Rotten Tomatoes: When Fresh is Not So Fresh
What do Mary Poppins, The African Queen, Sleepless in Seattle, In the Heat of the Night, An Officer and a Gentleman, The Natural, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington all have in common? They are a few of the many Academy Award nominated movie classics that do not earn the Rotten Tomatoes Certified Fresh designation. The reason they aren’t Certified Fresh isn’t because movie critics didn’t like these movies. All of these movies have been graded Fresh by at least 75% of the critics who have reviewed the movies. They fail the Certified Fresh test because not enough of Rotten Tomatoes’ critics have reviewed these movies. They fall into a hole in the Rotten Tomatoes ratings system.
Rotten Tomatoes established their website in 1998. Movie critics for the most part review today’s movies. So the movies with the most reviews used in the Rotten Tomatoes ratings are for those released after 1997. Some of the original Rotten Tomatoes critics, Roger Ebert for example, had been writing reviews for a number of years and had also reviewed some of the classic movies. These few critics gave some of the older movies some reviews in Rotten Tomatoes. But over the years, there haven’t been enough critic reviews of the pre-1998 movie releases to meet the 40 review minimum for limited release movies and 80 review minimum for wide release movies. The movies that would otherwise be graded Certified Fresh except for their failure to meet the minimum critic reviews are graded as Fresh.
There are legitimate reasons for having these minimums. Having 75% of the critics grade a movie as Fresh could be as much about randomness as quality. There is no denying, though, that the movies mentioned above and many more like them would be Certified Fresh if they had been released after 1997.
Does it matter that these movies fall through the Rotten Tomatoes cracks? Yes, if Certified Fresh is your threshold for watching a particular movie. There is a whole universe of movies of higher quality that you are missing, many of much higher quality than some of today’s Certified Fresh movies. Because I use Certified Fresh as criteria for a recommended movie, it biases my movie selections to more recent films.
What can we do about it? How do we determine if the pre-1998 movie is of Certified Fresh quality and not some movie that is randomly Fresh? One idea I’ve come up with is to treat pre-1998 movies graded as Fresh, that were also nominated for an Academy Award, as a Recommended Movie. There are 418 movies released since 1998 that have been nominated for an Academy Award that are in my database. 80% of those nominated movies have been graded by Rotten Tomatoes as Certified Fresh. In contrast, the remaining 718 non-nominated post-1998 movies in my database were Certified Fresh only 37.5% of the time. There is clearly a strong correlation between an Academy Award nomination and a Certified Fresh rating. When I change my definition of a Rotten Tomatoes Recommended Movie to include pre-1998, Academy Award nominated movies that were graded 75%+ Fresh by Rotten Tomatoes, the probability that I will “really like” the Rotten Tomatoes Recommended Movie goes from 82% to 86%.
This seems to me to be a viable alternative to the not so Fresh Rotten Tomatoes conundrum. What do you think?