We live in a world where it seems like more time is devoted to talking about movies than actually watching them. Despite strong showings from films like Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming and Dunkirk, this year’s summer box office is projected to be the lowest in about a decade. And filmmakers are looking at the problem and doing what is necessary to rectify it. Just kidding! They’re blaming the internet.
Well, that does kind of make sense. I mean torrenting and streaming aren’t small problems for filmmakers. I’m kidding again! (Man, I am on a roll). Odds are you probably know that companies like Sony are calling out Rotten Tomatoes for ruining their films’ box office performances. Bad movies used to have at least through their opening weekend to pull in viewers and money before attendance dropped off. It took time for word of mouth to spread, and odds were people were checking what one or two critics thought at most. Now, critical consensus is just a click away, and everyone knows what a dumpster fire your movie is before it opens. “Oh no! What about The Emoji Movie’s bottom line?” I hear you cry out in despair.
Yes, the animated ad exactly 0.001% of the population was looking forward to is one the faces of the movement against the aggregate review site. The “movie” sat at 0% in the week leading up to the “film’s” release. If you’re not familiar with how Rotten Tomatoes works, that means a whole 0% of its reviews were positive. But I’m going to throw out a random question. Is The Emoji Movie performing poorly? According to Box Office Mojo, the opening weekend gross was $24.5 million. Not great but its current lifetime gross has already broken $100 million in just a week. Those are bigger numbers than the entire run of the critically acclaimed Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, a kids’ flick that came out earlier this summer.
So, Rotten Tomatoes may not be as much of a box office killer as purveyors of crappy movies want you to think. It recalls the last time Rotten Tomatoes came under fire – way back in 2016. A scrappy group of cinephiles petitioned for the site to be taken down because of its unfair treatment of DC movies. The ridiculousness of this petition has been covered by many. But I bring it up because it illustrates how little impact a Rotten Tomatoes score can have on a movie. Suicide Squad, the Academy Award winning film, incited the petition. The flick ended up with a 25% approval rating, but it pulled in over $100 million its first weekend, ending up with a worldwide gross of more than $745 million.
A lot of people point out that Rotten Tomatoes isn’t really consistent. Staff evaluates whether a review is positive or negative. That means reviews that fall in a gray area of enjoying some things and disliking other things can go either way. It’s not scientific or mathematic. Normally, I’m all for ignoring science and math. I mean, I went to graduate school for English; math is basically my mortal enemy. Still, just checking how fresh or rotten a movie is probably shouldn’t be how people judge films. That number is a lot more arbitrary and subjective than most people think.
But if Suicide Squad and even The Emoji Movie can teach us anything, it’s that those scores maybe aren’t as effective as filmmakers think. Some people may be swayed, but films can find audiences despite negative reviews – be they dumb superhero fans or idiot children (by which I mean all children). And it isn’t like filmmakers haven’t struggled with how audiences tend to listen to critics’ opinions for years. Look at the case of David Manning. In the early 2000s, Manning gave very positive reviews to films like A Knight’s Tale, Vertical Limit, Hollow Man, and the Rob Schneider comedy The Animal.
The reviews were so glowing they got pulled for advertising copy. There were a couple problems, however. All those films were produced by Columbia. Oh, and David Manning did not exist. That’s right, the company created a fake film critic for the singular purpose of producing positive quotations for posters and commercials. And did I mention that Columbia is a Sony company? We’ve come full circle. It would be neat if we weren’t talking about how shitty filmmakers and companies can’t seem to own up to the fact that their films are shitty and people maybe don’t want to pay $13 to watch shit.
Despite the tidy circle I’ve created, this isn’t the only internet vs. the film industry news to happen recently. Rotten Tomatoes isn’t the only player on the interwebs being called out by filmmakers. YouTube, more specifically the channel CinemaSins, is also apparently ruining the art of cinema. On Aug. 15, CinemaSins released a video about Kong: Skull Island. It followed the channel’s “Everything wrong with __________ in ___ minutes or less” format and unsurprisingly counted things it saw as sin-worthy in the film. Well, someone really didn’t appreciate it. That someone was the film’s director, Jordan Vogt-Rogers.
Vogt-Rogers took to Twitter decrying the video and blaming it for ruining people’s perceptions of cinema. In a pretty insane number of tweets, Vogt-Rogers took to sinning the channel’s sins of Skull Island. I won’t deprive you of a link to the madness (although that’s not even all of it; there were two days of talking about CinemaSins, and very ironically, he criticizes the Skull Island video for being 18 minutes long). Now I saw Skull Island, mostly because I was at Disney World in the beginning of March and couldn’t get into a screening of Beauty and the Beast to save my life (True story!). It is an okay movie. I left the theater shrugging my shoulders and thinking it wasn’t a total waste of money. Although reflecting upon the film, I’m not surprised its director would get defensive. It’s a movie that’s trying so hard to be the Apocalypse Now of monster films (complete with references to Heart of Darkness with characters named Marlow and Conrad because the Vietnam-era setting was just too subtle) that I think I might have laughed out loud at the pretentiousness.
Vogt-Rogers believes he is making art, which is fine. He takes himself very seriously, which is also fine. But you know what isn’t meant to be taken seriously? CinemaSins. Vogt-Rogers writes that it seems like CinemaSins doesn’t understand artistic license and that they seem to have “an odd disdain of film.” He goes on to point out that the videos are not a joke or satire. I’ll give him the latter; I don’t think CinemaSins is satirical. But I think Vogt-Rogers is kinda, a little, totally, 100% wrong about the former. CinemaSins is a joke; it is comedic entertainment. Vogt-Rogers seems to have forgotten that even if you don’t think it’s funny, it is still actually a joke. Now, I like CinemaSins well enough but can admit most of the sins are bullshit. But, and it’s an important but,
they are mostly in the service of the show’s central conceit or, if you will, joke. CinemaSins is all about applying real world logic to movies because *gasp* it doesn’t usually hold up. Not all sins fit this mold but most do. It’s un-suspending of disbelief to take a moment to laugh about how people can’t run away properly or villains’ henchmen have terrible aim. I personally really like when they point out that movie newspapers are gibberish. What does that have to do with the quality of the movie? Everything…wait, I mean nothing. It is not actual criticism, and they don’t seem to be claiming it is. It may seem petty and mean, but it’s no pettier or meaner than taking to Twitter and writing that someone is “cocky,” “mean-spirited,” “milquetoast at best,” “half baked,” “lowest common denominator,” “poorly-written & poorly constructed,” “amateur hour,” “not just bad at what they do / contributing to the devolution of film criticism but lazy” and somehow like Trump (I’m not really sure how the last one works).
So, what was my point with bringing up both Rotten Tomatoes and CinemaSins. Well, I guess that everybody is using the internet wrong. Us laypeople need to stop relying on the internet to tell us how we should feel about a movie, especially if we don’t fully understand what we’re looking at. It’s totally fine to check this stuff out but it shouldn’t be how all cinematic decisions are made. Maybe it’s not great to insta-hate a dumb movie about a phone app, and maybe we should take a chance on a pretentious movie about a giant ape fighting giant lizards and Samuel L. Jackson. But more importantly, the industry needs to stop blaming the internet. They need to make better films, develop thicker skin, own up to their misfires and learn to take a joke. Or maybe just stay off the internet. Yeah, that might be more doable.