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David Poland

By David Poland

Rotten Tomatoes, Movie Openings & Reality

La Tomatina

There have been 131 wide-release summer movies in from 2014 until now.

The film highest-ranked by Rotten Tomatoes (99) opened to $4 million. The one lowest-ranked by Rotten Tomatoes (4) opened to $5 million.

In many ways, we could stop right there in this analysis, because this dichotomy is the reality of pretty much every way I have parsed the Rotten Tomatoes vs Box Office Opening story that has become the Trend of the Month since Baywatch opened so much below expectations.

Let’s start with Baywatch before looking at the bigger picture, since that is the film which became the center of this conversation. Broadly, the film was tracking (a marketing number that is meant to let marketers know what kind of traction the film is getting, not for guessing opening numbers) at around $38 million for the 5-day weekend (as Paramount made Thursday a full day opening, not just late shows, which they had on Wednesday after 7).

Reviews hit on Tuesday morning. And they weren’t pretty. The Rotten Tomatoes number ended up at 20% Fresh, 80% Rotten. Tracking done Tuesday night and Wednesday showed a drop from the $38 million projection (which also took into account what trackers claim was a surprise RT score). And indeed, by the end of the 5-day, they were at $27.7 million.

So the question… did the scathing reviews on Tuesday cause a 29% drop in the opening 5-day gross for Baywatch?

Tracking is often wrong (though studios seem to have a loving, but gauzy memory of a time when it was always right). And there aren’t a ton of examples where the tracking changed so dramatically in such a short period of time. If fact, after talking to a number of the tracking firms about the issue, no one could offer any other films that fit this profile.

This is where it gets tricky. Tracking is not just a straight survey (not that any survey is “straight” as all managed surveys are dependent on the audience that can be reached and the demographic balance that can be created). Tracking companies take everything into account in estimating a gross, including the Rotten Tomatoes score.

Complicating this, tracking has become media fodder in a way it never should have. It is meant to be marketing guidance. But now, marketing departments don’t only have to respond to their bosses when the numbers miss, but they have an onslaught of often-hysterical media attention.

I have said for decades now that the only real influence that critics have on the opening of a wide release movie is when there is nearly-unanimous negativity. I do believe a film can be destroyed. But I do not believe a film that has a strong base for opening in the 30s or better can be “destroyed.”

The consensus – no one who pays close attention to this, and to whom I have spoken, disagrees – is potentially 10% – 15% damage.

And within that potential damage, there is a wide array of categories in which negative RT scores appear to mean absolutely nothing. Specific groups mentioned include African Americans, women (especially under 24), and action movie fans.

And the idea of RT ratings helping a movie is nearly nonexistent. There are experiential call-outs, like Get Out and Wonder Woman… but the examples are rare and seem more about confirmation bias.

In fact, the only group that seems to play close attention to RT scores are white males, 18-45. Surveys suggest that the percentage of men in that demo checking RT before deciding on going to a movie has grown from 26& to 36% in the last couple years. And that seems like a big chunk of the audience.

But then it gets blurry again. How many of those men checking RT are buying tickets? And for what kind of movies? How often?

There are about 27 million people in the U.S. and Canada who go to the movies more than once a month. Cut that in half for the age demo, then in half again for males. So your entire frequent male moviegoer 18-45 potential audience for Baywatch is 6.75 million people.

I have no idea how much of the opening weekend audience for Baywatch was those guys. But if they made up half the opening weekend audience, that is about 20% of the group showing up on opening weekend. Did this movie ever seem like it was strong enough to pull 40% of the demo out to the movies in the first weekend?

Also… The Rock. Big star. Maybe the biggest right now. But in comedies? Not so much. He only had four as the lead before Baywatch. None opened to more than $22 million. Maybe Central Intelligence confused the survey ($36m opening)… but Kevin Hart matters.

Baywatch did $23 million by Sunday night. That seems like the right number… unless you think Zac Efron is equivalent to Kevin Hart. It seems like a positive if you consider that the movie is not well liked (5.8 on imdb user ratings.. another terrible measure but for lack of a better easy example). Bad movie, horribly reviewed, and Dwayne Johnson still delivered his number for a comedy.

