The Rotten Tomatoes website is constantly mentioned when talking about entertainment. It could be stated that the majority of cinema and television fans go to the website to see how their favorite or highly anticipated productions are doing. A great factor about it is that both critics’ and audience scores are shown, and potential moviegoers can read both. The entertainment industry is constantly reinventing itself, from streaming services hitting the big awards to review sites that changed the game like Rotten Tomatoes. It’s an ever-evolving industry that, if not caught up with the times, can suffer greatly.
Here’s a bit more about the unique history of the website that has been extremely popular in these past decades. As well as how much it has influenced, and still influences, the industry today.
The foundation of Rotten Tomatoes goes back to 1998. Made by a small team with a majority of Asian Americans, the website stood out from the other startups that were popping up everywhere at the time – especially moving into the 2000s. The goal with which the website started couldn’t be further away from the cinema authority it is now. The movie that made it all happen? Rush Hour.
Rotten Tomatoes was created by Senh Duong as a hobby. Duong was born in Vietnam but is ethnically Chinese and was living in the United States; representation on the screen was something he sought — “Seeing someone like that on screen, subconsciously it makes you feel more accepted,” said Duong in an anniversary retrospective. A movie lover, especially regarding action movies, Duong liked to read reviews to have a better understanding of what the movie was about before going to the theater. Some of his favorite actors were Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Chan’s first big movie that went to the big screen in the US was Rush Hour – and the longtime fan couldn’t be more excited about it. Duong started to search for what critics were saying about the movie, and he noticed that the only place he saw some reviews together was on the movie posters. That’s when the idea for a hoarder review website sparked.
Duong presented his concept for the website to two friends: Patrick Lee and Stephen Wang, all former UC Berkeley classmates. They worked in the same startup and decided to create the website. Stephen stated, “He collected all the news articles and film reviews in the weeks preceding the movie’s release and put them on a single page. In reality, while he meant to build a site for Rush Hour, since the film’s release got delayed, he actually continued the process for other movies about to release.” The site then was created with Design Reactor, whose brand was to create websites for film and television clients.
The first movie reviewed on Rotten Tomatoes was Your Friends & Neighbors. Doung explained how he gathered the first reviews, “On the very first day, it had about 100 views, […] I got that from posting in Usenet movie groups telling people to check it out. A few days later, it was picked by Yahoo! as the site of the day, which got the site a couple of thousand views. In the following week, it was spotlighted by USA Today and Netscape, which was huge back then.” Since then, thousands of movies have become a part of the website. A turning point was Pixar’s Toy Story and A Bug’s Life, as people went to check the website ratings before going to the movies. While they hit some rough patches during the next years, the website slowly started to become recognized in the industry, reaching what it is today.
But how does their scoring work? While many view the website daily, some may not have taken the time to fully understand it or maybe someone is new to this particular industry and doesn’t know how it works. Bear in mind, it’s nothing too complicated. Gathering reviews posted online by renowned critics and fans/normal audiences alike, the website balances their negative and positive reviews reaching an approval number.
To separate critics (that were approved in a number of criteria established by the website) from the everyday audience, they use different symbols: tomatoes for the professional reviews and a bucket of popcorn for the audience. If the critics’ ratings have an average of 60% positive, a red tomato appears on their scoring, if it is 60% negative a green splat is displayed. Fairly similar, a full red bucket of popcorn represents 60% 3.5-star ratings or higher by the audience, and a green tipped-over bucket represents when less than 60% gives 3.5-star ratings or higher.
However, there are ones that stand out and have the classification everyone wants nowadays: Certified Fresh badge. This is for the productions that have outstanding reviews and have to follow a bunch of qualifications to gain them. They have to have the following: A consistent Tomatometer score of 75% or higher, at least five reviews from top critics, films in wide release must have a minimum of 80 reviews (this also applies for films going from limited to wide release), films in limited release must have a minimum of 40 reviews, only individual seasons of a TV show are eligible, and each must have a minimum of 20 reviews.
Rotten Tomatoes is not only considered the source of the most trusted recommendations for entertainment – as stated on its website – but it also has an influence on the industry. In 2011, Warner Bros. bought the website and sold it to Fandango, a website that sells advanced movie tickets to major movie theater chains, in 2016. In 2017, 36% of moviegoers in the US checked Rotten Tomatoes to decide which productions they are going to see.
Director of Hidden Figures and Silver Linings Playbook, Donna Gigliotti stated, “For a picture that doesn’t have a brand name and doesn’t have movie stars, Rotten Tomatoes scores can enhance the box office.” While the website scores do influence, they are not solely guilty of a box office success or failure, as their scores then help or hinder films with limited or small theater releases; while big franchises are not that influenced by it. It is impressive what this website was able to do, even if some (especially other critics) don’t agree 100% with their rating method. Regardless, there is no denying it is a success story and something no one has been able to convey since.