Rotten Tomatoes (rottentomatoes.com) should make a very simple, very make-able change: add a third percentage to its two banner percentages. Alongside the big old TOMATOMETER and AUDIENCE SCORE (for any given film), Rotten Tomatoes should add a HISTORICAL TOMATOMETER (or, more playfully, FRIED GREEN TOMATOMETER) to indicate what the RT score of a film would have been when the film actually came out.
You might think that this suggestion would be obvious, but go ahead and google the key terms, and you’ll see very few articles/reddit threads about RT’s historical amnesia. Mostly, writers/commenters criticize Rotten Tomatoes for other reasons, like the fact that it reduces every review to a binary number (100 or 0, and then averages those numbers to come up with a rating), or the fact that you can’t actually say that Movie A, with an 83%, is better than Movie B, with a 73%, or how RT pales in comparison to Metacritic or other sites, or a breakdown of RT’s criteria for who gets to be included in the Tomatometer (and the Top Critics besides). Yes, yes, all very well covered, which is why I’m not wasting your time repeating how others have, ahem, wasted your time.
People don’t realize RT’s ahistoricism. For example, this person, writing for U.C. Santa Barbara (not a bad school at all), wrote…
Take “Forrest Gump,” which until recently I had believed to be universally beloved. It was a powerful experience the first time I saw it, and it’s a movie I’ll never forget. Well, “Forrest Gump” scored 71 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. “Top Critics Tomatometer,” with a large number of its contemporary critics feeling that it made American history too cutesy. To put that in perspective, “Forrest Gump” was sixteen percentage points lower than “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”…
…but he’s wrong: it’s because Gump fell short with contemporary critics AND later critics that it carries the 71% score he bemoans. Had he looked more closely at the actual reviews (RT links to its Tomatometer-worthy reviews, at the page’s bottom) and their dates, he would have been less confused. And it’s not only people like him that need the fix I’m suggesting; it’s also Slate’s Aisha Harris, who is often considered a prestigious voice on film, this month blithely quoting an article about Robert DeNiro’s falling RT scores without once questioning the metrics behind said scores. It’s also true that Wikipedia articles tend to quote RT scores as proof that critics loved a film upon its release. Even 538, as respected as anyone, quotes RT scores as statistical evidence. Walt Hickey at 538 claims to be working on a “larger story about Rotten Tomatoes”; consider this my letter to him about the site’s ahistoricism.
The only writer I could find who mentioned RT’s review-date myopia was Landon Palmer at Film School Rejects, who wisely wrote about Vertigo being controversial in its own time, and acquiring a better reputation as time has passed. Well done, Mr. Palmer, but you failed to suggest a fix. I’m less into problem-indicating and more into problem-solving.
Personally, I love knowing that a given film was lambasted in its time, but has come to acquire the status of a “cult classic.” Such films include The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Evil Dead, The Big Lebowski, and a hundred others you might name. Seeing their historical (or Fried Green) score next to their Tomatometer score would be seeing the actual past next to our perception of the past, and that’s a beautiful, even important thing. See, I’m no radical; I’m not telling RT to change anything about its Tomatometer. I’m just talking about adding a third metric. This is the era of big data, and we’re all relying on and even fetishizing percentages in a way that our parents, at our age, never did. Rather than try to stop that train from leaving the station (too late), I say just provide one more percentage, one that comes from the film’s year, not the later rose-colored glasses.
I’ve known about this problem for some time, but it came to a head for me when I saw that 1984’s Ghostbusters boasts a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. 97%?!?! These days, maybe four or five films earn that high a Tomatometer score in a given year, and these are then considered the top Oscar contenders for Best Picture. I was 13 in 1984, and I can tell you that Ghostbusters was not on any pundit’s short list for a potential Best Picture nomination.
