A big, troll-fighting change is coming to Rotten Tomatoes.
The website is changing the way it tabulates audience scores by only allowing users who bought a movie ticket through its parent company, the ticket-selling giant Fandango, have their reviews count toward a movie’s overall reception. These will now be called “verified scores,” and while everyone will still be able to see the overall audience score, the site will show the verified score first.
The popular review aggregation site tallies up movie review scores and spits out a number signifying whether the film is “fresh” or “rotten.” There are two main divisions of scores: the critics score and the audience score.
Critics are vetted by Rotten Tomatoes before their ratings and reviews are included. But for a long time since its inception, that wasn’t true for the audience score. Anyone could review and positively or negatively rate a movie, and their take would factor into the numerical audience score. And this being the internet, some people took advantage of that feature to slam, or “review bomb,” movies they objected to for racist, sexist, or political reasons — whether or not they’d seen the film.
The introduction of verified audience reviews is designed to bring the score into more realistic alignment with public impression of a film. The new system should prove more useful for potential moviegoers looking for guidance from both critics and the general public. And it can’t hurt that it might have a positive effect on the parent company’s bottom line too.
Rotten Tomatoes is responding to bad-faith attacks on films by internet trolls
I’ve written at length about how Rotten Tomatoes works and why aggregating and weighting audience reviews alongside those from critics — from sites like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB and services like Cinemascore — isn’t as useful as a lot of people assume. The critics that Rotten Tomatoes includes in its overall “Tomatometer” rating are vetted by the site to ensure they meet a series of criteria. And though the field as a whole is still dominated by white men, the reviewers included in the Rotten Tomatoes critical score are relatively representative of who’s regularly working in criticism today.
Not so with audience scores. Without any additional vetting required, a user with an ax to grind can immediately exploit the system in their favor. And over the past half-decade or so, protective fans have made it a habit to manipulate the public opinion of movies they find offensive or disruptive. Movies like The Last Jedi, Ghostbusters, and Black Panther were among the targets on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB.
Prior to the release of Captain Marvel in early March, Rotten Tomatoes announced that audience score capabilities would only be available after the film had premiered in theaters — a move that, while designed to cut down on prerelease brigading, as it’s known, effectively only kicked the can down the road, since trolls could show up the day of release en masse and write fake reviews, even if they didn’t see the film (and they did exactly that).
With Rotten Tomatoes’ new plan, they still can do that. But the score they artificially inflate or deflate will be less significant — at least for users who want real information rather than fake scores.
Now there will be two audience scores
Rotten Tomatoes announced on May 23 that in the future, it will actually have two audience scores. One will simply be the aggregate of everyone who logs a review on the site, no matter who they are — the same as it currently does.
But another, more controlled score will be available now too: a “verified” audience score. This will be restricted to people who can verify that they purchased a ticket to the film — and at least at first, the way they’ll do that is by purchasing the ticket through Fandango, Rotten Tomatoes’ parent company.
The important part is that it’s the reviews of people who bought a ticket that the site will spotlight, and reviews written by verified ticket buyers will be marked as such on the site as well. The other, unverified score will be available but secondary. And users will be able to toggle back and forth between the two.
This mirrors a system in place already at Rotten Tomatoes. If you’d like the opinions of a select group of prolific and experienced critics, you can look at the “Top Critics” score, which represents a subset of the broader critical rating. (The criteria that separate top critics from all critics are opaque, and, for the record, I am not included.) You can toggle back and forth between them as well.
Right now, Fandango purchases are the only kind that will count toward the verified audience score. And that could spell good things for Fandango, which will have an edge over its competitors if people are particularly invested in leaving a review.
If would-be trolls are very committed to brigading a film, it also means they might purchase a ticket in order to negatively review the film — which will, in the end, mostly wind up benefiting Fandango and the movie’s take at the box office.
The audience score problem is unsolvable — but the new move could help
Can this solve the problem of the unreliable audience review score? Not really; until Rotten Tomatoes irons out the wrinkle posed by ticket buyers using non-Fandango methods, the verified audience rating will represent only a subset of ticket buyers.
And there are larger statistical issues, too. Audience members have already passed one test: They were enthusiastic enough about a movie to buy a ticket. That means that people who aren’t interested in a movie won’t be included at all in the score (unlike professional critics, who watch movies because it’s their job and rarely get to pick what they see). Additionally, audience members may not take the time to review the movie if they have neutral feelings about it, which means the range of responses will likely be concentrated toward either the very positive or the very negative.
All those factors mean that the verified audience score will only represent the opinions of people who wanted to see a film enough to spend money, including an online service fee, on the ticket ahead of time (rather than buying at the theater), and who then took the time to log in to review the film. That’s not exactly a statistically representative sample of the general public.
But it’s certainly a move in the right direction. Potential filmgoers may actually find this revised system a useful counterbalance to the critical score. And now Rotten Tomatoes visitors who don’t know about review bombing or brigading efforts will have a way to see a more useful, accurate representation of the real audience’s opinion.
As Rotten Tomatoes and sites like it continue to battle bad-faith attacks from trolls, it’s likely they’ll keep looking for new solutions, and trolls will keep trying to get around them. That is, regrettably, a risk inherent to a system that enables anonymous users to wage their pet cultural wars. At least the new verified scores will help keep some moviegoers from getting caught in the crossfire.