THIS EDITORIAL IS 79% FRESH – How You’re (Probably) Using Rotten Tomatoes Incorrectly

There’s a conversation I’ve heard more than a few times that irks me. It goes something like this.

DUDE A: Man… I loved that movie! I can’t believe it only got 17% on Rotten Tomatoes!

DUDE B: I know, right? I’d give it at least 90%.

In the 90’s, Dude B would be telling Dude A that he gave the movie in question “2 thumbs up,” not realizing that’s not the way the system works. Legendary film critics Gene Siskel and Robert Ebert famously coined the term because they each had different views of what made a movie good. Most importantly, each of them only had one thumb to give.

Two thumbs meant that whether your taste was more like Siskel’s, Ebert’s, or somewhere in-between, you would probably like the movie. But what if your opinion seldom meshed either of theirs? This is where Rotten Tomatoes comes in!

Rotten Tomatoes does the same thing as Siskel and Ebert, but with a lot more thumbs. If a critic describes a movie as “above average,” RT counts that as a thumb up, or “Fresh” rating. For those who give star ratings or percentiles, RT only awards “Fresh” to films 60% or above (so 3/5 Stars or 2.5/4 Stars). This is a pretty fair assessment. If a critic said a movie was merely middle-of-the-road, why would you go out of your way to go see it? You’d want to know it’s at least better than average to bother.

So all of these reviewers get one vote each, and that number gets turned into a percentage, which is the film’s Tomatometer score. So what does it mean if a movie gets 100%? Must be one of the best movies ever, right? All the critics loved it!

Nope.

All that means is that 100% of the critics who saw the movie thought it was above average. Let’s imagine the film was only exceptional in its ability to marginally please a really wide audience. Every single critic could have given it a middling 3/5 star review and it still could have scored 100%.

The Tomatometer is broadly designed to tell you how likely you are not to be disappointed by a movie that you bother to go see.

Let’s say you love Adam Sandler movies and don’t agree with many critics, since the large majority of them pan his work. You loved Grown Ups, and so you go to Rotten Tomatoes to see what the consensus is on Grown Ups 2. You notice that it only has a 7% score. Screw the critics, right? Wrong! You’re just a tiny bit of research away from figuring out whether or not you would fall in that 7% of people who will enjoy the film!

So you take a look at the score for the original Grown Ups: 10%. You now already know that fewer people liked the sequel than its predecessor. Not a good sign, but you’re not going to give up hope yet! You look at the Critic Reviews section and click the filter for “Fresh.” You discover 16 critics who enjoyed it, giving such high praise as “7/10”, “B-” and “Don’t take it too seriously, and you’ll have a good time.”

Now you’ve found them. The 10% of critics who enjoy the same kinds of movies that you do. Click on their profiles! See what they rated other movies. If you agree with them on a lot, you may have just found an internet pal, professionally suited to recommend movies to you! Critics are, after all, paid to review movies based on their taste, not judge yours. Now you’ve found the ones you relate to.

Did they review Grown Ups 2? If so, did they like it, or did they call it an unfunny ripoff, derivative of Adam Sandler’s greater works? If it’s the latter, you just saved yourself $15 and a couple hours of your life. But maybe they really liked some other movies that are out, so now you just have to decide whether or not to see R.I.P.D or The Lone Ranger instead!

The system might seem a tad complicated if you’re not super familiar with it, but it’s pretty easy once you get the hang of it. Use Rotten Tomatoes correctly, and you’ll soon find a swath of folks who like the same stuff as you!