As you are probably aware, if you’ve read this far, at this moment Ghostbusters is something of a feminist football, with stupid sexist fanboys claiming “stop ruining my childhood” and “downvoting” it on IMDb – IMDb being a metric that randos can influence, unlike the official Tomatometer. Here’s the thing: as someone who has seen both the 1984 and the 2016 versions of Ghostbusters, it’s kinda killing me that macho misogynists can point to the disparity of the original’s 97% and the current film’s 73% as “proof” that the old one was better. So I went back to be sure that I remembered the 1984 reviews correctly. Here are some of them:
Gene Siskel wrote in the Chicago Tribune:
The rest of “Ghostbusters” is less successful than it should be. Pumped up with special effects, it eventually degenerates into a mindless sound and light show that could have appeared in many other, lesser movies. This film is a whole lot funnier when its charapters are talking to and past each other than when everybody is standing around in awe of not particularly awesome special effects.
Ghost Busters is a lavishly produced ($32 million) but only intermittently impressive all-star comedy lampoon of supernatural horror films.
Richard Schickel loved it in Time. Joseph Gelmis in Newsday gave the film 3 out of 4 stars. Peter Travers loved it in People, saying “Ghostbusters is irresistible nonsense.” Kathleen Carroll was mixed in the NY Daily News:
This is one horror movie that is played strictly for laughs and, while the direction could have been more spirited, audiences are likely to have a good time watching the devil-may-care Murray demonstrate his slightly demonic comic abilities.
Roger Ebert gave it a modest thumbs-up in the Chicago Sun-Times:
“Ghostbusters” is one of those rare movies where the original, fragile comic vision has survived a multimillion-dollar production. It is not a complete vindication for big-budget comedies, since it’s still true, as a general rule, that the more you spend, the fewer laughs you get.
Janet Maslin was “rotten” in the New York Times, writing:
There is more attention to special effects than to humor. There are also far too many loose ends in the screenplay, since few of the supporting characters wind up having much to do with one another…it’s another of the messy, near-miss films in which [Murray] seems to specialize.
I can’t really link to Pauline Kael, but it’s easy for you to type “5001 nights at the movies” into google books and then search “ghostbusters,” which will take you to her thumbnail reviews of Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters 2. She writes, about the first one, “nobody else has much in the way of material, and since there’s almost no give-and-take among the three men, Murray’s lines fall on dead air.” She also calls Ghostbusters 2 “more enjoyable than the first Ghostbusters.” That’s rotten. A lot more contemporary quotes are here.
With all that, I highly doubt that the historical score would have been any higher than 73%.…and yet its Tomatometer score is 97%. That’s because most of the Tomatometer-worthy reviews of 1984’s Ghostbusters come from after 1984. Slimer-colored glasses, no doubt, particularly because half of the later reviewers grew up on the cartoon version, which, as a cheaply produced Saturday-morning cartoon, is typically worse than the 1984 film – making the original film seem better in retrospect.
(If Rotten Tomatoes had taken my suggestion earlier, then we could have a Fried Green Score right next to the Tomatometer score as “proof” that the sexist fanboys are dummies and need to get out of their parents’ basement to do more than just play Pokemon Go.)
As Hollywood continues to rely more and more upon sequels and remakes and pre-existing product, this problem is going to arise more often. Perhaps a convenient cut-off might be the turn of the century. After the year 2000 or so, we can trust reviewers not to have changed their minds (much); before that, we need a little perspective.
As a general rule, the internet is not only ahistorical, but also teleological: all history has been leading to the present moment, and our current judgment about everything is better than it’s ever been. And this is the same country that is two steps away from making Donald Trump its President? The internet has an annoying way of making What Is into What Always Was. Especially when it comes to, say, racism or sexism, corporations have a counter-incentive for you to find their previously sexist/racist policies, and so you’re not going to find such policies and statements without quite a bit of digging. In this environment it’s getting harder to remember that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton only came out in favor of same-sex marriage in 2012.
Rotten Tomatoes, which probably never expected to be as trusted as it is, can’t solve the entire internet’s ahistoricism and teleology, but it can do more than it’s doing. Just add that third percentage, guys. Right now the site’s vast concatenation of new and old scores is like a reverse-vortex of random zombies rolling into New York City without rhyme or reason. And when you require order to be restored, who you gonna call?