The Rotten Tomatoes Equation

by Derek Neal

According to the website Rotten Tomatoes, there are four types of movies: good-good movies, good-bad movies, bad-good movies, and bad-bad movies. These types can be identified using the Rotten Tomatoes score for each movie, particularly the relationship between the critics’ score and the audience’s score. Let me explain. Rotten Tomatoes is a website that collects movie reviews and assigns them a rating of either “fresh” (if the review is positive) or “rotten” (if the review is negative). It then calculates the percentage of fresh reviews and assigns this as a score to the movie. If the score is 60% or greater, the film itself is considered fresh, whereas if the score is lower than 60%, the film is rotten. This is a useful way of rating a movie, but there’s a problem here, too. Let’s imagine every reviewer gives a movie three out of four stars, indicating a good film but not a great one. These reviews would all be classified as fresh, and the film would receive a misleadingly high score of 100% (The Terminator has a 100% rating, for example, while The Godfather does not). Let’s imagine another film receives all two out of four-star reviews. These would be classified as rotten, and the film would receive a rating of 0%, indicating one of the worst movies of all time. But the movie wouldn’t really be that bad.

In addition to the critics’ score, there is also the audience’s score, which simply calculates the ratings of the website’s users to decide whether a movie is fresh or rotten. This is based on hundreds to thousands of reviews as opposed to the 40 or 50 that make up the critics’ score, and in its relationship to the critics’ score it can give us valuable insight into the characteristics of a movie.

Let’s look at some scores for recent movies. Nomadland, the 2021 Best Picture winner, received 94% from the critics and 82% from the audience. Parasite, the 2020 Best Picture winner, got 98% from the critics and 90% from the audience. Another Round, the 2021 Best International Film, received 92% and 90%, respectively. This close relationship between critics and audience (with a slight disagreement on Nomadland) is to be expected for movies broadly considered to be the best movies of the year, and they are what we can call good-good movies.

What about bad-bad movies? These ones aren’t hard to figure out, either. Picking at random, we have Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, a 2010 movie based on a video game, which received 37% from the critics and 58% from the audience. Another one is Solace, a 2015 misfire starring Anthony Hopkins and Colin Farrell—it received 25% from the critics and 43% from the audience. I saw Solace dubbed in French on a rainy day in Lyon and can attest to its low score, although the French voice acting certainly made it worse than it already was. I’ve never seen Prince of Persia, but I’m willing to trust Rotten Tomatoes here.

What’s more interesting is when we can’t trust Rotten Tomatoes, indicated by a vast divergence between the critics’ score and the audience’s score. This is where we encounter movies that don’t fit the mainstream, Hollywood definition of what a movie should be: perhaps they’re too long or too weird, perhaps too much is left unexplained, or perhaps we can’t quite figure out who the heroes or the villains are. Perhaps there are no heroes or villains. In this case, we usually have a good-bad movie, where the critics enjoy the movie, but the audience pans it. On the other hand, we also have our bad-good movies, which the critics dislike but the audience loves. These movies are often simple and straightforward, but they have their charms, too, and if we come across them on cable we’re likely to stay and watch whatever scene is playing. We might even watch the whole movie, which I used to do with The Island (40% critics, 63% audience), a clichéd dystopian sci-fi flick directed by Michael Bay. I’ll watch any movie set in a dystopia, and I’ll also watch anything with Vince Vaughn in it, one of the greatest talkers/patterers/bullshitters in film. His recent movie, The Binge, has one of the largest disparities I’ve ever seen—22% critics, 81% audience. I haven’t watched it yet, but it’s apparently a high school comedy mixed with a send up of The Purge (instead of all crime being legal for one day, all drugs and alcohol are legal for one day only), and Vaughn plays the school principal. A classic bad-good movie, which many of Vince Vaughn’s films are. There’s also Couples Retreat (10% critics, 39% audience) and The Watch (16% critics, 39% audience). I suppose these are technically bad-bad movies as they don’t hit the 60% threshold, but I’m the one making the definitions here and this isn’t an exact science.

Returning to our good-bad movies, let’s see what the critics liked but the audience didn’t. A key figure here seems to be Ethan Hawke, who consistently makes interesting movies and straddles the line between Hollywood leading man and indie darling, especially with his recent films. There’s First Reformed (93% critics, 68% audience), Stockholm (70% critics, 55% audience), The Phenom (79% critics, 38% audience), Maggie’s Plan (86% critics, 52% audience), and Good Kill (75% critics, 49% audience). All of these films will be good, but weird. They’ll challenge our expectations and hopefully change our ideas about what we thought we knew before watching the movie. A truly bizarre film that I saw recently in this category was Kajillionaire, which received 90% from the critics and 47% from the audience. In other words, a must-see movie, and one that’s impossible to categorize.

If your household is like mine, and the search for and debate over a movie is often just as enjoyable and almost as long as the movie itself, the Rotten Tomatoes equation becomes indispensable. When it’s just me and my father, we’ll usually opt for a good-bad movie, or we’ll go for a good-good one if it involves “Italians mumbling and shooting each other,” which my mother spoke into family lore a few weeks ago, walking out of the room in disgust after we chose yet another mob movie featuring some combination of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci. If the whole family is involved, including the extended family, a good-good movie is a safe bet (minus the Italians). And if you just want a laugh, you can’t go wrong with bad-good comedy, preferably featuring Vince Vaughn or a former SNL cast member.