8 Fresh Facts About Rotten Tomatoes
Whether you’re looking to head to the theaters or seeking something special to stream on Netflix, you're not alone if you click over to Rotten Tomatoes before making your final viewing decision. For over 20 years, this review aggregate site has been a gift to audiences, assigning movies and TV shows a “fresh” or “rotten” label based on hundreds of critics’ opinions. Today, the site boasts more than 1.1 million reviews, over 26,000 Tomatometer ratings, and thousands of active critics. But there’s much more to Rotten Tomatoes than meets the eye. Here are a few facts about the influential (and sometimes controversial) movie website.
1. Jackie Chan inspired the Rotten Tomatoes concept.
In 1998, Senh Duong was excitedly anticipating the U.S. release of Jackie Chan's Rush Hour. Frustrated that he couldn’t easily find news and reviews for the upcoming action-comedy online (or reviews for any of Chan's movies for that matter), Duong imagined a website that would aggregate reviews in one easy-to-browse location. So he called on a couple of his friends from UC Berkley, Patrick Lee and Stephen Wang, to help him code the concept.
“It was quite a genius, outside-the-box idea,” co-founder Wang wrote of Duong’s brainchild in a personal blog post celebrating Rotten Tomatoes’ 20th anniversary. However, Rotten Tomatoes might have been little more than a short-lived fan page if it weren’t for Rush Hour’s release being pushed from August to September 1998.
As Duong waited the extra few weeks for Rush Hour to actually come out, he decided to collect reviews for other movies that were on the horizon on his site. According to Wang, “The first film page to launch was Neil Labute’s Your Friends & Neighbors, and by the time it had launched on August 13, 1998, he had already come up with some of Rotten Tomatoes’ key elements: The Tomatometer, Fresh and Rotten icons for reviews, review quotations and links, and the ‘Rotten Tomatoes’ name.”
2. Rotten Tomatoes’ name comes from an obscure movie reference.
A popular misconception is that the website’s moniker alludes to the idea of throwing the festering vegetables at a bad theatrical performance. However, according to Rotten Tomatoes’ own published account, Duong came up with the name after watching the French-Canadian coming-of-age fantasy Léolo, in which the titular boy imagines his mother got pregnant from falling into a cart of Italian tomatoes. The film currently has a rating of 90 percent.
3. Roger Ebert gave Rotten Tomatoes two thumbs up.
Duong started spreading the word of the newly minted site by posting links in Usenet movie groups, and by 1999, Rotten Tomatoes was gaining steam, earning a spotlight from USA Today and Netscape. “Which was huge back then,” he explained in the site’s oral history. However, the biggest signal boost came from iconic film critic Roger Ebert, who praised Rotten Tomatoes in the now-defunct Yahoo! Internet Life magazine. Not only did this massively raise the site’s profile, but having Ebert—a legendary cinephile—vouch for it went a long way toward convincing movie buffs to give the concept a shot.
4. The Tomatometer is widely misunderstood.
Similar to Siskel & Ebert’s thumbs up or thumbs down, Rotten Tomatoes operates on a binary. Whether a Tomatometer-approved critic’s review is a rave, a pan, or mixed, it must be entered as either rotten or fresh. Therefore, not-bad-but-not-great movies might fall on either side of the divide. For a title to qualify as fresh, it must earn a rating of 60 percent higher, determined by averaging the number of fresh/rotten reviews from at least five eligible critics (there are thousands of critics on Rotten Tomatoes who all have to meet certain criteria before their reviews are counted).
Many readers often regard this system like a grade on a report card, where 60 percent might be a D, 70 percent equates a C, and 90 percent or higher might be an A. But the Tomatometer isn't grading a film's quality from 1 to 100 percent; it's simply the percentage of fresh reviews. So, a movie with a score of 90 doesn't mean the majority of critics thought the quality was a 9/10, only that 90 percent of critics gave it a fresh rating.
5. Rotten Tomatoes’ criteria for critics has changed dramatically over the years.
Early on, Duong and his growing team chiefly collected reviews from major outlets, including newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters. As internet culture evolved, they sought to include critics who were writing for online outlets. “[Studio publicists] were generally wary of online critics and treated them as second-class citizens,” Duong explained in a Rotten Tomatoes history piece. “That was one of the reasons why I wanted to feature online critics on the Tomatometer.”
Over the years, online media coverage exploded, pushing Rotten Tomatoes to repeatedly update its criteria, including more websites and freelancers who worked for multiple outlets. In 2018, Rotten Tomatoes expanded its Critic Criteria to include YouTubers, podcasters, and self-published bloggers. The goal was to reflect the emerging and increasingly diverse landscape of film and TV criticism, considering not just outlet but also insight, audience, quality, and dedication.
6. Audience Scores play a big role for Rotten Tomatoes, but they're not always reliable.
According to a Rotten Tomatoes rep, the Audience Score section was added to the site in 2004 in order to allow the public to weigh in on movies as well. Illustrated by a popcorn bucket, the Audience Score percentage can reflect the opinions of thousands of Rotten Tomatoes users. However, concerns have been raised that without proof of viewing, users could vote on movies they hadn’t seen. So, in 2019, following acquisition from the online ticket-seller Fandango, the site began requesting ticket confirmation to verify voting users who had watched a given film. Thus, more recent film’s Audience Scores can be sorted by verified audiences or all audiences.
7. Some people in Hollywood think Rotten Tomatoes actually hurts the movie industry.
The summer of 2017 saw a 15 percent decline in movie ticket sales in America from the previous year, leading some in Hollywood to put the blame squarely on Rotten Tomatoes, which boasted around 13.6 million unique visitors a month. The New York Times reported that filmmakers felt that a bad score could kill a movie’s opening weekend, while others blamed the wide net Rotten Tomatoes had cast, allowing critics from smaller sites to be counted alongside century-old outlets. The “rotten” movies in question from The New York Times piece included the Dwayne Johnson-fronted Baywatch (17 percent) and Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (31 percent).
During the Sun Valley Film Festival, director Brett Ratner, whose Ratpac company co-financed 2016's infamously rotten Batman v Superman (28 percent), put it more bluntly: “I think it’s the destruction of our business.”
Still, movies that score low on the Tomatometer aren't guaranteed flops, either—out of the 100 top-grossing domestic movies of all time, 20 of them have been declared rotten, including Batman v Superman.
8. Those 100 percent ratings on Rotten Tomatoes stir up plenty of controversy.
The rare achievement of a 100 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes has been managed by landmark classics like Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925) as well as modern masterpieces like Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995). However, this seemingly perfect score can be treated as a target. At least three times, a member of the rarefied 100 Club was later knocked out by a single review.
First, it happened to Greta Gerwig’s celebrated coming-of-age comedy Lady Bird (2017), much to the ire of film fans online. Then, in 2021, The New York Times reported that Orson Welles’s iconic Citizen Kane had been bumped down to 99 percent because a resurfaced 80-year-old review was recently added on Rotten Tomatoes. Much fun was had online by those who joked this meant that Paul King’s Paddington 2 (2017) was clearly superior to Citizen Kane, as the family-friendly sequel had a 100 score. The victory was short-lived: A month later, IndieWire revealed a previously unposted review of Paddington 2 was added to the site, bringing it down to 99 percent along with its still very highly acclaimed companions.