As 'Gotti' Battles Critics, Its Rotten Tomatoes Audience Score Draws Questions

John Travolta's biopic about the late mobster didn't win over many reviewers, but audiences appear to love it — or do they?

John Travolta’s new film Gotti, which was branded with a rare zero percent Rotten Tomatoes rating when it arrived in theaters on Friday, has declared war on the critics, and that, in turn, has triggered dueling conspiracy theories. 

The team behind the movie is accusing Rotten Tomatoes of suppressing good reviews, while others are suggesting that the movie’s positive audience score on Rotten Tomatoes has been inflated by a stealth campaign of phony user ratings — with the ratings site, in turn, rejecting both claims.

The Gotti offensive kicked off Monday with a tweet from the film’s official Twitter account that read, “Audiences loved Gotti but critics don’t want you to see it…The question is why??? Trust the people and see it for yourself!”.  A second tweet followed on Tuesday that included a video clip in which individuals who appeared to be regular moviegoers testified in support of the biopic. “Hear it from the PEOPLE!,” the tweet read. “Who do you trust?... The actual people who saw the movie or some TROLLS behind the keyboard?”

By “trolls,” the movie appeared to be pointing the finger at critics, many of whom have been merciless in dismissing the movie, which stars Travolta as the late crime boss John Gotti and was directed by Entourage’s Kevin Connolly. Rotten Tomatoes, the popular review-aggregation site, currently links to 28 reviews for the film, and all of them are rated “rotten” rather than “fresh,” giving the film its zero percent rating.

But team Gotti is arguing that the site has ignored some positive reviews, and in the case of less enthusiastic reviews, it has highlighted the negative judgments while overlooking any positive words they offered.

“I find it curious that RT has only posted 28 reviews while every other film has hundreds,” says Dennis Rice, a marketing consultant who has been working on Gotti. “It's also curious to me that RT has taken mixed or positive reviews and has either not posted it (HollywoodChicago.com) or posted them as negative and uses only negative excerpts to describe the review (LA Times, Entertainment Weekly).” 

A spokesperson for Rotten Tomatoes declined to speak to the specifics of those charges, but did explain the general process by which the site goes about aggregating reviews.

The site only lists reviews from reviewers and review sites that have been “Tomato-meter approved” in advance of a movie’s opening. So though Patrick McDonald of HollywoodChicago.com gave the film 3.5 out of 5 and praised Travolta for a “tour-de-force performance,” Rotten Tomatoes says he is not “a Tomato-approved critic.” 

As for the other reviews cited by Rice, the Los Angeles Times review by Gary Goldstein does conclude, as quoted by RT, “Closing reportage of everyday New Yorkers brashly extolling Gotti's virtues upon his death, painting him, without any irony, as some kind of local hero, pretty much tells you where this picture's coming from.” But it also describes the movie as “mostly well-acted and frequently entertaining,” and says of Travolta’s performance, “If only all that great work were in the service of a wholly better movie,” words that don’t appear in the RT blurb although they are available via a link.

In the case of the Entertainment Weekly review, which awarded the pic a C, RT accurately quoted Chris Nashawaty, who wrote, “It’s not a good movie. But the blame can’t be laid at its star’s Ferragamo-shod feet,” though it didn’t include his added words, “Decked out in a closetful of shiny wide-lapel suits, snug goombah turtlenecks, and pinkie rings the size of hubcaps, Travolta somehow manages to summon a ferocious and committed performance while everything else around him falls to pieces.”

While RT's decision whether a mixed review is ultimately postive or negative is necessarily subjective, the site contends that its curatorial team will debate any close calls — and can even go back to a critic to get his or her input. It's not left to an algorithm to figure out. 

Some in the Gotti camp have also speculated that because Rotten Tomatoes and its parent site Flixster are owned by Comcast’s Fandango, with Warner Bros. retaining a minority stake, the site favors studio releases and penalizes indie fare. But that isn’t reflected in the fact that for the past two years, it has been indie films — 2017’s Lady Bird and 2016’s Moonlight — that have captured the top spots in RT’s rankings.

Rotten Tomatoes’ separate viewer rating for Gotti has also drawn scrutiny — but for different reasons. While reviewers were giving the movie a big collective thumbs down, visitors to the site were much more positively inclined toward the pic. On Saturday, the site recorded an audience score that stood at 80 percent positive, although as more users have posted ratings, that score now stands at 69 percent — which is still a lot more enthusiastic than the kiss-off the film got from critics.

Currently, the audience score for Gotti, which opened to $1.7 million, reflects responses from 7,003 users. By contrast, Incredibles 2, which opened this past weekend to a huge audience, grossing a record $183 million for an animated film, has attracted a roughly comparable 7,716 user interactions. 

Wondering how Gotti, which did far less business than Incredibles 2, could have earned almost as much online attention, Screen Junkies critic Dan Murrell tweeted, “Some party involved with Gotti artificially manipulated the audience scores and now they’re using them as a marketing strategy. The numbers don’t make sense.”

Taking a closer look in a Mashable post, Kellen Beck reported that a number of the five-star user reviews awarded to Gotti came from users who joined the site this month and then posted just one review — for the Travolta movie.

But Rotten Tomatoes rejected any suggestion that the audience rating for Gotti has been artificially boosted, with a spokesperson saying, “We’ve looked into the situation and all the reviews have been posted by real users.” Gotti’s 7,000-plus RT users reflect all the responses that the movie has generated — not just those who posted reviews and ratings — with some of the posts going as far back as 2013 as moviegoers reacted to news of the long-in-development movie.

Meanwhile, with critics and fans seemingly polarized, Gotti is preparing to weather its second weekend at the box office. The overall number of theaters where the Vertical Entertainment release will be playing will drop from 503 theaters to 461 theaters, but in some parts of the country, where Gotti’s limited marketing dollars were focused and its business was subsequently concentrated during its first weekend, it will actually pick up theaters. Currently, Gotti has booked 37 new theaters nationwide, six of them in the New York area.

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