Rotten Tomatoes is shutting down pre-release comments on films in a bid to go after trolls

Article by Paul Donoughue /
ABC News /
February 28, 2019 /
Click here to view original /

A lot of people seem to really hate films they have not seen.

Why? It’s a question Hollywood has been thinking about for some time, due largely to the existence of the movie review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes.

This week, after years of orchestrated attacks, the site’s owners decided to ban people from commenting about or reviewing films that had not yet made it to cinemas.

It’s part of a bigger issue that touches on Hollywood’s love of the franchise (think Star Wars, Marvel, etc) and its efforts — applauded by some, hated by others — to make movies feature more women and non-white actors.

What is Rotten Tomatoes and what has it done?

The site, which gets millions of visitors a month worldwide, aggregates the reviews of professional film critics to come up with a percentage score, what it calls its Tomatometer. (For example, Oscar winner Green Book has a 79 per cent rating; Bohemian Rhapsody is at 60 per cent).

But it also combines the ratings of regular film lovers. It’s this part that has caused controversy.

Rotten Tomatoes said this week it was getting rid of its Want To See percentage scores, which had let people vote and comment on how keen they were on films that had not yet been released. It is often tied to a film’s Audience Score, the golden figure when it comes good or bad on the site.

This move came in the wake of backlash against Captain Marvel, the first of the popular Marvel cinematic universe films to feature a female lead (actress Brie Larson).

The Rotten Tomatoes page for the movie, which comes out next month, was bombarded with negative comments — what is known as “review bombing” — many of which criticised the film harshly for its perceived foray into identity politics.

One called it “SJW nonsense” (that’s social justice warrior). Many others were deleted by Rotten Tomatoes but, according to a screenshot posted to Twitter, included phrases like “SJW propaganda film”.

Others attacked Larson, with one calling her a “man-hating feminazi” — likely a response to an interview earlier this month in which she talked about wanting to use her platform to make the film industry more diverse.

These kinds of comments and down-votes are not a trivial matter in Hollywood. Love it or loathe it, Rotten Tomatoes is influential. One study found 50 per cent of regular movie fans check the site frequently.

Is this kind of trolling of films common?

It has definitely happened before, and Rotten Tomatoes has been dealing with the issue for some time.

Last year, there was a concerted effort to target the Rotten Tomatoes page of Black Panther, the Marvel film featuring a largely black cast, before it was released.

Facebook was forced to remove an event titled Give Black Panther a Rotten Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes, which was created by a group called Down With Disney’s Treatment of Franchises and its Fanboys.

Rotten Tomatoes later said that “while we respect our fans’ diverse opinions, we do not condone hate speech”. Facebook made similar references to the group not adhering to its rules on hate speech.

In 2017, that same Facebook group had targeted Stars Wars: The Last Jedi. It received a swag of negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.

One of them, according to The Verge, said:

One of the film’s stars, the Vietnamese-American actress Kelly Marie Tran, later deleted most of her Instagram posts, reportedly after receiving abuse.

That all followed what happened after director Paul Feig decided to make an all-female reboot of Ghostbusters.

“I’ve been hit with some of the worst misogynistic stuff you’ve ever seen in your life over the last two years,” he told a producers’ conference around the time of the film’s release.

One of the stars of that film, Leslie Jones, briefly left Twitter because of the abuse she was receiving.

What’s driving this intense reaction?

Hollywood loves reboots and franchises right now. All your favourite titles are getting sequels or being remade.

But many fans object to popular brands like Star Wars or Ghostbusters being reimagined with a different feel, said Dr Lauren Rosewarne, a senior lecturer in political science and gender studies at the University of Melbourne.

“Misogynistic trolling disproportionately impacts remakes and reboots of material that some men have decided are sacrosanct, be it because these uber-fans considered the earlier version as seminal in their childhood and don’t want it altered, or because the franchise is one that they deem sacred and untouchable,” she said.

Dr Rosewarne, whose forthcoming book is called Sex and Sexuality In Modern Screen Remakes, said reviews of a film nobody had seen were just protest votes about its existence, and likely tied to a perception — often among men — that the filmmakers were slaves to gender politics.

“Having a woman at the helm of a film in a genre they exhibit possessive ownership over is considered extremely offensive, thus motivating their trolling,” she said.