In 2017, Hollywood is struggling with declining ticket sales, increased competition from other media, botched international co-productions, and the threat of cultural irrelevance. But Brett Ratner has found the real target: review aggregators!
At last weekend’s Sun Valley Film Festival, the director of the Rush Hour trilogy went on the offensive against Rotten Tomatoes for popularizing the numerical rating of films. It’s an awkward, whiny rant largely about Batman v Superman, a film his company RatPac Entertainment co-financed.
Here’s the important part of his polemic:
“The worst thing that we have in today’s movie culture is Rotten Tomatoes. I think it’s the destruction of our business. I have such respect and admiration for film criticism. When I was growing up film criticism was a real art. And there was intellect that went into that. And you would read Pauline’s Kael’s reviews, or some others, and that doesn’t exist anymore. Now it’s about a number. A compounded number of how many positives vs. negatives. Now it’s about, ‘What’s your Rotten Tomatoes score?’ And that’s sad, because the Rotten Tomatoes score was so low on Batman v Superman I think it put a cloud over a movie that was incredibly successful.”
This is a poorly made case. I can’t tell if Ratner is being disingenuous, or just analytically bankrupt. In either case, I want to break down, point by point, the argument’s many flaws.
1. The worst thing that we have in today’s movie culture is Rotten Tomatoes. I think it’s the destruction of our business.
Batman v Superman received a 27 percent Rotten Tomatoes score. It made $900 million globally. It’s possible negative reviews prevented that number from being even higher, but claiming the rating “destroyed” the film, let alone the entire industry behind it, is demonstrably false.
2. When I was growing up film criticism was a real art. And there was intellect that went into that. And you would read Pauline’s Kael’s reviews, or some others.
Name-dropping Pauline Kael, but no other critics, is the film snob equivalent of name-dropping Lester Bangs and no other music critics. Kael was arguably the greatest film critic of her time — and maybe of any time since. But that isn’t Ratner’s point. What he’s signaling to his audience is that he doesn’t know anything about modern critics, but he thinks he’s accomplished something by not holding up Siskel and Ebert as the last bastion of critical thought.
3. And that doesn’t exist anymore.
Wesley Morris, Dana Stevens, A.O. Scott, Anthony Lane, Manohla Dargis, Alison Willmore, Peter Bradshaw, Todd McCarthy, David Ehrlich, Bilge Ebiri, Amy Nicholson, Emily Yoshida, the podcasters of Pop Culture Happy Hour, my peers and my colleagues: that’s just a start. There is a staggering amount of criticism available online, lots from voices who weren’t heard in Ratner’s good ol’ days. Not only does great criticism exist, there’s more of it than ever before.
4. Now it’s about a number. A compounded number of how many positives vs. negatives. Now it’s about, ‘What’s your Rotten Tomatoes score?’
Ratner is right that, when it comes to the middling blockbuster films he produces and directs, success is about a number. But that number isn’t the film’s review score; it’s the box office returns. If Ratner takes issue with films being critically maligned, he should consider that maybe certain movies are actually bad, and that the current Hollywood model allows for mediocrity to succeed.
Rather than worrying about making the best possible film, many studios seem intent on investing in the best possible marketing. Consider Suicide Squad, last summer’s superhero train wreck. Warner Bros. reportedly rushed the film into and through production. Unsurprisingly, the studio wasn’t satisfied with an early cut, but rather than hire filmmakers to help, they contracted Trailer Park, the company responsible for the initial trailer, to produce an alternate cut.
The issue isn’t a collection of critics unfairly drubbing a financially successful movie. The issue is that they’re often accurately calling out junk. And studios have become so focused on marketing, they can get away with releasing junk, if they spend enough time and energy on its promotion — but they still resent being called on it. I think Ratner knows this, because he not so subtly needs the praise. He wants to be more than a cog in a factory that knowingly sells gold-painted turds.
5. And that’s sad, because the Rotten Tomatoes score was so low on Batman v Superman I think it put a cloud over a movie that was incredibly successful.
And now we get to Ratner’s real complaint. Batman v Superman made hundreds of millions of dollars, but it didn’t get universal critical praise. The director wrongly thinks these two things are connected, that ticket sales should equate to some critical endorsement. He fundamentally misunderstands criticism.
Criticism isn’t a stamp of approval or disapproval; it’s a service. In A.O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism, he writes, “A critic is a person whose interest can help to activate the interest of others.” Critics can help people decide where to spend their money, but good critics can also do so much more. They can teach us to better understand, appreciate, and engage with the culture, and the world that produced it.
Ratner is right that reducing all criticism down to a numerical score subtracts from that process. But his argument throws the baby critic out with the Hollywood bathwater. The criticism also mistakes Rotten Tomatoes core function as a leaderboard, and not a gateway. Some readers may love the numerical shorthand, but many use Rotten Tomatoes — and its superior sibling, Metacritic — to find new critics and read more opinions.
As Scott wrote, “It’s the job of art to free our minds, and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom.” This is great advice for Ratner and other Hollywood filmmakers, who have ceased to be critical of their work and their industry. They have allowed the status quo to fester into bland pseudo-entertainment. If they began to question their films, and actually read the criticism instead of complaining that it doesn’t exist, perhaps Ratner and company would produce films that make money — and get high scores on Rotten Tomatoes.