Rotten Tomatoes announces major changes to boost critic diversity

Critic aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes is undergoing a major overhaul of its certification process in an effort to bring more critics under its umbrella.

In a first wave changes being rolled out, the site will add podcasts and video movie reviews to its mix of scores instead of just written ones. Also, the site will relax its critic certification process to allow prolific reviewers who might not be full-time employees of a known publication to get their self-published reviews on the site. Rotten Tomatoes is considering tweaking other aspects of its platform as well.

The site has come under fire in recent years from filmmakers (who claim the site’s scores can be too simplistically harsh) and progressive pundits (noting critics on the site skew white and male). The site’s bosses insist that — despite the changes — there’s nothing wrong with past scores.

Below, EW spoke to Paul Yanover, president of Rotten Tomatoes’ parent company Fandango, and Jenny Jediny, the site’s critics relations manager, about the overhaul. 

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So what prompted these changes?

PAUL YANOVER: We’ve had Rotten Tomatoes as part of the Fandango family for a couple years, and we’ve been looking over the last 18 months to where do we go next. We’ve been expanding content on Rotten Tomatoes, both written and video. We’ve been looking at the product, as we relaunch the look and feel of Rotten Tomatoes. We brought on Jenny to lead critics relations — a completely new function; critics are the backbone of the Tomatometer itself. We wanted to take a fresh look at, who are the population of critics and how do we cultivate that population in a purposeful way. 

In the critic world, we started to look at the landscape of media and what is going on in this community of critics … we said, look, Rotten Tomatoes itself is 20 years old, it was created at a time when the internet was steeped in print journalism. Now we’re in a world where there’s a lot more opportunity to expand critic reach — in video, and in audio like podcasts. 

Another big change was in the composition of critics as they moved from full-time to freelance. You may be a freelance writer who gets reviews on a publication, but if you review and self-publish, we didn’t use your review — even though we know it’s a high-quality review because you work for a publication…

JENNY JEDINY: Historically, critics were more heavily approved through publications. We’re shifting our focus to approve more critics individually to help freelance critics become more visible. So in the past if you only contributed to the Tomatometer based on a specific publication that was Tomotometer approved and you didn’t get an assignment, your stories wouldn’t appear on the Tomatometer. By individually approving more critics we’re hoping to make them more visible because there’s a chance they will have more clout wherever they publish.

How will these changes manifest in the scores, which are such a big focus of movie fans? How will they change, presumably, moving forward?

PAUL YANOVER: The actual arithmetic of the score doesn’t change. It’s a tally of reviews that recommend the movie. One of the changes I’m excited about is, we have the expectation that a volume of reviews that compose a score will go up. We’re in a business where more is more. I much prefer the Tomatometer score include more reviews rather than fewer reviews so users feel like they’re getting the best product possible.

Surely there must have been something about the results of the current system that inspired this. If you thought “these scores are spot on and perfect,” it’s hard to imagine making major systemic changes only for volume. What do you think will be the overall impact on the scores themselves?

PAUL YANOVER: No, actually, volume does matter to us. The product is an aggregation product. The more we can aggregate, the better product we have. It doesn’t mean we don’t like our scores. We love our scores. We have an accurate, useful product. The thing we care about is the composition of the reviewers themselves. We recognize the world is always in change. We care about the diversity of those voices. We care about it reflecting the viewership. Many aspects about Rotten Tomatoes, subtle and not subtle, created perceived obstacles [to getting certified], so many critics didn’t apply. We had criteria that were tough for them to overcome. We had instances where critics don’t have enough access to film festivals or not being completely included on lists by the studios. Credentialing them as Tomatometer-approved actually raises their profile and gets them on the list. We’re also creating a fund to help critics get to places like Cannes and Sundance. It’s more critics, it’s a more diverse set of voices, and a broader set of platforms not relying so much on written word review.

There have been well-publicized instances in the past where a critic slammed movies like Lady Bird and The Dark Knight just to get the contrarian hate-clicks and bring down the high score. Presumably, this means that a lone critic will have less sway?

PAUL YANOVER:  The law of larger numbers will always reduce the impact of any single contributor to anything, so more reviews is more reviews. We’re not changing this because we’re trying to undo something or prevent something, but increase our supply and make a product that’s better.

“Fresh” still set at 60 percent I assume?

PAUL YANOVER: All the thresholds and methodology are not changing.

Will there be any changes to the fan scores, which have come under some criticism for being seemingly gamed by users?

PAUL YANOVER: Not any changes at present. But there are lots of things that are on our roadmap. It’s not what we’re focused on at this juncture.

Will what constitutes a “Top Critic” remain the same?

PAUL YANOVER: Currently yes. I would put it in the “ongoing” category as we continue to look at these products.

Whenever there’s a Rotten Tomatoes-centric story, some readers will always bring up your other corporate parent, Warner Bros., and accuse the site of being influenced by them. Does your corporate parent give any input into the way you handle specific titles or changes to the system like you’re making today?

PAUL YANOVER: No. Think of us operating like an independent news bureau. There’s no operational connection to any kind of corporate ownership.

Anything else in your changes that you think fans would be interested to know?

JENNY JEDINY: By adding more platforms, like video critics and podcasts for the first time, I think that will be exciting for users already in tune with that. I think this will be a great way for them to discover new critics. We’re also adding a critics spotlight where we’re focusing on new critics with a photo and bio and a link to their Rotten Tomatoes profile, plus we’ll be promoting that on social [media].

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