Towards government by Rotten Tomatoes

The Tomatometer is punishing Hollywood for awful movies. There's a lesson here for politicians who are dodging objective evaluation.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau speaks to supporters during a campaign stop in Toronto on Monday, August 17, 2015. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

Justin Trudeau speaks to supporters during a campaign stop in Toronto on Monday, Aug. 17, 2015. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

It was only a matter of time before Hollywood would decide the big problem with its business was a well-informed audience. The New York Times tells us that day has come: “…most studio fingers point toward Rotten Tomatoes, which boils down hundreds of reviews to give films ‘fresh’ or ‘rotten’ scores on its Tomatometer.”

My favourite is the quote from the only executive willing to speak on the record, Brett Ratner: “I think it’s the destruction of our business.”

One of my favourite features on Rotten Tomatoes is the way there’s a page for prominent cinema figures. On Brett Ratner’s page, we learn that he’s hard at work directing Beverly Hills Cop 4, after making such hits as Rush Hour (Tomato Score: 60 per cent), Rush Hour 2 (52 per cent), Rush Hour 3 (18 per cent), and the 1997 Chris Tucker-Charlie Sheen buddy pic Money Talks, which managed a Tomato Score of 16 per cent.

Oddly, the Rotten Tomato page for Money Talks claims the critics have reached “No consensus yet.” Sounds like they’re just reluctant to deliver the news. Anyway, you can see why Brett Ratner is nervous, even though he stays out of hell by producing or executive-producing prestige films like The Revenant and the Holocaust meta-documentary Night Will Fall.

In my house, especially among the younger residents, it’s fashionable to proclaim no respect at all for “what Rotten Tomatoes says,” although usually there’s an awkward silence after each attempt to buck the trend. Turns out Now You See Me 2 (34 per cent) really did suck! I’ve found the thing to be pretty reliable: it seems to average out the quirks of its hundreds of critics, balancing, say, the spectacular world-weary naysaying of just about every Globe and Mail critic against the unflagging willingness of Peter Travers of Rolling Stone to wolf down whatever he’s fed and beg for more.

It’s just possible, using no more sophisticated a tool than one’s eyeballs, to see a real Rotten Tomatoes influence on box-office success. What it doesn’t look like is a tendency to goose revenues for the sort of highbrow fare that only a critic could love. The year-to-date chart on Box Office Mojo for 2017 shows a familiar mix of superhero films, sequels, reboots and the odd quirky indie release: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast at top, followed by Wonder Woman and Spider-Man, furious car chases and Lego crusaders. The surprises are Christopher Nolan’s relentless Dunkirk and Jordan Peele’s lightly subversive thriller Get Out.

What these films have in common is that they scored high on the Tomatometer, with Despicable Me 3, a more or less obligatory sortie for any family with tweens, the low outlier at 61 per cent. You used to get a lot more terrible crud raking in the big bucks at the box office. In fact, the top 10 highest-grossing films of 2017 to date have an average Tomato Score of 83.9 per cent, whereas the top 10 movies of a random year in prehistory, 1989, scored an average of 75.9 per cent. Nineteen eighty-nine was the year of Steve Martin’s Parenthood (93 per cent), but also of Ghostbusters 2 (53 per cent) and Look Who’s Talking (58 per cent).

A lot has been written about the current polarized film industry, with mega-budget superhero films at one end, and at the other, tiny independent films that struggle for an audience. But both do well with critics. I’m feeling superhero fatigue just like you, but Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming were clearly the product of industrial-scale efforts to find and flatter the human heart. And neither of them kept Get Out from finding an audience out of all proportion to its budget, though compared to the low returns for other indie films, that looks like a lottery win.

What flops reliably these days is the movies that richly deserve to flop, the ones that aren’t even trying, CHiPS and Baywatch. The modern equivalents of Whoopi Goldberg’s oeuvre. If a curated movie-critic aggregator succeeds in spreading the word that those films aren’t worth your time, I’m all for it.

Still, you can understand the attitude of the Hollywood executives, who had grown up assuming they’d have a few weeks to extract money from distracted audiences before their latest product began to put off a truly impenetrable stench. It can’t be as fun to make awful movies as it used to be. Life is just easier if nobody is keeping tabs on you.

This backlash against evidence and independent verification is obvious in fields way more mundane than movies. In my own line of work, it’s easy to find journalists who believe it’ll kill the business to monitor the online readership of every article. Here’s one of those journalists now. In politics, there’s a characteristic frostiness, if not outright hostility, toward any outsider who dares to provide a second opinion on the wonderful work the government is doing.

It’s easy to make fun of Donald Trump when he points to the media risers at his rallies, all but granting his followers license to attack the assembled journalists. But Trump is hardly alone. French president Emmanuel Macron, last month’s tiny perfect progressive reformer, is now engaged in a scowling battle with French reporters, whom he judges “too self-absorbed” to be worth his time.

But it’s not just journalistic scrutiny that chafes. More systematic and objective evaluation can also be hard for politicians to bear. Last year when province-wide standardized math tests for Ontario schoolkids gave disappointing results, Ontario’s Liberal government played for time, promising $60 million worth of classroom reforms would bring better results. When they didn’t, Kathleen Wynne decided the real problem was the tests. Maybe if they’re easier—sorry, more focussed on “transferable life skills”—the marks will be better! It’s hard to believe this doesn’t have more to do with a looming election drubbing than with any real Damascene conversion in educational philosophy.

Here in Justin Trudeau’s Ottawa, the preference for impressionistic over measurable indices of progress continues. It’s taking forever to name new officers of Parliament, the traditional watchdogs of any government. To its credit, the government backed off a bunch of changes that would have seriously weakened the Parliamentary Budget Officer, but the original instinct was worrisome.

Then there is the mysterious disappearance, at least as a public, visible aspect of the government’s work, of deliverology, the fabled system for publicly tracking government performance against public targets. When I wrote about this last year, in a column that elicited grumbles of displeasure from Parliament Hill, I quoted from a 2014 speech by Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor, whose commitment to public accountability was extraordinary.

“One of the first precepts” in O’Malley’s theory of public administration, he said, “is ‘Timely, accurate information shared by all.’ And it’s amazing how many people will want to recite those tenets—and they always want to leave off the phrase ‘shared by all.’ You mean, shared by managers? No, I mean shared by all. You mean shared by the leader or the council members and, like, the second-tier managers? No, I mean shared by all: People on the front line—and citizens.”

That’s a scary notion. It’s easier to face the inevitable and perfectly human disappointments of public life if you don’t have a watchdog or a website looking over your shoulder. Of course, elected officials often face harsh fates no matter what their attitude toward scrutiny. Reducing the scrutiny merely delays the reckoning, but in that delay there’s room for just a glimmer of irresistible hope.