So you’re young, and you like movies. Well, most everyone likes movies. But let’s say you like movies more than the average person. You’re a fan. This series is for you. In last week’s entry, I wrote about how finding a trustworthy film critic can turn you on to new, original movies you might otherwise miss. In this week’s entry, I’m going to write about how you, as a young fan of cinema, should take the rating you see on sites like Rotten Tomatoes with a grain of salt.
The Critical Binary
Rotten Tomatoes, the near-ubiquitous and ever-growing movie and tv review aggregator, perpetuates what I call the critical binary. Put simply, this is the idea that a film can only be classified as liked (fresh) or disliked (rotten). But movies are such complicated things, made up of so many pieces and moments both good and bad, that a binary system isn’t just a bad fit — it’s probably the worst possible method to rate movies.
When a critic submits a review to Rotten Tomatoes, they must adhere to this binary by choosing whether their review falls into the Fresh or Rotten category. This process gives us the Tomatometer score, which works like all the stuff you had to do in grade school: 59% or lower is a failing or “rotten” score.
But movies aren’t algebra quizzes. If a movie gets a 51% Tomatometer score, that means more than half the critics that submitted reviews would rate the film positively. That’s statistically significant. But by calling that same movie Rotten (a very cruel adjective for a site that aggregates the opinions of others), Rotten Tomatoes indulges in the same kind of sensationalistic tone that critics often use, which removes a sense of third-party neutrality. I’d much rather they’d just collect the data and display it in an attactive, simple way. Don’t sensationalize it.
Furthermore, the “accuracy” of a Tomatometer rating depends on upon how many critics have submitted reviews. Rotten Tomatoes tries to combat this by only allowing a film to receive a score once it’s gathered a certain number of reviews. But this number is too low. As I write this, the Tomatometer on the new Ninja Turtles movie stands at 22%, based on the opinions of nine critics. NINE. I don’t care how nine people I don’t know feel about a movie, whether they’re critics or not.
Here’s where science and stastistics step in. If you’re gathering data on something and your sample size is too small, the accuracy of that data goes out the window. How can you be sure you’ve reached a reliable consensus when you’ve only gathered the reviews of a handful of critics, a third of whom are prolific amateur hobbyists and one of whom is Rex Reed?
Then, you have to consider the fact that a Tomatometer score will change significantly in its first few days, and it will likely change significantly after the film’s first opening weekend as everyone chimes in.
So really, how accurate is the Tomatometer? Well, its math is thoroughly busted. It can’t tell you what you’re going to enjoy. By adhering to the critical binary, it doesn’t outright tell you what a film is really like. So please, eat your Rotten Tomatoes with that grain of salt I mentioned.
Oh, and rating systems like stars and letter grades aren’t much better. It’s all arbitrary, and critics tend to rate impulsively because deliberating over whether a movie is a 3 or a 3.5 is a waste of time. These people have word counts and deadlines to meet. Just remember — the number of stars or points they give a film isn’t as important to them as it is to you. Just read the review. That’s what they wanted you to see.
It’s All About Tastes, Anyway
If you’re on the fence about seeing a film (or buying a video game, or a book) and a critical reaction will tip you one way or another, maybe you shouldn’t be wondering whether it’s good or not. Maybe a more appropriate questions are “what kind of movie is it?” or “what’s the tone like?” or “what is it similar to?”
Those three questions alone, directed to the right person, will tell you a heck of a lot more about a movie than any kind of rating system, binary or otherwise. Read critics whose opinions you respect; critics who talk about cool new movies both big and small. Listen to your friends, too. They know you better than some film critic.
Funnily enough, there is someone most of us are familiar with who knows more about your tastes than any critic, and probably most of your friends. Who might this be?
Your friendly Netflix account, of course.
Despite how Netflix has become our favorite new form of low-engagement media consumption, it does the whole personal tastes thing pretty well. It learns and knows your biases with startling accuracy. I, like many of you probably did, raised an eyebrow the first time I was recommended an oddly specific category of streaming content. That’s why we were all fascinated by the whole “Genre Codes” thing when it hit the web last year. Want to see what lurks in Netflix’s “Deep Sea Horror” genre? I know I do! There’s a code for that.
What I like about Netflix’s recommendation system is that it uses data that is much more granular, allowing for a much greater degree of personalization that is equally creepy and hilarious. Do you like Stories Featuring a Strong Female Lead? Netflix knows it, based on what you’ve rated. I know I just bashed the hell out of star ratings, but putting them into your own Netflix account is a very different thing from a critic publishing one in a major publication. Trust me — rating the things you watch on Netflix will make it a much more enjoyable experience. Take the time. (Rate impulsively if you must.)
What’s more, Netflix’s taste algorithms also take critical acclaim into account. I’m not sure how they objectively judge a film’s critical acclaim, but there are currently 311 known codes for different types of films that are critically acclaimed. (i.e., Critically-acclaimed Emotional Dramas from the 1980s, Critically-acclaimed Goofy Cult Movies, the list goes on and on.)
Unfortunately, no system like this currently exists for new theatrical and VOD releases to you. That’s why you have to find and read critics you trust if you want to see good, new, original movies at the theater or on VOD. But once you’ve found a critic (or several) that you trust, you’ve read their glowing review for the next big thing and you’re hyped beyond measure… what then? That’s something that’ll just have to wait for next time.