Rotten Tomatoes Movie Scores Are Easily Manipulated: Report

A movie PR firm named Bunker 15 proved that it can manipulate Rotten Tomatoes scores to inflate the positive critical response for a film. Rotten Tomatoes is a review-aggregator site majority-owned by Fandango that Hollywood relies upon to determine whether a movie is “fresh” or “rotten.”

According to an eye-opening article printed on Vulture, Bunker 15 successfully improved the Tomatometer rating of the 2018 film Ophelia starring Daisy Ridley by “recruiting obscure, often self-published critics who are nevertheless part of the pool tracked by Rotten Tomatoes. In another break from standard practice, several critics say, Bunker 15 pays them $50 or more for each review.”

Vulture says a Bunker 15 employee emailed a Rotten Tomatoes-certified reviewer about Ophelia, saying, “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.” This is PR code for, “We'd like you to write something with a positive spin.”

Some Rotten Tomatoes Critics Bury Their Negative Reviews on Personal Blogs That the Aggregator Does Not Read

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Image Credit: IFC Films.

Vulture reports that when contacted by Bunker 15 about Ophelia reviews, the “super nice” Rotten Tomatoes-approved critics agreed not to publish their negative reviews on their usual websites. Instead, they hid them on a personal blog or on smaller sites that Rotten Tomatoes does not monitor. This trick to quarantine negative reviews ensures that the Tomatometer rating for Ophelia leans more “fresh.” 

Bunker 15's founder, Daniel Harlow, responded to Vulture, “Wow, you are really reaching there. 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.”

“The studios didn’t invent Rotten Tomatoes, and most of them don’t like it,” says filmmaker Paul Schrader. “But the system is broken. Audiences are dumber. Normal people don’t go through reviews like they used to. Rotten Tomatoes is something the studios can game. So they do.”

In a statement to Vulture, Rotten Tomatoes says, “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.”

Ophelia, of course, is just one of thousands of movies submitted to Rotten Tomatoes for a Tomatometer rating. Studios consider it a crucial metric for how the public perceives a film, but a few phone calls or persuasive emails can manipulate the Tomatometer. Vulture describes the Tomatometer as “the most important metric in entertainment, yet it’s also erratic, reductive, and easily hacked.”

A search for 2018's Ophelia on Rotten Tomatoes yielded zero results. At the time of this writing, Rotten Tomatoes appears to have purged any mention of the film from its search results and Ridley's filmography.