthand arbiter of quality.

The increased prominence of Rotten Tomatoes has proved bothersome to some. Canadian auteur David Cronenberg recently criticized the site saying, “If you go to Rotten Tomatoes, you have critics and then you have ‘Top Critics’, and what that really means is that there are legitimate critics…. Then there are all these other people who just say they’re critics and you read their writing and they can’t write, or they can write and their writing reveals that they’re quite stupid and ignorant.” And last November, actor Kirk Cameron mounted a high-profile campaign to goose the dismal numbers on his holiday comedy, Saving Christmas, encouraging his Facebook followers to give the film a positive audience score to counterbalance its dismal Tomatometer rating. (Unfortunately for him and for Christmas, his efforts failed.)

Cameron’s campaign was widely ridiculed, but for new filmmakers, low Rotten Tomatoes scores are no joke. That’s the situation that writer-director Ramaa Mosley has faced as she’s been trying to get her sophomore project off the ground a year after her first feature, The Brass Teapot, debuted to mixed critical reaction, resulting in a Rotten Tomatoes score that hovers in the 30 percent range. According to the 35-year-old director — who made the leap to feature filmmaking after a career making commercials, documentaries and short films — that Tomatometer rating has directly impacted her ability to secure actors for her follow-up film, which she describes as a “tense, character-driven thriller set in the South.” “It really is coming down to the score,” Mosley tells Yahoo Movies. “We have our equity money in place and we have a foreign distributor. We just need to cast it. When we started to reach out and make offers to actors, [agents] would say, ‘Wait, who is that director?’ And since it’s the age of Googling, everyone Googles “The Brass Teapot"and the first thing they see is the Rotten Tomatoes score. And they say, ‘What’s the deal with that score?’ If my movie had a score of 70 percent, it would be a different situation."

Watch the trailer for The Brass Teapot:

Moseley insists that she’s not out to blame individual critics for expressing their opinions about her first film or even Rotten Tomatoes for aggregating those opinions. “The situation is what it is because it’s the way the industry is working at the moment. I’ve talked to many filmmakers and I’ve heard similar stories. Over and over, I hear this is the situation: These scores really matter. I don’t sit here thinking, ‘I made a perfect movie and people are all idiots.’ I get it! But it’s like, what should I have done — not made a movie?” 

Shot for roughly $900,000 over a 19-day period, The Brass Teapot premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, where it was snapped up by Magnolia and given one of the distributor’s standard same-day VOD/theatrical releases the following spring. In the film, Juno Temple and Michael Angarano play a cash-strapped husband-and-wife who come into possession of a magical piece of crockery that spits out cash whenever one of them injures themselves, either physically or emotionally. Made in the spirit of dark relationship comedies like The Witches of Eastwick and The War of the Roses, Teapot charts how the couple’s romance deteriorates even as their fortunes rise. “I set out to make a movie that was like a modern fairy tale,” says Mosley. “I’m so lucky! My movie went to Toronto and it sold. Do you know how many movies don’t go anywhere?” 

But that storybook ending was followed by a less upbeat epilogue. The Brass Teapot made only a tiny dent commercially (Box Office Mojo pegs its domestic gross at just shy of $7,000, not counting the unreported VOD figures; Mosley says that the film was more successful overseas) and the initial reviews were mixed, with critics from Variety and the New York Daily News posting positive notices, while the Village Voice and The A.V. Club were less impressed. What hurt the movie more than the negative reviews, though, was the general lack of reviews. Mosley says that many critics simply didn’t get around to seeing it and that low sample size contributed to its overall score. She wrote an e-mail outlining her concerns to the Rotten Tomatoes staff, and received a swift response explaining that the Tomatometer rating doesn’t reflect the film’s overall quality, but rather how many critics have reviewed it, favorable or unfavorably.

Rotten Tomatoes editor-in-chief Matt Atchity remembers Mosley’s initial overture to the site and says that she’s far from the first filmmaker to contact them expressing their unhappiness about their film’s score. Some directors, publicity companies, and even studios pass along positive reviews to bump up the rating, which the site’s editors accept provided they are from Rotten Tomatoes-approved critics. (Rotten Tomatoes has an extensive summary of its criteria for Tomatometer inclusion and will independently search for other reviews that they may have missed.) He adds that the staff will even accept reviews of older films that are published years after their initial release. “We don’t have any skin in the game as far as if a movie does well,” he says. “Honestly, I want every movie to be good.”

After learning of Rotten Tomatoes’ policy of accepting late reviews, both good and bad, Mosley decided to reach out personally to several critics, asking them to add their own critiques of The Brass Teapot, which is currently available on DVD and is also streaming on Netflix. Overall, her efforts have been received more sympathetically than Cameron’s — a welcome relief for her considering that the campaign for more reviews could have resulted in the majority of them being negative, driving her score down further.

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Michael Angarano and Juno Temple in The Brass Teapot 

Hitfix’s Drew McWeeny was among the reviewers who gave the year-old film a first look and Mosley credits his column with bringing new attention to her case. She says that she’s appreciative of the reaction from critics and is eager to make her next movie. ”The challenge is that in order to go out and make the movie, you have to have a certain amount of people agree with you to do so,” she says. “It’s not like a painter who can just say, ‘I’m going to make my next painting!’”  

For his part, Atchity says that he’s never heard of a director having an experience that’s equivalent to Mosley’s, though he is aware of filmmakers’ mixed feelings about the role of sites like Rotten Tomatoes. “People may react differently to what that score represents, and they may use it in different aspects — I can’t really speak to how.  I would say that, in general, critical acclaim on your last film is probably only one small piece of what goes into the decision to make another movie.” In the meantime, Mosley is still knocking on agents’ doors to assemble a cast for her second feature. “Maybe this is meant to create a conversation, which is ‘Is it fair that people determine the value of the movie based on the Rotten Tomatoes score?’” she says. “I want to do what I can to shift the tides. “

Image credit: Magnolia Films