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Why are Rotten Tomatoes scores getting steadily higher every year?

Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez (Getty Images)

Proving once and for all that movies are better than ever—and everything is fine—a movie marketing consultant has released a new dataset this week, claiming that scores on internet review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes have been climbing, slowly but steadily, for the last 10 years or so. According to consultant David A. Grosswho provided a chart of his findings to Deadline—that sudden series of small jumps comes after they’d stayed stable for the roughly 10 years before that, moving from an average of 46.6 “Fresh” in 2010 to 57.2 percent last year.

So, what’s up? A cynic might suggest that the recent upswing could be tracked somehow back to the site’s purchase by Fandango, which has an obvious vested interest in goosing ticket sales. They only bought the company in 2016, though, well after the rise began, and have (as far as we can tell) relatively few ways of influencing a movie’s score. Deadline notes that a major uptick between 2017 and 2018—jumping from 54.3 to 57.2 Fresh—probably stems from a deliberate effort to expand the pool of critics the site draws from, leading to more diverse voices having an impact on a movie’s score. And then there’s always this dim possibility: Maybe movies in 2018 really were just better than films from 2010?

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Because there’s literally nothing we’d rather do on a Friday night than dig through big sets of movie review data, we actually conducted an unofficial little survey of whether our own tastes have suffered a similar drift over the last decade or so. As it turns out, though, our ratings have actually gotten slightly harsher, if anything; The A.V. Club reviewed 349 movies in 2010, labeling 185 of them “Fresh” by Rotten Tomatoes’ metrics, which gauge anything we give a B- or better as a recommendation. In 2018, meanwhile, we reviewed 366 movies, and dubbed 191 of them worthy of the big red ‘mato. That’s a 53 percent rating in 2010—well above the RT average, interestingly enough—and a 52.1 last year, now lagging behind the current boom being reported on by Gross. (Also, it’s kind of weird that both years played host to middling Predator movies and films about Mark “Marwen” Hogancamp, although we did like 2010's documentary Marwencol a whole lot more than the recent Robert Zemeckis film.)

In any case, it suggests that, at least by our standards, the average quality of films hasn’t really changed much during the period in question. (To be fair, though, we didn’t look at average grades, just “freshness,” because we didn’t want to be doing this on Saturday morning, too. So it’s hard to say if there were more As than Bs, or C+s vs. C-s, in any given year.) That specific metric matters, though, because like it or not, the Tomatometer matters; studios believe wholeheartedly that the aggregator’s rating influences ticket sales, to the point that they sometimes deliberately try to game the system by doing things like limiting early critic access to only the most favorably inclined of minds (or to nobody at all, if they’ve got a real stinker on their hands). 

There’s no definitive answer as to why that score might have been drifting up since 2010. Ultimately, it’s a measurement of both a), what critics are saying about movies, and b), which reviewers the site itself deigns to ask. There’s all sorts of extra data that would make this easier to suss out, things like “Are specific reviewers becoming more favorable, or are favorable reviewers being added to the pool?” and “How much of the uptick comes from adding voices more comfortable evaluating movies aimed at minority markets?” We don’t have that data in front of us, unfortunately. But you can be damn sure the studios are desperate to get their hands on it, if they aren’t already gleefully devouring it in their latest efforts to figure out how this newest system of Hollywood dominance works.

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