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THB #375: The Rotten Tomatoes Fallacy
Statistics are funny things.
We can all manipulate them, shaped to whatever narrative we prefer.
Here are some funny stats about Rotten Tomatoes scores, based on last year’s (2022) 101 domestic studio theatrical releases (inc, Studio Dependents, Lionsgate, Neon, and A24).
The average title with a 90 or better score grossed $53.4 million.
The average title that was “Rotten” (under 60) grossed $58.3 million.
The stat actually gets worse if you limit it to under a 30 RT score… average $67.3 million.
Of course this is a stat that barely seems to make sense. The big revenue skew-er that scored under 30 was Jurassic World: Domination. But also in the high end, there are 2 big grossers, Top Gun: Maverick and Puss In Boots: The Last Wish, bending the numbers of films that are highly rated.
Of the 101 titles in my little survey, leaning into the alleged horror show of studio movies, 46 had a rating of 80 or better and only 24 had “Rotten” scores of under 60. There were 27 right there in the middle. Here is the chart in groups of 10:
90s - $53.4 million
80s - $60.7 million
70s - $124 million
60s - $68.3 million
Under 60 - $58.3 million
Under 30 - $67.3 million
So where is the most money? Mediocrity, it seems. (But we all kinda knew that, no?)
This is the part where I clarify… this is not an analysis of indie films and RT scores. Better clearly matters more in the true indie world, when distributors actually brave theatrical.
But back to the big whore clown show…
Different angle… how many $100m domestic grossers in each RT category?
90s - 2
80s - 3
70s - 7
60s - 2
Under 60 (in <30) - 4
Under 30 - 1
Once again… the commercial eyeball looks right in that fat, juicy middle.
Out of 19 major release movies that scored in the RT 70s, 7 hit $100 million+ domestic. And all but 1 - Lightyear - is considered a hit. Smile, The Lost City, Avatar: the Way of Water, Elvis, Dr. Strange 2, Lightyear, and Minions: The Rise of Gru.
Looks to me like the ads should be, “Really Mediocre Score On Rotten Tomatoes… not good enough for snotty critics, but you and your family will love it!!!”
Or more realistically, “Same Rotten Tomato Score As Avatar: The Way of Water!”
Or even more, “From The Studio That Delivered The Popular Hits, Minions: The Rise of Gru and Jurassic World: Domination!” (RT scores of 70 and 29)
There are other interesting things to look at. For instance, of the 24 films that got an RT score over 90, only one of them (Everything Everywhere All At Once) opened in limited release and cracked $20m at the box office. Of the 16 in this RT 90+ group that opened in limited, only 3 aside from the Best Picture winner even got to $10 million.
Four of the Best Picture nominees are in the category of “opened limited… scored over 90 on RT… never got to $20 million.”
But then again, before you erase this strategy from your Oscar consulting playbooks, EverythingEAAO opened on 10 screens to a very good but not-world-beating $50k per screen… the expansion to 1250 screens did a much more impressive $4847 per… by the end of their 7th week wide, they were over $50 million. That was the weekend before Top Gun: Maverick landed… and A24 still squeezed out another $20 million before the end of first run.
Six of the Best Picture nominees were in the 90+ RT range. So do you need a big RT score to get into the Oscar race? Don’t try to tell that to Elvis (76 RT), Avatar 2 (76 RT) or Triangle of Sadness (72 RT).
Or, for that matter, to The Woman King (94RT), The Worst Person in the World (98 RT), Till (96 RT), Aftersun (96RT), Living (96 RY) or Glass Onion (which I have left out of this survey since they never reported #s themselves, (92 RT).
Another interesting stat about last year - which really has nothing to do with Rotten Tomatoes… nothing that opened between June 25 and October 6 got BP nominated. Three of the ten BP nominees were open by June 24. All 3 box office successes.
The Northman got a 90 on RT… but came out in April… and only did $34m at the domestic box office.
The Woman King (94 RT) in September, successful ($67m) but not a $100m movie… no.
Tár and Triangle of Sadness were 2 of the 3 October releases to make it this year, both doing less business than Till (but all under $10m). Banshees (Oct 21) did just over $10m. Fabelmans (Nov 11) came next ($17m).
Finally, in December, the massive hit that richly overfed the audience, Avatar: The Way of Water (76 RT) and the little-seen masterwork that demanded the audience work hard, Women Talking (90 RT).
But I digress…
Another angle on box office that I tried with this group of 2022 films… does the RT average change much as we go down the chart of box office success.
The Top 10 box office hits average a 74.1 RT score, dragged down by Jurassic World Dominion, but still, it’s the the highest rated 10 grossing until the grosses drop under $62 million per title.
The next 10 average RT 65.8. Next, RT 63.3. Then a bump, as we get to the mediocre ratings… and mediocre grosses… up to RT 74.6. Then back down to RT 65.6. Then RT 51.1… then RT 66.
Finally, as we get to movies where the numbers actually rise as the box office for each film goes under $10 million. With a high of $8.3m and low of $5.4m, the RT score jumps to 79. $4.6m to $1.5m… RT 85.2. And the final 11 titles, $1.5m to $390k… RT 83.
Thing is… you can pull all kinds of notions out of these figures. But what you can’t pull out is an answer.
Top Gun: Maverick has an RT 96 and $718 million at the domestic box office. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish has an RT 95 and $186 million. Avatar: The Way of Water has an RT 76 and $684 million. Jurassic World: Dominion has an RT 29 and $377 million.
How do you make sense of this jumble?
You look elsewhere for more correlative answers.
There is a whole different conversation to be had about why these films end up Freshed or Rottened as they are… the moods of critics, the definition of “Rotten,” etc.
But I am here to remind you… a mediocre RT score is a very fertile place for box office success. High RTs and $100 million+ hits are rare (only 5 of the 18 highest grossing domestic films did 80 or better last year) and Rottens are just as likely to crack $100 million (5 last year).
Likewise, movies that did $50m - $99m domestic had 5 RTs over 80, 5 RTs that were Rotten (under 60), and 5 in between.
I love the idea of Rotten Tomatoes. Always have. Have posted reviews there from the very early days. Great to have a place where criticism is gathered.
But what it has become… as analysis… as marketing… as a crutch… is just crap. It means something when it fits your goals and nothing when it does not. And the reality is, it’s all an illusion based on opinions on opinions on art.
Even what I believed after an in-depth look at what happened with Baywatch a few years back… no longer true, really. I came to believe that really great and really crap RT figures had a big impact.
But, for 2022, the 10 worst scores in this survey of 101 major releases… the best RT is 34 and the worst is 10. And the 10 films grossed $644 million domestic, averaging $64.4 million a title. Which puts them right in the norm of RT/box office comparisons.
As I wrote at the top… stats are funny. Those of us who play with these numbers can find pretty much whatever we want by bending this way or that.
But today, I have reported to you every path I went down on this for today’s newsletter. I am not hiding or devaluing the hits with big RTs… or looking for angles that tell a story I want told. Test after test, I will tell you… I was suprised. RT is even less predictive than I expected. I suspect there are reasons on the what-is-input side. Rotten Tomatoes isn’t doing anything different or shocking. But throwing it out as a meaningful stat is really just madness… unless it fits your needs this very day.
The Hot Button is Fresh… but gets fresher over time. Odd.