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Citizen Kane Shows Just How Broken Rotten Tomatoes Is (Can It Be Fixed?)


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Citizen Kane has lost its perfect Rotten Tomatoes score, with an 80-year-old negative review causing it to drop from 100% to 99%, but that mostly just shows the problems with the website’s rating system. It was noted by Uproxx that the 2017 children’s movie sequel, Paddington 2, was now the top ranked movie ahead of Citizen Kane (1941), which has been regarded by many film critics and the American Film Institute as the greatest film of all time. Though it became a conversation point because of more widely regarded films dropping in ratings, Paddington 2 has actually had the best-reviewed spot on Rotten Tomatoes since its release.

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However, the Uproxx article and the current Rotten Tomatoes discussion disregard that several other films share a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The 100% rated list includes movies like 12 Angry Men (1957), Robin Hood (1938), Before Sunrise (1995), Frankenstein (1931), The Terminator (1984), Toy Story (1995) and, you guessed it, Paddington 2. The only reason Paddington 2 is the top movie on Rotten Tomatoes is by virtue of having the most reviews congregated for the score than the other 100% club movies. Every other movie on the list has over 40 reviews to give it a more accurate summation, but it still is an extremely small size when attempting to reflect the feelings of the movie-going population and film professionals. Considering there were much fewer reviewers in the 1940s and 50s when most of the movies on the Rotten Tomatoes 100% list were released, it’s not an honest metric because they could just as well have the same or better consensus.

RELATED: Mank True Story: How William Randolph Hearst Reacted To Citizen Kane

Rotten Tomatoes launched in 1998, creating a platform where American audiences could access movie reviews from a wide array of critics. Just as in the olden days when movie-goers used newspaper and magazine publications featuring critics’ reviews to get a feel for an upcoming movie’s worth, Rotten Tomatoes is often used by fans as an indication to see the movie or not. The website has also had much controversy in recent years due to stark critic and audience score differences, a supposed manipulation of scores for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and the demographics of the reviewers. Even though the website remains a popular way for Americans to rate movies, read reviews, and understand how a movie has been received in a surface manner, Rotten Tomatoes has a flawed system that doesn’t give a completely honest representation of a movie’s importance and quality.

How Rotten Tomatoes Works

Rotten Tomatoes uses a “Tomatometer” that gets its moniker from how early open theaters for plays would have audiences exhibit their dissatisfaction with the show by hissing, booing, heckling, and throwing food and scraps. Over the years, the stereotypical object thrown to represent dissatisfaction became a tomato. Unfortunately, the tomato only represents a critic’s opinion on the website. For audience opinion, Rotten Tomatoes scores vary from spilled popcorn (poorly regarded) to a full popcorn bucket (highly regarded), which may be a way of indicating the audience score is not as important to the website as critics.

The Tomatometer for critics ranges from rotten to fresh to certified fresh. Movies and TV shows receive a Tomatometer score on the website once it has at least five published reviews. A rotten movie is one whose consensus of positive reviews is below 60%. If at least 60% of critic reviews for a movie or tv show are positive, Rotten Tomatoes indicates it as fresh. The next tier of positive regard, certified fresh, means a movie consistently has a score of 75% or higher, has at least 5 reviews from Rotten Tomatoes’ top critics, has at least 80 reviews for a wide release movie, and at least 40 reviews for a limited release. For TV shows, Rotten Tomatoes only considers the ratings per season for certified fresh, and the show’s season must have at least 20 reviews.

Also, the scores given by Rotten Tomatoes don’t actually represent the average rated score given by critics, but its consensus of either positive or negative review - no specific numerical rating attached. The benefit of the doubt for the scores goes to movies whose reviews can be interpreted at positive, whatever level of positivity from “meh” to “visionary” that may be. Certain movies have high critical consensus, but the few reviewers that have a certain disdain for the movie hold more weight for the Rotten Tomatoes rating than the higher scores. For example, if there are 16 reviews of a movie and 12 of them give percentage-based ratings of 100% and 4 critics give it a review that even slightly leaning toward negative, it will have a rating of 75% - essentially an all-or-nothing positivity indicator for each contributing review.

RELATED: How Snyder Cut's Rotten Tomatoes Score Compares To Justice League 2017

The Problem With Rotten Tomatoes Scores

Rotten Tomatoes is not a perfect system and is often disregarded by critics as a true reflection of a movie’s success, and as such, every film review and rating should be taken with a grain of salt when indicating a movie’s objective significance. An example of the flawed rating system is Space Jam, one of the most widely acclaimed sports movies starring Michael Jordan, which Rotten Tomatoes has rated with a low score of 49%. Considering a new sequel starring Lebron James is coming out 25 years later, its popularity and cultural impact are not accurately reflected by the Rotten Tomatoes score.

