Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and Other Aggregates

On Roger Ebert’s website recently, a debate started up about the usefulness of sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. Essentially, both of these websites are aggregates, which take a bunch of opinions from film critics and turn them into a numerical score, and then use that to give the film a rating out of 100. This is easy for critics like Roger Ebert, who use a star system that can be easily converted. Not so easy for people like Manhola Dargis, who doesn’t (and sometimes, these sites seem to woefully misunderstand a review and assign it a score that makes no sense). But HOW they calculate the rating isn’t really what I’m going to talk about. Rather, I’ll talk about what these ratings actually mean, and whether they are being used in place of actual film criticism.

I’ll admit that I frequent both sites with some regularity – at least once a week on Fridays to see what the score on a particular movie is. This is not a fool proof system to tell what is a great movie and what is a terrible movie, but it’s a pretty good one. Last year for example, I didn’t give a negative review to any film that got over 90% on the Tomatometer, or a positive review that scored less than 20% on the same meter. Normally, I find, when the critics is that unanimous, they are usually right to at least a certain degree. I may not have loved every film with a high rating (hello Man on Wire which scored 100%) or hated every film below 20% (Jumper wasn’t that bad), but yeah, for the most part, I went with the flow on those films.

What is more interesting to me is to see where the Tomatometer ranked my top ten films of last year. They were, in order, Synecdoche New York (61%), The Dark Knight (94%), Wall-E (97%), The Wreslter (96%), Revolutionary Road (76%), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (78%), Rachel Getting Married (79%), Milk (93%), Burn After Reading (77%), W (55%).

Now let’s look at those percentages – according to Rotten Tomatoes, there are 220 films “better” than my favorite film of last year, Synecdoche, New York (among them, by the way, is High School Musical 3 – are you kidding me!) Does that mean that I’m on crack for loving that film so much (shut up Jen!) No, what it means is that Synecdoche, New York was a divisive film. Some loved it, some hated it, and so simply looking at a Tomatometer score doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about the film.

What I’m essentially saying is that Rotten Tomatoes and other sites like it are useful as tool, and only that. You want to know if you should go see Knowing or I Love You Man this weekend – check the Tomato rating. Knowing has a 24, I Love You Man has a 77, so you’re probably safer to take I Love You Man. I use it sometimes to either raise or dampen my enthusiasm before seeing a film. If there is a film that I’m really looking forward to, and it scores a 30, I lower my expectations. If there is a film I wasn’t looking forward to, and it scores an 80, then I raise them. It works out fine.

The problem comes when people use the Tomatometer and ONLY the Tomatometer to try and figure out what movie to see. These are the same people who will click on Roger Ebert’s website and see that he gave Knowing 4 stars and Monsters vs. Aliens 2.5, and go with Knowing, simply because the number was higher. These ratings are poor substitute for ACTUAL film criticism.

I have often felt that a critics “rating” on a film is the most useless part of their review. I still give out ratings, because I’ve gotten used to it, but from the most part, you can take my rating off, and it wouldn’t change anything in the review itself. The important part of what a critic feels about a movie is not WHAT he feels, but rather WHY.

In the coming weeks, I plan on devoting one of these columns in full to Roger Ebert, but let’s use him as an example. Recently, people have started to question whether Ebert has gone “soft” as he seems to hand out 4 star reviews to practically every film. Two of his most inexplicable recent examples were for the aforementioned Knowing and for Lakeview Terrace last year. If you were to look at the numbers on Rotten Tomatoes and see that only 24% of critics liked Knowing, and only 33% liked Lakeview Terrace, you may start thinking that Ebert has lost his mind. How could he possibly love these movies that much, when everyone else hated them. For that, you need to go and read his reviews. While I disagree with Ebert on both of these films, you cannot say that he didn’t arrive at his opinions honestly. He quite clearly explains in both reviews why he loved the movie as much as he did, and he does cite reasons why. We could argue that Ebert simply gave great reviews to two filmmakers that he has admired in the past (Alex Proyas, who made Dark City, also made Knowing, and Neil Labute, who made In the Company of Men, made Lakeview Terrace). But then again, Ebert wasn’t very kind to Proyas’ I, Robot and I like to think had Ebert been healthy, he would have trashed LaBute’s The Wicker Man along with everyone else. Ebert isn’t wrong in his opinion on either film, any more than I am right. We both engaged with the films in question, and came away with different impressions. In short, what worked for him, didn’t work for me. Reading the reviews, I was left with the sense that we’d have to agree to disagree. He argues his case so well, that you know you won’t convince him he’s wrong.

The problem comes when people use only these sites, and nothing else, to determine what is a good movie and what isn’t. There is a connection, however casual, between the rise in these sites, and the decline in the number of films critics out there. The number of distinct voices is gradually shrinking, and that’s a bad thing. I may not always like Armond White, but I like the fact that every week he gets a venue to decry the death of movies and the idiocy of film critics. Ebert is, truth be told, not what he once was, but he is still invaluable. In short, while these sites are a useful tool, that’s all they are. They more we rely on them, the less we rely on actual critics, which of course, makes sites like Rotten Tomatoes all the more useless. When there are only 10 movie critics left, who the hell will care about an aggregate result?

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