It's a weird time for Hollywood. One of the most successful producers in recent history is facing sexual harassment allegations, effectively splitting the movie business apart. That comes on the heels of a bummer summer for movies, with this year's blockbusters mostly flopping at the box office and paling in comparison to the mass appeal of television—an industry that is courting many former A-list movie actors into its ranks.
What's to blame for this major paradigm shift? I'm sure it's complicated—the economy, the political climate, the actual work that Hollywood is producing? All of that plays a major role. But for acclaimed director Martin Scorsese, the answer is simple: Rotten Tomatoes is killing the craft of movie making.
In an op-ed in The Hollywood Reporter, the Oscar winner rails against the current obsession with "grading" movies on an objective critical basis, claiming that our current technological era is hurting creativity and putting too much of a focus on the "business" of the movie business:
It began back in the '80s when the "box office" started to mushroom into the obsession it is today. When I was young, box office reports were confined to industry journals like The Hollywood Reporter. Now, I'm afraid that they've become…everything. Box office is the undercurrent in almost all discussions of cinema, and frequently it's more than just an undercurrent. The brutal judgmentalism that has made opening weekend grosses into a bloodthirsty spectator sport seems to have encouraged an even more brutal approach to film reviewing. I'm talking about market research firms like Cinemascore, which started in the late '70s, and online "aggregators" like Rotten Tomatoes, which have absolutely nothing to do with real film criticism. 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. They have everything to do with the movie business and absolutely nothing to do with either the creation or the intelligent viewing of film. The filmmaker is reduced to a content manufacturer and the viewer to an unadventurous consumer.
Marty, as one "content manufacturer" to another: I'm sorry to hear you're bummed out about this.
But let's be honest: People consume art—art that exists on the high and low ends of the spectrum—for many reasons. Some people want to be simply entertained, to turn off their minds and laugh, cry, or scream at a movie that doesn't require a lot of thought. Some people like to be more challenged by film; maybe they choose a foreign film or a weighty, three-hour epic instead of a silly comedy. Some people like both of those things! Writers, in particular, who dedicate their work to the art of film criticism (which, yes, is an art form in itself), often appreciate all kinds of movies—because a prerequisite to being a film critic is the inherent love for the art form.
But it's also a critic's role to unpack a film for a reader—because a critic's reader is also a filmgoer, who naturally will have an immediate reaction of what he or she sees upon leaving a theater (or hitting pause at the end of a movie on Netflix). The internet did not invent knee-jerk criticism; to have an opinion is an inescapably human impulse. And Rotten Tomatoes didn't invent film reviewing, either.
The internet did not invent knee-jerk criticism; to have an opinion is an inescapably human impulse.
In fact, a Rotten Tomatoes score is not some sentient film critic, either, issuing a pass/fail grade down upon a piece of art. It is an aggregation of many voices—diverse, distinct voices, in fact, that sometimes reflect the ideas of the film-going masses. (And sometimes they don't; the site offers viewers to rate films, too, and there's often a discrepancy between critics and film audiences as often as there's one between filmmakers and their critics.)
Critics aren't keeping people away from the cinemas, either. Take this weekend's box office surprise, for example: Blade Runner 2049, which many insiders thought would be a box-office smash, underperformed in its opening weekend when it only brought in $31.5 million in domestic ticket sales. But Blade Runner 2049 received glowing reviews—it currently holds an 88% Rotten Tomatoes score. If Rotten Tomatoes and aggregated critical consensus had such an extreme effect on box-office turnout, wouldn't more people have gone to see Blade Runner 2049 this weekend? In hindsight, maybe a sequel to a 35 year-old sci-fi cult classic shouldn't have been considered a sure-thing; the writers who examine the film industry—those who participate in the "bloodthirsty spectator sport" Scorsese describes as "box office analysis"—are able to point this out pretty easily after the fact.
Scorsese's argument falters here. You can look at the Rotten Tomatoes scores of his last two movies as proof of that. The Wolf of Wall Street earned a 77% rating in 2013, and last year's Silence earned an 84%. The former, however, vastly over-performed at the box office, making $91.4 million as opposed to the latter's $7.1 million.
But the director is less concerned about his movies or the latest big-budget sci-fi epic than he is another more maligned picture: Darren Aronofsky's mother!
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To say that mother! received mixed reviews is putting it mildly; it's one of the most polarising films of the year. Audiences hated it; it received a rare F-rating from Cinemascore. Critics, on the other hand, were more forgiving, more intrigued by director Aronofsky's ambition (and Paramount's bold choice to give it a wide release). In fact, it holds a 68% Rotten Tomatoes score—a fresh score, in fact, and technically a passing grade. Yet Scorsese describes the critical response to mother! as if it were some violent uprising against an unsuspecting film:
People seemed to be out for blood, simply because the film couldn't be easily defined or interpreted or reduced to a two-word description. Is it a horror movie, or a dark comedy, or a biblical allegory, or a cautionary fable about moral and environmental devastation? Maybe a little of all of the above, but certainly not just any one of those neat categories.
Isn't it possible that the conversation around mother! is actually a good thing? Sure, people hated it. But people also enjoyed it. And those two camps had a great deal of fun talking about it—which is, ultimately, the entire purpose of art: to entertain, sure, but also to incite feeling and conversation. Did anyone reasonably expect mother! to be a box-office smash, despite it's Oscar-winning stars and its critically beloved director, who is known for pushing his audiences' boundaries? I cannot fathom that notion; it is too complicated, too aggressive, too unpleasant to be a crowd-pleaser. Even Aronofsky himself knew that.
But mother! may very well build an audience—just like the original Blade Runner did years after its release. And Scorsese is right about one thing: Films often require time for a viewer to fully comprehend them, and many movies find critical reappraisal in the years after their release (we even spoke to nine critics last year who admitted that they'd gotten it wrong every now and then). Yet it's not an overstatement to say that most people do not necessarily give movies multiple chances, and that original immediate response is the one that remains the most important.
"Good films by real filmmakers aren't made to be decoded, consumed, or instantly comprehended," Scorsese writes. I agree! But to experience a film in those ways isn't a disservice to a film—it's just part of the experience of watching a film. A Rotten Tomatoes score is no more of a threat than a four-star rating system or Siskel and Ebert's thumbs. It's extremely natural to grade our experiences; it's essentially a foundation of our human experience. And yet we still go on, creating and consuming art. Something tells me that the movie business probably won't suffer too badly after all.