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Rotten Tomatoes ratings don't hurt box office returns, study says

by John Horn and Monica Bushman | The Frame

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Did a bad Rotten Tomatoes score doom "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets?" Domitille Girard (Photo courtesy of STX Entertainment)

This summer was a bummer for the movie business. Box office receipts were down almost 17% from a year ago, and the blame for that is going around.

Last week, The New York Times ran a story claiming that part of the blame for Hollywood’s terrible summer could be attributed to the movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. The site compiles reviews and assigns a score (which they call a "Tomatometer rating") to movies based on how favorable or negative those reviews are. There are actually two scores on Rotten Tomatoes: one from film critics and one from moviegoers.

The Times story quoted the film director Brett Ratner as saying Rotten Tomatoes is, “the destruction of our business.” But are bad Rotten Tomatoes scores responsible for people avoiding the multiplex? Or is the more obvious explanation that people don’t want to spend money on terrible films like “The Emoji Movie” and “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets"?

Yves Bergquist, Director of the Data and Analytics Project at USC’s Entertainment Technology Center, turned to data to get to the answer. He took a closer look at the relationship between Rotten Tomato scores and box office returns in 2017 and found no correlation— positive or negative— between the two.

What we know is that good audience scores tend to correlate very tightly to box office returns, which is normal. If an audience appreciates a movie, the movie is going to do better at the box office. What is difficult to understand is what the impact of Rotten Tomatoes scores on audience scores. And my hunch is, and this data sort of confirms that, is that it's actually really, really low. What really matters is audience scores. It just so happens that Rotten Tomatoes scores are almost identical to audience scores most of the time, except for indie movies. 

So should Hollywood executives pay attention to instead? Bergquist says movie marketing, research about what works, and innovation:

I think the elephant in the room is innovation. We're in the post-"Game of Thrones," post-"Breaking Bad" world of entertainment, where studio executives know that they need to innovate in the way that they tell film stories. And a lot of my research is focused on finding out mathematically where in the film they can innovate and where they have to stick to the canons. The main issue with this is, "How do we innovate in a film that is a billion dollar or two billion dollar bet?" If we innovate too much, it's going to miss its audience. If we don't innovate enough, it's going to be boring. So there's this median point which, believe it or not, we can actually calculate mathematically, and that's where a lot of my research is going.

To hear the full interview with Yves Bergquist, click the blue player above.

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