If Siskel & Ebert were alive today, the duo would be lost in a sea of digital thumbs.
The most notable movie scribes of the late 20th century made criticism cool with their signature stamp of approval.
Thumbs up or thumbs down. Simple. Effective. Iconic.
In honor of my upcoming book, I made a list of beloved movies that got a thumbs down from Siskel or Ebert or both: https://t.co/WxoUPPFLGM
— Matt Singer (@mattsinger) September 7, 2023
Now, with blogs, podcasts and news outlets sharing reviews from across the cultural spectrum, the pair might struggle to stand out in the crowd.
They’d be just two more critics at RottenTomatoes.com, the web’s most powerful film review aggregator. [Note: This critic is an RT contributor]
No more thumbs. It’s just “Fresh” or “Rotten.” And when “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” got crushed by early RT-shared reviews, the film’s poor box office “destiny” became inevitable.
Some look askance at the “thumbs” update, as well as the site in general. That includes a recent investigation by Vulture.com that cast plenty of shade on the platform.
Part of the story has teeth.
Vulture reveals efforts by a PR company to game the RT system, paying critics for more favorable film reviews.
While most film-PR companies aim to get the attention of critics from top publications, Bunker 15 takes a more bottom-up approach, recruiting obscure, often self-published critics who are nevertheless part of the pool tracked by Rotten Tomatoes. In another break from standard practice, several critics say, Bunker 15 pays them $50 or more for each review.
That’s important to expose for film fans, but it’s something RT has little control over.
Full disclosure: This critic has been reviewing movies for more than 20 years and has never had an exchange with a film PR professional who offered money or suggested holding negative reviews. Not once.
Other issues are more troubling for the site, like how comic book movies get an early boost from geek-friendly critics.
This doesn’t mean RT lacks value, or that consumers should dismiss its findings. Breitbart News’ John Nolte suggested the media attacks on RT are attempts to distract us from low-quality films of the modern age.
The goal is to pressure the site into changing its template into something that will better serve the studios. Disney doesn’t want to see another $430 million Indiana Jones and the Dial of Disney Grooms Kids torpedoed at Rotten Tomatoes. Disney wants glowing reviews, and this assault on Rotten Tomatoes—who will undoubtedly acquiesce—is only the beginning.
Why not follow these five tips to make the most of the RT experience?
Expect the Bias
The vast, vast majority of film critics lean to the Left, and they make no bones about it. So when a conservative reads RT for the latest reviews they’ll find that bias embedded in most reviews.
For all RT’s efforts to diversify its critic lineup, it never involves the industry’s bias against conservatives and Christians.
So if a movie like “Sound of Freedom,” which became a culture war totem despite itself, gets good reviews it means something extra. It bullied past the baked-in bias and may be even better than the RT score suggests.
That also means right-leaning documentaries and faith-based films will be graded on a curve. Downward.
Assess Geek Movies with Caution
The Vulture piece correctly susses out a cultural issue within RT. MCU-style movies often get higher scores from the early critics. It’s an enthusiasm issue, something the studios lean into with various embargo rules.
- Embargo dates dictate when a critic can publish a review after the press screening.
Act accordingly. Wait until the film’s release date to better assess what a geek-friendly movie is truly worth. Spend your movie dollars accordingly.
Dig Deeper into the Results
Some films snag very fresh review tallies on the site without generating Oscar buzz. Why? They’re solid, nothing more.
The black/white standard set by Siskel & Ebert (thumbs) is replicated by RT (Fresh/Rotten), but that often doesn’t capture the full story. “Top Gun: Maverick” famously racked up sky-high RT scores and deserved them.
Other films deliver a good but unspectacular experience and the full reviews reflect that. Don’t go by the RT score alone. Read a few “fresh” reviews to get a better feel for the movie in question.
Yes, we live in an age of short-attention spans, but reading several reviews before spending upwards of $20 on a movie ticket isn’t too much to ask.
Toggle Between Top Critics … and the Rest
Not all critics are created equal.
Some have worked the beat for decades, dedicated to steering audiences to the best of the best. Others grabbed a cool URL or YouTube channel name and fire off reviews they hope will get the most attention.
It’s why RT separates “Top Critics” from the overall critic community.
That doesn’t mean the lesser-known critics aren’t worth reading. It just means they may have a more modern take on film criticism while being less beholden to the critical pack mentality.
Get to Know Your Critics
Why did America love Siskel & Ebert? They were funny and pugnacious, setting a standard that could be trusted over time. They didn’t change their views based on cultural trends or the latest “hot” star or director.
Their consistency, and passion, made them a trustworthy barometer for film fans. That forged their curious fame, not ratings gimmicks or TV battles.
It’s fine to scan RT for a general sense of a film. It can give us a preview of future awards season winners, too. It won’t matter without accumulating a short list of trustworthy critics.
That’s the best way to leverage Critic Nation. Read more reviews. Find out which voices align with yours.
It’s never a perfect fit, but after a while using RT can lead you to scribes who have the best chance of steering you to quality fare.