A new bombshell report has revealed that a Hollywood movie PR firm has been essentially buying positive scores on the review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes.
According to the report for Vulture, in an effort to juice up the reviews of the 2018 Daisy Ridley-starring Shakespeare adaptation titled Ophelia, the PR firm Bunker 15 recruited “obscure, often self-published critics who are nevertheless part of the pool tracked by Rotten Tomatoes” and paid them “$50 or more for each” for a review of the film.
The film, which was a feminist retelling of Hamlet, opened to a 46% critics score after 13 reviews, with six of them being “positive.”
While Bunker 15 didn’t outright ask the critics to write positive reviews, they did suggest a method that, if executed effectively, would result in Rotten Tomatoes “logging positive reviews but not negative ones.”
“In October of that year, an employee of the company emailed a prospective reviewer about Ophelia: ‘It’s a Sundance film and the feeling is that it’s been treated a bit harshly by some critics (I’m sure sky-high expectations were the culprit) so the teams involved feel like it would benefit from more input from different critics,'” explains Vulture writers Lane Brown and Luke Winkie.
“‘More input from different critics’ is not very subtle code, and the prospective critic wrote back to ask what would happen if he hated the film. The Bunker 15 employee replied that of course journalists are free to write whatever they like but that ‘super nice ones (and there are more critics like this than I expected)’ often agreed not to publish bad reviews on their usual websites but to instead quarantine them on ‘a smaller blog that RT never sees. I think it’s a very cool thing to do.'”
In response to the allegations, Rotten Tomatoes said they “do not attempt to manipulate” the scores of films. And while that’s all well and good, it’s the “journalists” and “critics” with microsites that are skewing the score, not the website itself.
“We take the integrity of our scores seriously and do not tolerate any attempts to manipulate them. We have a dedicated team who monitors our platforms regularly and thoroughly investigates and resolves any suspicious activity,” the statement from Rotten Tomatoes reads.
Bunker 15 founder Daniel Harlow also provided a comment to Vulture, saying that they were “really reaching” with their story.
“We have thousands of writers in our distribution list. A small handful have set up a specific system where filmmakers can sponsor or pay to have them review a film,” Harlow said.
The reviews for Ophelia, for whatever reason, did start to become more positive, as the film rose to a 62% score and was acquired by distributor IFC Films.
Ophelia and Bunker 15, however, is merely an example in the micro. The issue is also prevalent on a macro scale in Hollywood, too, as per Vulture:
When a studio is prepping the release of a new title, it will screen the film for critics in advance. It’s a film publicist’s job to organize these screenings and invite the writers they think will respond most positively. Then that publicist will set the movie’s review embargo in part so that its initial Tomatometer score is as high as possible at the moment when it can have maximal benefits for word of mouth and early ticket sales.
Granted, while this kind of clever distribution strategy is nothing new, what’s changed is that the debut Rotten Tomato score for a project can sometimes make or break it.
Despite their defiance and claims that Vulture’s report was a “reach”, Rotten Tomatoes has since “delisted a number of the company’s movies from its website and sent a warning to writers who reviewed them.”
“We take the integrity of our scores seriously and do not tolerate any attempts to manipulate them. We have a dedicated team who monitors our platforms regularly and thoroughly investigates and resolves any suspicious activity,” the statement to critics said.
This sort of manipulation cuts both ways, however, as it can also backfire. Disney, for example, premiered the latest Indiana Jones movie at the Cannes Film Festival, which resulted in the film debuting with a 33%. On the other side of that coin, promotional material for The Flash touted that it had an audience score of 95% “as of 6/14/23.” That score has since dropped to 83%.