When you shop for something on Amazon, you will see the star ratings between one and five. We’ve all learned to adjust our opinion of products based on that kind of at-a-glance measurement. The more five star reviews, the better the product (so the theory goes) . How can thousands of people be wrong about that $400 Vitamix blender? The answer is: they can’t be. As you all know, I’ve been here since the beginning of what we think of as the internet. I was here before anyone trusted buying things online, before anyone thought you could make money on the internet, when internet dating was still a taboo, when there were no blogs, no Facebook, no Twitter, before the LA Times put up a paywall and then people stopped going. Before Google, before Google ads, before clickbait, before the review systems that so many of us rely on.
Back then, a film would come out and there would be just a few critics ringing in. Some mattered, some didn’t. The New York Times mattered. The LA Times and Wall Street Journal mattered. The trades mattered. Women like Pauline Kael and Judith Crist and Janet Maslin were a big deal. What they thought mattered. When blogs like mine cropped up, people like me started writing about film. Though even to this day I refuse to call myself a “film critic” or even a journalist, my reviews of films are taken seriously by readers and by studios. But so what? It doesn’t matter anymore who says what. Just look at the blurbs. Anyone can cook and everyone did. Now anyone out there can be counted as a film critic — just look at the Broadcast Film Critics Association.
So I don’t know what anyone really means anymore when they talk about “film criticism” when we talk about Rotten Tomatoes. What we’re really talking about are user reviews. Sure, many of those user reviews are by people who get to see a lot of movies for free and believe themselves qualified to judge those movies, but most of them are very very far away from what film criticism was ever supposed to be. Some critics take their job seriously and most women I know who are film critics do not want people to think they go easier on a movie because a woman made it. Most women — I can speak for women in general, though I can’t speak for people of color — want to be taken as seriously as their male counterparts. That is, after all, the essence of the fight for equality. Once you are considered someone who is not objective, people don’t take you seriously. I’ve had to fight against this for a while now. Most of my readers assume I will be supportive of films made by directors of color or women “just because.” But I try really hard not to lie about what I think about a movie and not to grade on a curve. If I say Fruitvale Station is a great movie, I think it’s a great movie. When it comes to evaluating the Oscar race, that’s a little bit different (for me, anyway) because I don’t think they always vote for the best, but rather what they “like” and often what we “like” are things we can relate to.
What you have with Rotten Tomatoes and with the Academy or any large group that votes by consensus is that same kind of thing you have on Amazon: an aggregate of tastes of people who have used the product or seen the movie. On Amazon, you don’t distinguish between women or people of color when looking at that rating for something like, say, the Instapot. Where Brie Larson’s point comes in is that she’s saying if you were looking at reviews for tampons or for shampoo formulated for African American hair, naturally you would assume that those reviews are written by people who actually use those products, and not by the default demographic of white men.
Incredibly, there was a time when nobody but white men got paid to sell things like tampons, and it was men who decided whether breastmilk or formula was better for babies and mothers. White men have been used to running things in America since its founding.
But film criticism and Rotten Tomatoes are two different things. The methodology of calculating average scores is at the root of the problem since it tends to homogenize rather than acknowledge a range of nonconformity. In the same way many have fought long and hard to change the demographics in the Academy to hopefully shift the consensus, now people would like to see the demographics on Rotten Tomatoes change to hopefully shift that score beyond its overwhelming white male center of gravity — especially if the score is becoming more and more important to ticket buyers who might not choose a movie to watch based on its RT rating.
So why has the aggregate become so white and so male? Why aren’t there more film critics of color or women represented on Rotten Tomatoes? And if there were, would the results be any different?
To understand that is to go back to how film criticism has changed and why it changed. Why film criticism is dominated mostly by a certain kind of male, often referred to as a “fanboy” or on occasion a “dudebro” — these guys came to prominence around the same time I got online. Ain’t It Cool News was the first of these. Its influence freaked out Hollywood, but film critics for major publications didn’t feel threatened then. They never expected anyone would take these self-made “fans” seriously. Back then, there was a clear separation between fan and critic. A clear line drawn between people who would take money from studios, or enjoy perks from studios — set visits, press junkets, etc—- and those whose reputations relied on objectively assessing a film. You would hope that those in the assessment department had degrees in film studies, or somehow knew their stuff from writing about and watching and learning about film history. One way or another, they had proven their qualifications to have an opinion. Fanboys, on the other hand, didn’t really need any such qualification. All that mattered was whether they “liked” the movie or not. And there was always a lot of pressure on them to like the movie, especially if they were chummy with the director.
Sites like Ain’t it Cool News became the model for a profusion of imitators and they just kept replicating. On and on they went, with high profile bloggers at their helms spouting their opinions about films, all films, but mainly those aimed at them. For the most part part, these guys won out. Their tastes were rewarded by Hollywood as we watched the powers that be in the industry decide collectively that 13-year-old boys were the most profitable demographic. Remakes, branded shit, comic book movies — these did not grow to dominate Hollywood without the fanboy sites that helped build this massive industry.
Somehow along the way, the bloggers swallowed up actual film critics. Metacritic tried, admirably, for a long time to just represent film critics at major outlets. But as the blogs swallowed up and competed with the majors, the big-name film critics were no longer valued and many were fired. A few still remain: Ann Hornaday at the Washington Post, Stephanie Zacharek at TIME, Kenneth Turan at the LA Times, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott at the New York Times, Joe Morgenstern at the Wall Street Journal. Todd McCarthy, Variety’s longtime critic, went to The Hollywood Reporter. But for the most part, anyone can cook so anyone can get a job writing film reviews now. The more studio friendly they are, the less contrary they are, the better. So what are we even talking about anymore?
Well, what we’re mostly talking about are user reviews from a singled-out group of people who have mostly volunteered their opinion. Many on Rotten Tomatoes write for sites they built on their own or come from sites that are not major outlets. Within that context, it is appropriate to call RT out for not having a balanced aggregate of opinions on their site, but especially so when movies aimed at women or people of color come along. It’s not quite like expecting a bunch of men to review tampons, but if the idea is to recommend films, you can’t expect all people out there to match the tastes of fanboys who clearly tend to prefer a certain kind of movie. And, by the way, it isn’t just superhero movies or blockbusters they like. Their highest rated film of all time was Lady Bird. Moonlight is another one that did well there, with the same demographics everyone is complaining about now.
The problem really is this: if we’re talking about user reviews, let’s have a bigger sample. With 200-300 film critics sampled now we’ve lost the exclusivity of having singular prestigious film critics assess the work. So maybe they should go even bigger, to around 500 or so for a better and more accurate read of potential ticket buyers. If I am going to see a movie I don’t really want to know what a group comprised 70% of young-adult (white) guys think of it. But if a broader sampling of folks were rating it, maybe I would.
In accepting her Crystal award, Brie Larson spoke about the unbalanced demographics in terms of women and people of color in journalism, film criticism. She is vowing to help change those demographics to be more inclusive.
But let’s also remember that film critics — especially women, people of color — who want to be taken seriously will carefully curate their objectivity. It’s not a forgone conclusion that any individual will always like films that dovetail with his or her own gender or ethnicity. In all of the years I’ve been doing this, I have not found that to be the case. In fact, I’ve found the opposite to be true. I’ve found that a lot of white men tend to feel guiltier about being hard on films that weren’t directed by white men.
So what’s the answer? I can’t really say. The future of Hollywood looks anything but promising, especially if we’re talking about franchise movies until the end of time — which means the future of film criticism as it once was could be in jeopardy too. We may have to come to terms with he only thing that hasn’t changed: all that really matters in Hollywood is what makes money and what doesn’t.