I lived in Chicago from 1976 to 1980. During that time I discovered a little show on WTTW, the local PBS channel, called Sneak Previews. In the show, a couple of local film critics showed clips from recent movies and each gave their individual review of each movie. Those film critics, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, were in the early years of a show that, through more than 35 years, would go through a number of name changes, would eventually be syndicated to a nationwide audience, and would endure contract disputes, the death of Siskel and the serious illness to its other originator Ebert. People across the nation tuned in to find out if a movie they were thinking of seeing would get “two thumbs up”. Like Roman emperors at the coliseum, the box office fate of a movie might hinge on whether Siskel & Ebert gave a movie thumbs up or thumbs down. As a viewer, if a movie got a “two thumbs up” it landed on my mental list of movies I’d consider watching. If it got a “two thumbs down” it landed on my” don’t waste my time watching” list. But, Siskel & Ebert were competitors from rival Chicago newspapers, and, not surprisingly, they didn’t always agree about a movie. Some movies got a split decision. Siskel would give a “thumbs up” and Ebert would give a “thumbs down”, or vice versa. This left me in the quandary of having to choose which critic to put my faith in since there was no consensus opinion.
This brings me to Rotten Tomatoes. With no disrespect intended to Siskel & Ebert, or any other critic, Rotten Tomatoes is the concept of “two thumbs up” on steroids. The website aggregates the opinions of critics from around the globe. Instead of giving a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down”, critics label a movie as “Fresh” or “Rotten”. Instead of two critics, a widely distributed movie might garner up to 300 critic reviews. Rotten Tomatoes includes reviews only from critics who have been certified by film critic associations or writing guilds. In addition, they designate some of those critics as “top critics”, well-respected critics writing for newspapers or national magazines. In fact, Roger Ebert was one of those “top critics” before his death. If a given movie has been reviewed by at least 40 critics, including at least 5 “top critics”, and 75% of those critics designate the movie as “Fresh”, then the movie earns Rotten Tomatoes top designation of being “Certified Fresh”. If less than 60% of the critics rate the movie as “Fresh”, then the movie is designated as “Rotten”. Movies in between, for the most part, are designated as “Fresh”.
I have a lot of respect for film critics. All of the other movie recommender websites that I use rely on feedback from moviegoers after they’ve seen the movie. Movie critics form their opinion, most of the time, before the movie has been released to the general public. They don’t know whether it will be a blockbuster at the box office or a flop. They rely on their expertise without the benefit of feedback from the viewing public. In my next article, I’ll get into how effective Rotten Tomatoes has been in leading me to movies that I “really like”. For now, I’ll just say it’s amazing how often good film critics get it right. Two Thumbs Up!
Beginning with this article, I am going to attempt to keep a regular schedule for my posts – two a week, Monday and Thursday. In addition, I plan on updating my movie lists by each Wednesday. Look for my next article, Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB and The Wisdom of Crowds to be posted March 10th.