The scores also often reflect the more immediate reactions from its release, generally not taking into account how it has aged in the cultural milieu over time. One example is critically acclaimed director Wes Anderson’s feature film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. With a low critic score of only 56%, it is Anderson’s only directed movie with a rotten score. Nonetheless, the movie has gained a cult following with an audience score reflective of his other films at about 82%, and is his only film with an audience score higher than the critic score. This disparity exhibits either a disconnect between reviewers and audiences or a system that needs to better account for how a piece of media ages over time.

Another big issue is the stakes that Rotten Tomatoes and its owner, Fandango, may hold in a movie or its studio. For example, Rotten Tomatoes has been severely criticized for boosting the critics' scores of Disney blockbuster movies before their release, possibly as a way to get a big opening weekend before adjusting to a more representative outlook. Rotten Tomatoes was under fire for withholding the reviews and scores of Justice League, which was seen as a conflict of interest because DC Universe movies typically don’t perform extremely well, and Rotten Tomatoes is owned by the same head company Warner Bros.

Why This Is An Issue For Movies

Consensus on movies in the cultural opinion is important for historical analysis of a movie’s significance, and the way in which Rotten Tomatoes inaccurately presents their quality is dangerous. It puts aside the importance of film critique and thoughtful analysis of a movie’s weight, messaging, and additional aspects that go into shaping a movie’s reception and significance. Nowadays, a movie-goer may simply launch Rotten Tomatoes, read a score of 55% on a new film, and completely disregard why and how a movie could reach such a score and if it's a true indicator of a movie’s value.

RELATED: Wrong Turn's Creator Wrote The Worst Reviewed Movie In Rotten Tomatoes History

Film criticism is important, and websites with problematic scoring systems like Rotten Tomatoes are undoing the brilliance of well-thought-out reviews by critics like Roger Ebert that have helped shape broadly recognized societal opinions on popular media. With the system drawn up by Rotten Tomatoes, the opinion of a few critics without any actual numerical score or explanation give more weight than a thoughtful critique or a representative audience consensus.

This issue was exemplified by Joker’s premiere in 2019, where its Rotten Tomatoes score after the Venice Film Festival was at 86% with nearly 50 reviews, but the website’s “top” few critics gave it a Tomatometer rating of only 45% without the website explaining the disparity. In reality, the difference was that the numerical scores were 8.6/10 to 7.1/10 which is a stark contrast to what Rotten Tomatoes’ more visual rating would have one believe. If general audiences were only taking into account the opinions of a few critics that Rotten Tomatoes believes are the best, Joker may not have had the wide acclaim and Oscar nominations it eventually received.

Rotten Tomatoes' flaws also contribute to not giving movies a chance if the website’s reviewers have a vendetta against the movie, such as certain toxic fandoms that troll a movie’s scoring to give it as low as possible, as seemingly happened with Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith's Rotten Tomatoes score. The angry opinions of a few who are invested in the immediate response of a movie may not be a safe way to indicate a movie’s overall quality and how it would be received by a wider variety of the population. But, if the scores are tainted by the few who early on trash it, a movie may not be able to recover if an early low Rotten Tomatoes score undeservedly turns away too many viewers.

How Rotten Tomatoes Can Be Better (& Fixed)

Another way for Rotten Tomatoes to improve is to engage with more film critics that come from diverse backgrounds. Most critics are older white men, whose taste in movies may not adapt alongside the culture and may not be able to understand the significance of a movie in a way that a movie’s intended audience would. Rotten Tomatoes could also find a way that combines the ratings for a movie by both professional critics and everyday movie-goers. A platform that gives critics and audiences alike a chance to contribute to a movie’s overall rating is important, as it adds a more representative opinion.

RELATED: Star Wars Prequel Rotten Tomatoes Scores Have Changed (A Lot) Over Time

It also needs to change from a positive-or-negative based percentage score to a comprehensive rating from each reviewer that is averaged. The movie app Letterboxd may be the solution to Rotten Tomatoes, where fans and critics hold the same weight in a movie’s rating, but top reviews are those that have the most “likes,” which generally come from professional critics with a larger following. Letterboxd gives users a 1 to 5-star rating scale with increments of .5 stars. This shows that if consensus on a film’s rating is high, like The Shawshank Redemption being IMDb's top-rated movie, it’s because the thousands of movie-goers who have watched it truly believe in its content and significance and can leave an explanation for why. When connecting back to the Citizen Kane and Paddington 2 debacle, the former currently has an aggregated score on Letterboxd of 4.22/5 from nearly 166,000 users, while the latter's score is 4.17/5 from only about 100,000 raters.

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