Justice League reviews started coming out early Wednesday morning — the studio-imposed embargo lifted at 2:50 am Eastern on November 15. But though the movie’s 43 percent “rotten” rating was revealed overnight via webcast, the site delayed posting its rating, as well as links to any reviews of the film.
And that’s raising some eyebrows — both because of who owns Rotten Tomatoes and because of its implications for the direction the site is taking.
A couple weeks ago, on October 31, Rotten Tomatoes announced the launch of a weekly show called Rotten Tomatoes See It / Skip It, broadcast on Facebook via the social media site’s Watch platform. One of the show’s regular features is a “Tomatometer Score Reveal” — and this week’s reveal was Justice League, the hotly anticipated DC Extended Universe movie that unites Batman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Aquaman, The Flash, and Superman. The episode containing the reveal aired at 12:01 am on Thursday, November 16, and the hosts revealed that the film’s rating was 43 percent (compared to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’s 27 percent, Suicide Squad’s 26 percent, and Wonder Woman’s 92 percent).
However, hours after the reveal, the score had not yet been posted to Rotten Tomatoes’ site, nor had critics’ reviews been tabulated — even though fans’ reviews were on the site. The score and critics reviews finally appeared on the site about twelve hours after the show aired, and by then had dropped to 40.
And the score only appeared on Fandango some time past 1:15pm. Fandango is the ticket-buying site used by many major movie theater chains that owns Rotten Tomatoes. The first public screenings of Justice League in some major cities like New York and Los Angeles begin on Thursday evening, with nationwide rollout on Friday.
In an email on Thursday afternoon, Rotten Tomatoes’ director of communications Tiyson Reynolds wrote to Vox that the site’s editorial team selects which film’s Tomatometer score will be held for review, and “the score is then published on Rotten Tomatoes and all partner sites approximately 12 hours after the show’s airing.”
Rotten Tomatoes’ main competitor, the more selective aggregator Metacritic, posted its score on Wednesday after the critical embargo lifted. As of 1:45pm EST on Thursday, the Metacritic score aggregated 42 reviews for a rating of 48 percent.
- Rotten Tomatoes’ Justice League front page as of 11am EST on Thursday, November 16 did not include its score.
- No critics reviews had been posted to Rotten Tomatoes as of 11am EST on Thursday November 16. The critics embargo was lifted at 2:50am EST on Wednesday, November 15.
- The Rotten Tomatoes score had not been posted to Fandango as of 11am EST on Thursday, November 16.
The choice to hold the film’s Tomatometer score is a savvy one, from Rotten Tomatoes’ perspective, as advertising for See It / Skip It. The site has long billed itself as merely a review aggregator, a kind of landing spot that gathers the critical opinions of thousands of “Tomatometer-approved critics” around the world, then assigns a score that correlates to the percentage of positive reviews.
But the site also publishes news, interviews, and columns, and by moving into original programming with See It / Skip It, hosted by entertainment journalists Jacqueline Coley and Segun Oduolowu, Rotten Tomatoes seems to be edging toward not just pointing towards others’ opinions but serving up some of its own. Since the show’s launch, it’s hosted the score reveal for A Bad Moms Christmas — and did not post the score for that film until 12 hours after its release — and announced a score for Star Trek: The Original Series. Coley and Oduolowu also hosted special guests and offered opinions on other movies, including the new remake of Murder on the Orient Express.
The choice to hold back Justice League’s score has some interesting ramifications. The link between Tomatometer scores and box office returns varies by film — a high score may boost a smaller film’s chances of success, for instance. That’s been especially true since February 2016, when Rotten Tomatoes was acquired by Fandango, the website that sells advance movie tickets for many large theater chains. A film’s Tomatometer score is visible when customers are making their ticket-purchasing decisions, and at least theoretically a low Tomatometer score could affect opening weekend sales.
For a movie like Justice League, with its sizable built-in fan base as well as heightened interest after the smashing success of Wonder Woman earlier this summer, a Tomatometer score probably won’t have much sway over its opening weekend ticket sales.
And of course, people could still read reviews of Justice League 24 hours before the Tomatoscore reveal on See It / Skip It. But they could not access them through the Rotten Tomatoes site until twelve hours after the reveal, and by mid-day Thursday, hours before the film’s first public screenings in some markets, Fandango ticket buyers could still only see fan reviews.
This move has sparked some speculation that the studio is trying to stave off a potentially bad score as long as possible, suggested by the fact that Warner Bros. — the studio behind Justice League — also holds a minority stake in Fandango, which in turn owns Rotten Tomatoes. STX, which distributed A Bad Moms Christmas, is not related to Warner Bros. However, STX does have a partnership for home video distribution with Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, which is a division of Universal Pictures; Fandango, which owns Rotten Tomatoes, operates as a unit of NBCUniversal, of which Universal Pictures is part.
However, given the complicated setup of media conglomerates, it’s not possible to draw a definitive line between ownership, partnerships, and the delay of any Tomatometer scores.
The matter, however, points to two interesting wrinkles that hold a lot of potential, for better or worse. First, Rotten Tomatoes is under no obligation to release a movie’s Tomatometer score as soon as enough reviews have been published to calculate one. That ability — and the position of influence the site is betting it wields in the marketplace — has the potential to be monetized by studios who either want extra buzz for their film or who would like to rack up as many advanced ticket sales as possible before a “rotten” score is released.
And second, it looks like Rotten Tomatoes is trying to evolve beyond its role as a review aggregator and toward a role as an active influencer of opinion, becoming not just a landing page but a clearinghouse for opinions about the movies. That changes the site’s scope — and if consumers play along, the effect on movie criticism itself could be far reaching.
Note: This article has been updated with Justice League’s Rotten Tomatoes score, and to reflect the fact that it was not posted until after noon on Thursday, as well as with Rotten Tomatoes’ response. We will continue to update as the story develops.