Rotten Tomatoes, Indie Films, and Studio Gatekeeping

Photo credit: Rotten Tomatoes

A recent piece about Rotten Tomatoes on Vulture is making the rounds and it really says something about the current state of the industry.

Rotten Tomatoes is just one part of the equation. The other thing here is studio gatekeeping. The Tomatometer score is so important that one almost always have to be writing for an RT-approved publication in order to get into a press screening. If one isn’t on RT, one must have a lot of social media followers or a lot of incoming traffic. It speaks to how data is so important in the industry. Unfortunately, the social media following has become meaningless in recent months. While many are still hanging onto Twitter, it’s lost whatever usefulness it’s had as a certain figure welcomes antisemites, racists, and other bigots onto the platform. The fact that Hollywood is still using it for marketing is a problem. That’s another column that I’ve already written, of course.

Indie films don’t suffer from the same level of gatekeeping that impact one’s access with the studios. Among publicists I’ve worked with, they’re more than willing to send a screener for coverage consideration. It could be somewhat different during a film festival. I’ve had critic friends tell me that they’re credentialed but can’t even get a pre-fest screener for coverage. This could also be where being on Rotten Tomatoes makes a big difference. If someone is not on RT, it’s possible that a publicist doesn’t have any incentive in sending a critic a screener for review. It’s not fair or right but it is what it is. That said, I will have a few TIFF reviews running this month because I’m credentialed and received screeners. I’m not attending because of the strikes.

I try and watch a number of indies because I know they need the coverage. There are times where I’ll do both a review and an interview if I really like something. Being an indie film or a major studio film can be a big difference. Look at the difference in review numbers for Lez Bomb (89% on 9 reviews) and Happiest Season (82% on 213 reviews). Gravitas Ventures distributed Lez Bomb two years prior to Sony unloading the latter on Hulu during the pandemic. Both films deal with closeted daughters coming home with their partners. One is trying to come out while the other is closeted and forces their partner in the closet. It’s a good case study when it comes to indie vs. studio films.

Netflix films can vary these days. It used to be that a new Netflix original movie would get a substantial number of reviews. This was before they decided to push a new film every week. I tend to hedge my bets in what I decide to cover in hopes of getting traffic. Sometimes, the Netflix film brings in traffic. Other times, it gets lost in the algorithm despite major stars being attached. It just really depends.

Every film and TV series needs at least five reviews before they can get a score on Rotten Tomatoes. It doesn’t matter who wrote them or whether it’s borderline positive or completely negative. They just need five reviews. Unfortunately, RT still does not have anything for being in the middle. One has to choose fresh or rotten. But as Lane Brown’s pieces says, there are some publicists that will do what takes to inflate a film’s rating. The Sundance-selected Ophelia is at the center of it all. I didn’t see the film until 2019 and it was a massive letdown to say the least. A Tomatometer score can make or break an acquisition film playing a film festival. RT vets who joins the Tomatometer and in theory, it helps the credibility. Audience scores could have trolls taking part. Both Letterboxd and IMDb are not immune to review-bombing on certain titles.

Does the Tomatometer score impact box office numbers? Maybe, maybe not. I’ve heard from people who are not going as often because of higher ticket prices. The cost of tickets continues to rise to where people have no problem waiting for rental or streaming. It really depends on the film, too. Films like Barbie and Oppenheimer have no problem bringing in an audience. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One didn’t fare as well as predecessors despite inflated ticket costs.

I see more articles these days about how long the standing ovation is at a film festival, be it Cannes, Venice, Telluride, etc. Standing ovations have absolutely no bearing on what I think about a film. People are paying a lot of money to attend films at a festival. Why wouldn’t they stand up for a few minutes after it ended? It just gives an outlet something to write about, which leads to clicks and ad revenue.

A film journalist or outlet’s following plays a substantial role when it comes to gatekeeping. Indie films will take whatever coverage they can get. But even then, filmmakers and talent can only do so many interviews. I put in interview requests for a lot of filmmakers and talent back in 2020. You know, the pandemic year where so many of us were staying home and not going anywhere. Anyway, a good amount were declined. It probably had to do with data at the end of the day. There’s also the friendly press that studios invite when it comes to the social media reactions following the first screening. It’s the same reason why Wonder Woman 1984 launched with a Certified Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. When a studio dictates who gets to see a movie first, it plays a role in the Tomatometer score.

I expect the new article will have some ramifications but I don’t know what those will be. Publicists are very persistent in sending pitches. They’re just doing their job but I only have so much time in the day or week. If it’s a small indie or mid-budget film, my pressing play depends on my headspace and if I have to plug my laptop into the TV via HDMI cable. If I press play too late in the day, I might fall asleep. There was one indie film that put me to sleep and I thought it was just the time of day. Nope, it put me to sleep again the next day when I made another attempt. It wasn’t me but the film itself. This has also been a major problem coming out of the pandemic. If a film doesn’t pique my interest, it’s not getting coverage.

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.