The Emoji Movie‘s $24.5 million domestic opening during the July 28 to 30 weekend accomplished what no other movie has been able to do during a tough summer season at the box office — survive an abysmal Rotten Tomatoes score (7 percent) and open in line with prerelease tracking.
One possible secret weapon? Sony wouldn’t let reviews post until midday on July 27, hours before the pic began playing in previews before rolling out everywhere. Sony, like every studio, is looking for their own basket of rotten eggs to throw at review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes in hopes of combating a bad “Tomatometer” score. That means screening some titles later and later for critics.
“The Emoji Movie was built for people under 18, who gave it an A- CinemaScore, so we wanted to give the movie its best chance,” says Josh Greenstein, Sony Pictures president of worldwide marketing and distribution. “What other wide release with a score under 8 percent has opened north of $20 million? I don’t think there is one.”
At a tipping point now, Rotten Tomatoes’ influence began to grow exponentially after it and parent company Flixster were acquired in February 2016 by leading movie ticketing website Fandango, a unit of Comcast’s NBCUniversal. (Warner Bros. holds a minority stake in the merged companies.) This summer, a slew of event films earning a rotten score were beached domestically — Baywatch (19 percent) and Transformers: The Last Knight (15 percent) among them — while tentpoles earning scores north of 90 percent did better than expected, including Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming and Dunkirk.
Studios — all too eager to advertise a good score, a practice that didn’t begin until summer 2016 — are now scrambling to understand what happens when their titles garner the infamous green splat.
After buying Rotten Tomatoes, Fandango began featuring Tomatometer scores for every movie on its ticketing site, a practice likened to a restaurant promoting a Yelp rating. (MovieTickets.com intentionally doesn’t feature any reviews scores on its site so as to not influence a consumer, according to insiders.) More recently, some studios were taken aback when AMC Theatres, the country’s largest chain, adopted the same practice on its own ticketing website. AMC’s site now only features a score if it is fresh, defined as anything 60 percent and above. The mega circuit declined comment.
Box-office analyst Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations says including the Rotten Tomato score on Fandango’s ticket site is counterintuitive. “Rotten Tomatoes is a great resource, but can be damaging to the bottom line for films that people are on the fence about. And Fandango, at its core, is about selling as many tickets as possible,” he says.
But Rotten Tomatoes vp Jeff Voris says it is “a disservice to focus just on the score. There are many levels of information.” And Fandango counters that it used to feature Metacritic before it acquired Rotten Tomatoes, although the former doesn’t have the same influence.
Hollywood studios have commissioned a number of studies on the subject in recent months. National Research Group found that seven out of 10 people said they would be less interested in seeing a movie if the Rotten Tomatoes score was 0 to 25. And social media research firm Fizziology, which tracks every major Hollywood release, discovered that a Rotten Tomatoes score has the most influence on moviegoers 25 and younger.
“The Tomatometer has evolved into a truth serum of sorts to help moviegoers decode whether the promise of the campaign lives up to the reality of the film,” says NRG CEO Jon Penn.
Adds Fizziology president Ben Carlson, “Things have reached a crescendo this summer. We see entire audience segments talking about a movie for months and then, all of a sudden, the conversation completely dries up and goes away when the Rotten Tomatoes score comes out. People are using the score as a pass/fail. Hollywood has always talked about a movie being “review proof.” But it may not be Rotten Tomatoes proof.”
One reason The Emoji Movie may have overcome such a terrible score is because it’s a family film. Sony’s The Dark Tower, the final event film of the summer, which opens Aug. 4, will again test whether it helps to delay reviews until Wednesday night or even Thursday. Critics won’t see the movie until the evening of Wednesday, Aug. 2 (the review embargo is also that night). Universal delayed reviews of The Mummy (17 percent) until the Wednesday morning before the film’s release and it didn’t help much at the box office. And Warner Bros. didn’t screen The House at all for reviewers. The House, earning a 17 percent rotten score, bombed with $8.7 million.
ComScore’s Paul Dergarabedian has his own advice: “The best way for studios to combat the ‘Rotten Tomatoes Effect’ is to make better movies, plain and simple.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.