Further, the film’s advertising was clearly pushing hard on one quadrant. “Beaches aren’t ready” isn’t going to draw women with a pun on “bitches,” nor are adults likely to be drawn to the film based on The Rock’s wingspan and horny teen jokes about women, plus the film was R-rated (not that teens can’t find a way in when they want to). Worse, neither the ads nor the film took advantage of the nostalgia for the show that exists, however much people are embarrassed to admit that reality.

So, when you have a one-quadrant movie and the one quadrant that pays serious attention to Rotten Tomatoes is the one that is going to deliver most of your opening, yeah, I see what Paramount was feeling on Tuesday after opening.

And of course, the entire thing is more complicated than even this analysis.

Who came up with this idea of a Baywatch movie… who developed it… who greenlit it… who thought The Rock was The Answer… who decided not to have any female nudity… who decided to have multiple dick jokes… who decided not to make the action more in line with The Rock’s hits… who decided to underplay the female storylines… who decided to focus the sell to young men… who determined that an effort to get women interested in this film (aside from the abs of the top two names on the call sheet) was futile… who decided to throw away the family audience… and a thousand other decisions that led to opening day.

I’m down the rabbithole here.

Then there are other measures when looking at the whole summer. Of the 10 summer wide-releases that did 4x opening weekend or better domestically in the last five summers, six are Fresh and four are Rotten. And of the 10 worst multiples (pre-incomplete summer 2017… 1.5x – 2.2x) there are 3 Fresh films. This group includes both $100m+ openers RT90 Captain America: Civil War and RT25 Suicide Squad.

It is easy to drown (again) in a sea of figures. But the bottom line seems clear… better to be well-liked than not. If your film is universally disliked by critics, it will – as it has forever – make a dent… but it may not define your film’s fate if audiences disagree.

There is little, if any, indication that the speed of media or Facebook or Twitter, etc, is changing opening weekends. Friday-to-Saturday-to-Sunday numbers seem to be consistent, within genre lanes, no matter what the RT score.

Rotten Tomatoes, which has become a simple way to think you are getting a critical consensus, is not irrelevant. But it is one piece of the puzzle. There seems to be a pretty clear line to be drawn between the RT numbers and biases that already exist and are then confirmed by the RT number.

Rotten Tomatoes reflects the world it surveys. People only argue that it influences, positive or negative, in extreme moments. And I believe it only influences in even fewer occasions than when it is given credit/blame. Nothing in two weeks of discussing the matter suggests otherwise.

When “everyone” hates your movie, that tends to leak into the whole process. It’s an infection. And you know… in many high profile cases, it just doesn’t matter.

Paramount has another high profile movie opening this week with a nightmarish (or is it Knightmarish?) RT rating. There was a low-70s opening was projected weeks before reviews. It may slide into he mid-60s. And maybe that will be, in part, critical influence. But if you want to make that the story, you have to explain whytwo2 of the previous four Transformers films opened over $100 million domestically with RT scores in the teens.

Everyone wants answers. And everyone wants them NOW.

Sometimes the first stats turn out to be correct. But for the most part, short window determinations are missing a lot of important information. I like my big trend analysis to start with three years/seasons of information. Anything less and you may look like a fool next year.

This doesn’t mean that short-window trend analysis can’t be interesting an valuable. But only in the smallest ways. For instance, the Lord/Miller firing from Young Han seems to directly fly in the face of what happened at WB with Wonder Woman and with what Marvel is doing aggressively in the continued expansion of its universe of films. The trend, which has not had time to play out, has been successful so far. LucasFilm is going to stick to its knitting and to stay on-brand at all costs. This could be a success or a failure regardless of the bigger industry trend.

Nobody knows anything. Love you, Bill Goldman. Stay fresh.

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7 Responses to “Rotten Tomatoes, Movie Openings & Reality”

  1. Bob Burns says:

    The opening of a movie is about the PR (I wonder if they, the studios, spend more time on the ads than the films. Probably) But, as you have pointed out many times, they can’t always figure out how to sell a movie, and that’s where you can see the relationship between RT and box office. It’s hard to sell a bad film. Not always, but….

  2. Doug Pratt says:

    Rotten Tomatoes is merely an aggregate, so when you say that only ‘white males 18-45’ pay attention to its scores, its negative scores, for example, represent a universal drubbing by critics everywhere. Hence, even potential audiences who do not own a computer may have been exposed to negative critical comments about such a film. Using RT as a specific guide is helpful, but you may be underestimating the general influence of critics, especially, as you say, when there is a consensus of opinion.

