Seen any good movies lately? Hollywood executives worry you haven't--and they say a few dozen employees in a Beverly Hills office tower are to blame.

Meet the staff of Rotten Tomatoes, a website that aggregates movie reviews into a single rating: fresh or rotten, often even before opening night. Fresh can make a movie into a smash; rotten means its financial projections get dumped in the garbage.

After 19 years of--well, not obscurity, but perhaps tolerated existence--the site's three dozen employees are suddenly the talk of Hollywood. They have influence, press coverage examinations in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times--and lots of Hollywood executives who say they want to annihilate them.

(Seriously. From the New York Times: "Over lunch last month, the chief executive of a major movie company looked me in the eye and declared flatly that his mission was to destroy the review-aggregation site.")

A horrible, horrible summer

This summer, North American box office revenue dropped 15 percent from last year. As the NYT reports, the three biggest U.S. theater chains have lost $4 billion in market capitalization since May.

And the slide coincides with four recent industry changes:

First, Fandango acquired Rotten Tomatoes, and now includes a "Tomatometer" on every movie listing. As the NYT says, a low score may as well be a message reading, "You are an idiot if you pay to see this movie."

Second, Rotten Tomatoes grew. Eight years ago, they had 1.8 million unique visitors each month; now they're around 14 million (plus another 60 million people through Fandango).

Third, people simply rely more on online reviews before they make spending decisions--especially younger people. (One third of American moviegoers now checks Rotten Tomatoes before buying a movie ticket.)

Finally, people just stopped going to the movies. As the NYT put it, "Because of climbing prices and competition from other forms of entertainment, a trip to the multiplex has become a special event."

Meet the 36 (or maybe the 37?)

For a group with such clout, profiles of the folks at Rotten Tomatoes seem a bit bemused at their newfound power. Among the employees who've been interviewed or portrayed:

  • Timothy Ryan, "a former newspaper reporter," according to the NYT.
  • Grae Drake, whom the NYT calls "[t]he employee with the pink mohawk." She's a senior movie editor who "does a lot of video interviews."
  • Jeff Voris, "an easygoing former Disney executive with graying hair who oversees operations." He's now the company's vice-president.
  • Jeff Giles, "a 12-year Rotten Tomatoes veteran and the author of books like Llanview in the Afternoon: An Oral History of 'One Life to Live."
  • Cookie Zito, a supervising producer, according to the LAT.
  • Amy Garcia, Leslie Chen, Waisze Lam. They work there; that's all we know. The LAT took their photo and identified them in a caption.

The LAT says the company has 30 employees; NYT says 36. (Sure enough, LinkedIn says the company has between "11-50 employees." Also, they're hiring.) If we want to add number 37, that would probably be Paul Yanover, the president of Fandango, which as we mentioned, has owned the site since 2016--and which in turn is owned by NBCUniversal.

"We were a scrappy, wily can-do company," Drake told the LAT (which, like the NYT, made a big deal of the fact that her hair is dyed pink.) "What we've seen happen is, we're now owned by a company that is invested in helping us grow more."

Another idea, you could just make better movies?

To combat the massive clout of Rotten Tomatoes, and ratchet up their Tomatometer scores, studios are apparently trying a few tricks.

Sometimes, they get friendly critics to review their movies early, after private screenings. The idea is that early reviews are most important because later critics will likely be swayed, and pile onto the bandwagon. They also create spreadsheets of critics to invite to screenings, based on past reviews (and what percentage were positive).

For really bad movies, one strategy is to prevent critics from seeing or writing about a movie until after it officially premieres. The NYT says this is what happened with "The Emoji Movie." It had no reviews--and thus a blank Tomatometer--until after its $24.5 million opening. Then the horrible reviews came in, and it's now rated at 8 out of 100.)

But honestly, maybe it would make more sense just to make better movies? At least some Hollywood executives to recognize that the marketplace for entertainment has simply changed.

"When you have that currency that says you have 100 people that agree the movie is great or horrible, you don't need more information than that," Rob Moore, a former vice chairman at Paramount Pictures, told the LAT. "That's how they're picking restaurants and that's how they're picking movies."

Published on: Sep 8, 2017
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