In Roger Ebert’s seething 2008 Chicago Sun-Times diatribe, “Death to film critics! Hail to the Celebcult!” Ebert decries the recent layoffs of many of his former colleagues and competitors at newspapers around the United States. He is right, as several well-known film critics have been ousted from positions that once seemed tenured, such as Nathan Lee from the Village Voice, David Ansen from Newsweek (who now works as a part time “contributing editor”) and Todd McCarthy from Variety. Ebert’s spews venom throughout his article; placing the blame for the critics’ expulsions on the dwindling readership of newspapers, particularly amongst younger generations who he believes only crave celebrity gossip. There may be some merit to his theory; however, many film critics, such as Todd McCarthy and Leonard Maltin at indieWIRE, have found employment in the once threatening world of online reviewing and blogging. The fact that established reviewers are surviving in a modern forum, as Ebert himself won a Webby Award in 2010 for person of the year for his thriving website that includes an online journal, exemplifies a point that there is still a place for critical discussion about film. Yet, there is a another question to be asked, one that is surely depressing for aspiring film critics everywhere: with the success of aggregate movie review websites like Rotten Tomatoes, are the critical rankings of individual film reviewers still vital to today’s filmgoers?
Before any further discussion on the validity of individual film critics, it is important to note the reach of Rotten Tomatoes, which- in a Los Angeles Times article- reported over 10 million unique visitors in the month of December 2009, and the site’s wildly popular Tomatometer. The Tomatometer calculates a film’s critical ranking by taking the number of positive reviews and dividing by the total number of reviews. If a movie has a ranking over 60%, it is considered fresh and recommended by the site. Anything below is regarded as rotten and the site has clear visual aides next to films specifying its freshness and overall percentage grade. For a reviewer to be included in the ranking process, known on the site as an Approved Tomatometer Critic, he or she must be employed at a Tomatometer-approved publication or media outlet for at least two calendar years. In the case of an online critic, he or she must have reviewed at least 100 films in a two calendar year span and the reviews must have a minimum length of 300 words. One telling option of the Tomatometer that proves that at least the creators of Rotten Tomatoes respect established film critics is the Top Critics option.
The process to become a Top Critic is much more difficult than simply being an Approved Critic and involves working for a highly celebrated media outlet or website and for a longer period of time, but there is also a subjective aspect to the selection process. As stated on the Rotten Tomatoes website, “a Top Critic may also be recognized as such based on their influence, reach, reputation, and/or quality of writing as determined by Rotten Tomatoes staff.” Clearly, celebrated reviewers are celebrated at Rotten Tomatoes. In an interview with Tim Ryan in 2008, one of the creators of the site, Senh Duong, stated one of the largest influences on the site was, “watching Siskel & Ebert. When I was picking a domain name for Rotten Tomatoes, I was gonna call it “Thumbs Up” as a tribute to them.”
So if an aggregated movie reviews site worships established film critics, then why are so many critics considered expendable by their employers? The answer of course is in the beautiful simplicity of the Tomatometer. As stated by every critic of modern cultural times, from Charlie Chaplin to Roger Ebert, moviegoers and the general public simply do not have time to accomplish all the tasks they want to achieve in a day. Do to this modern time crunch (that seems to have been afflicting people since the industrial revolution, yet every generation swears is growing worse with every oncoming generation), people are told they do not have time, or money do to this ongoing three year recession, to read newspapers. To combat this lack of time and wealth, people skim through news and movie reviews online because it is much faster and because it is free. Why should someone spend $2.00 on a New York Times and the 25 minutes reading A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis reviews, when he or she can go on Rotten Tomatoes and view a films’ aggregated ranking in 10 seconds for no charge whatsoever? A response to that question is that it is more intellectually stimulating to read an entire review from a trusted source on a film before or after viewing it. The comeback to that is that a person can easily click on a Scott or Dargis review link on Rotten Tomatoes that takes the reader to the original review for zero charge.
Roger Ebert is right in his original assessment in “Death to film critics! Hail to the Celebcult!” that potential readers are the reason so many film critics are losing their jobs at major publications and media outlets, but his explanation is wrong. People still want critical analysis on films and from authoritative voices, they just want it in a streamlined form that Rotten Tomatoes provides and at an excellent price: free.