I’m by no means an apologist for stupid corporate decisions. When a company or brand does something wrong their motives and actions should be questioned in the hope it changes course. It’s why I was heartened to see the quick turnaround on the blackout of the Los Angeles Times by Disney a couple weeks ago.
The latest kerfluffle to rock the entertainment world was the revelation earlier this week that Rotten Tomatoes would withhold its aggregate score for Justice League until Thursday morning, despite reviews being public before that. The tactic was publicly explained as being one to create some buzz and anticipation for the new Facebook Live show the site was launching, offering a unique reason for people to check it out.
The problem is that most everyone saw shadier reasons for the movie. Hollywood’s big studios have been warring with Rotten Tomatoes for years, a conflict that’s only intensified in the wake of recent periods of falling ticket sales, a trend studios lay at least in part at Rotten Tomatoes’ feet. They claim that poor – “Rotten” – scores for expensive movies have contributed to box office failures, undermining massive marketing campaigns and leading to big corporate losses.
Adding to the skepticism that this wasn’t just an effort to keep a negative score out of public view for as long as possible is that Warner Bros., the studio behind Justice League, owns Rotten Tomatoes. So, it seemed, corporate strings were being pulled to keep one division from materially impacting another.
I agree the optics are bad. As David Ehrlich points out, the move by RT from dumb aggregator to a content producer is problematic at best, especially given the additional relationship with ticket seller Fandango. If you have a vested interest in getting people to buy movie tickets – much less two such conflicts – you can’t exactly be trusted to provide objective editorial opinions or freely share information.
My perspective is that this is simply a really bad idea that was poorly executed, not signs of intent to completely squash film criticism. RT needed something to create some tune-in buzz for its new show and the Justice League Tomatometer score was something everyone was going to be watching for, so it wasn’t a hard call. Having been involved in more than one corporate editorial feature in my career, I get the thinking but realize someone should have been pointing out some obvious issues. It’s a situation they need to learn from.
That being said, if RT wants to establish itself as a content producer it’s going to have to address the financial issues that are going to hang over its head on an ongoing basis. It will need to establish clear editorial guidelines and standards that are clear to the public or suspicion will follow it everywhere. Companies have their own blogs and social profiles and many are launching unbranded (though clearly labeled) print magazines that cover topics related to their industries. But if Ford tomorrow bought Edmunds and suddenly negative reviews of every Taurus on the site was hidden from view, eyebrows would legitimately be raised.
I may not agree with Ehrlich in this specific case but I do with the larger point that’s made. The threat to film criticism is the same one that’s facing the media world on all fronts: Independent voices are being silenced as the result of ownership consolidation and precedents that infringe on free speech. When Joe Ricketts can blithely shut down a massive blog network he owns because he disapproves of its mission or Peter Thiel can kill another network because it tweaked his nose on occasion, we all suffer. When one company owns the creation of media, its distribution, and its criticism, that’s a bad situation whether we’re talking about movies or any other industry.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.