  3. EtGuild2 says:

    The comparison to even 2014 or last year isn’t perfect; every few months it seems that RT (and Metacritic/IMDB to a lesser extent) becomes more omnipresent. Now when you simply type a movie title into Google, you’re hit with an IMDB score, RT rating and Google User rating as sidebar right under the movie poster. (I’d be interested in a study on how featuring RT/Imdb scores right under VOD titles on major services like Fios, iTunes and Amazon has affected VOD if at all, but we’ll never get that because of industry secrecy).

    You also have social media drivers like SnapChat, YouTube and Reddit that can turn a modest, socially-conscious horror thriller comedy into a genre-busting smash hit.

    RT, as you say, is but one piece of the puzzle. But as more and more moviegoers have more and more information, feedback and the need to be “part of the conversation” and invertly “fear of missing out” is increasingly important.

    It’s hard to imagine a world where a Tom Cruise MUMMY reboot fails to open as high as the wheezing TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR. And yes, the effect here does skew based on genre…horror and comedy are particularly susceptible, but anything with abysmal ratings is at risk.

    Arthouse flicks have relied upon reviews and ratings for years; people have generally shied away from busted Oscar bait (remember Sean Penn’s “All The King’s Men?”) regardless of subject matter or talent pedigree. No surprise that’s going mainstream more and more.

  4. jspartisan says:

    Yeah. This rant works, if social media doesnt exist. I am not referring to standard twitter or anything else, where you follow writers or other entertainment figures, but social media that kids use. Where there are like 300 kid or more, who discuss things more with themselves, then other people. These kids, have a little bubble, and pass shit around like a note in a 1960s classroom! Seriously. RT ratings are passed around, because younger people only have so much money to waste… on shit.

    A big part of what this analysis is ignoring, is that choice leads to the audience having to deliberately target where those dollars go. If a movie is getting shit reviews, and you can spend that money on something else. Most people, are spending money on other things. RT, is just giving people a heads up, and people are using it.

    Seriously though, you’re also ignoring, that a lot of Summer fare isn’t MUST SEE anymore. Marvel, DC, and Star Wars are must see properties. Everything else, seems to be on some sort of sliding scale, from they may want to check it out, to they will just redbox/netflix/hbo it later. Sure, you can say that this has been around since the VIDEO boom, but it hasnt been to this extent. Things have changed, and RT has changed them. Rather you like it or not.

    Let’s use Baby Driver as an example, just to see what happens to that film.

  5. Arysta says:

    “who decided to focus the sell to young men” I fully agree here. I’m a female, middle-aged, remember the original fondly. I was all for this movie when I first heard about it. It looked goofy and little absurd, so that had me intrigued. After seeing all the previews focus only on dudes and dude jokes, I was far less interested. The RT score just sealed the deal. Times have changed, there’s more variety now, and I have less patience for films where I don’t see any interesting female characters unless the film is specific to males (war film, very small cast, etc).

  6. Ryan says:

    Delivery window seems to matter to me as much as advertising or negative reviews. Why pay any sort of money to see a potential mediocre product when I can watch it on my couch for a fraction of the cost in 3-4 months?

    Also, with the amount of tv choices/content available on Netflix/Hulu/Amazon, it’s really easy to conclude that I would rather stay home and watch untold hours of original Prestige TV that I’ve missed rather than see a movie version of a TV show I never watched in the first place or any of the other dead ideas/retreads that are coming out of the studios at an alarming pace. The reviews on a site like RT may seal the deal, but the decision was already 99.999% made.

  7. hcat says:

    Arysta, wondering what you mean by more variety nowadays, you may be counting Indies, but as for studio fare I think there were far more films in previous decades that centered around interesting female characters. There doesn’t seem to be megastars of the Julia Roberts, Goldie Hawn, Demi Moore variety anymore and that is certainly not because there is a lack of talent (I never thought I would look fondly back to the days that Moore was a star), but those films are just not getting made anymore.

    And JS and Ryan are spot on about the shrunken windows, if its not a absolute must see watercooler film, why bother. I miss the dollar theaters where you would wait to see the films you were hesitant about, but the studios obviously make more off of sending it to VOD than they did in the second run market.

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