Sunday, July 23, 2017

Attack of the Rotten Tomatoes

This has been a fairly disappointing summer movie season if you're a fan of big franchises and expensive tentpoles.  There have been some notable busts at the box office over the past few months, including "Transformers: The Last Knight," and "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales," and would-be franchise starters "King Arthur," "Baywatch," and "The Mummy."  Even the hits are mostly coming in below expectations, like "Despicable Me 3," "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2," and "Cars 3."  Thanks to overseas audiences, most of these titles will make plenty of money, but there's an overall sense that the audience is losing interest with most of the big summer movies.

And who have the studios been blaming for this?  Rotten Tomatoes.  And by Rotten Tomatoes, they mean the critics who write bad reviews of these films.  There's been a much closer correlation between the Rotten Tomatoes aggregation scores for big tentpole films and how they've performed at the box office this year.  Specifically, if the Tomatometer is especially rotten, it takes a bite out of the bottom line.  Somehow, after years of terrible summer movies becoming blockbusters and earning oodles of money, the audiences have started paying attention to the critical notices, or at least the appearance of a general consensus.  That consensus is illusory, of course, as I've discussed on this blog before.  However, it's an illusion that has turned out to have some teeth.

Personally, my first instinct is to write this latest trend off as a coincidence or a fluke.  After so many years where the Tomatometer didn't make a lick of difference to box office results, it stands to reason there should be at least one year where they just happen to correlate more than usual.  I'd really love to believe that bad movies are finally getting their just desserts and will stop being rewarded, forcing the industry to make some changes, but I've grown cynical with age and experience.  I know the marketing and the release dates and so many other things have a bigger effect.  The recent gossip about Johnny Depp's finances probably had a bigger impact on the latest "Pirates" than a dozen bad reviews.

Then again, it's possible that the bad reviews are having more of an effect because the actions of the movie business have pushed audiences to become more receptive to them.  A good chunk of the bombs this year were from franchises that had arguably overstayed their welcome.  The most recent prior installments of "Transformers," and "Pirates" made lots of money, but nobody much liked them, and there wasn't much buzz for the new installments to begin with.  If audiences are already skeptical about a franchise, the bad or even middling reviews seem to hit harder.  Viewers that might be forgiving enough to see a third installment will run out of patience for a fifth one.  And keep in mind that good reviews remain powerless to affect much - before Labor Day, anyway.  

Theatrical exhibition is already suffering as attendance has been stagnant and the studios are contemplating other distribution options.  SVOD has reared its head again, though the likelihood of its implementation is far from clear.  A problem with pushing for more event movies is, of course, that the trip to the theater only becomes worth it if a movie is really an event.  And it's hard to sell the fifth or sixth installment of an aging franchise or the umpteenth reboot of an overly familiar story as an event.  Only one movie really seemed to be on everyone's must-watch list this summer, and it was "Wonder Woman," thanks to being the first major female-led superhero film in a decade.  And it was well-reviewed to boot.  

Rotten Tomatoes is the new scapegoat, however, which has both upsides and downsides.  The industry is paying attention to reviews, which is good.  However, some are calling for an end to critics' screenings and more embargoes to limit the perceived damage, which is bad.  I expect significant curtailing of high-numbered sequels in the future, which is good.  However, reboots and spinoffs will inevitably take their place, which is not so good.  As I type this, that "Bumblebee" spinoff is still being readied for next summer.


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