A lot of people want to throw things at Rotten Tomatoes.
The movie-review aggregator waited more than 24 hours to post a poor critics' score for the new Warner Bros film Justice League, breaking with tradition of posting right after a studio-imposed ban. It incensed critics and fans alike.
Fueling the fire is the fact Warner Bros parent Time Warner owns a 30 per cent stake in Rotten Tomatoes.
More than just a kerfuffle over one superhero movie, the incident raises larger questions about the relationship between reviewers and the public, the editorial objectivity of aggregators and how much studios should be empowered to control the pre-release messaging of their films.
"I think we need more transparency and equality on Rotten Tomatoes," said Guy Lodge, a critic who contributes to Variety. "An aggregation site should practice absolute objectivity. You mix Time Warner into it," he added, "and it becomes very confusing." A Rotten Tomatoes spokeswoman declined to provide a comment for this story, as did a WB spokeswoman.
With a budget approaching US$300 million ($440.1m), Justice League is among the most expensive movies ever made. Warner Bros has a lot riding on the DC Comics film, seeking its own ensemble superhero blockbuster to rival the Avengers series from Disney/Marvel.
The Rotten Tomatoes affair began when the site postponed its release of the Justice League critics' score - the percentage of reviewers who certify a movie as "fresh", or good - from late Tuesday last week (US time) to early Thursday, just hours before the movie was to begin playing in theatres. The move was rare, but the site said it wanted to reveal the number on a new Facebook video segment.
The score would turn out to be a subpar 43 per cent.
Some saw the withholding of the score, which was widely expected to be low, as an attempt to bury bad news about a sister company and not deter ticket sales ahead of opening weekend.
"Warner Bros is a minority owner of Rotten Tomatoes' parent company. I respect a lot of people who work there but this is a BAD bad look," Katey Rich, a VanityFair.com editor, tweeted.
Rotten Tomatoes is owned by the ticket-sale site Fandango, of which Warner Bros owns 30 per cent and Comcast Universal owns 70 per cent.
A Rotten Tomatoes spokeswoman, Dana Benson, said the decision to withhold the score was governed solely by the Facebook show time. The program, which is new, has a set debut of Thursday midnight Eastern time, she said. Warner Bros was not involved in the Justice League decision, she said.
"We are absolutely autonomous, like any news organisation," Benson said. "There is no outside influence on anything we put on the site."
They rate a picture the way you'd rate a horse at the racetrack, a restaurant in a Zagat's guide, or a household appliance in Consumer Reports
The news came as some have wondered whether articles in non-traditional entertainment outlets maintain the same standards as mainstream journalism platforms.
Eyebrows shot skyward on social media last week at a Rotten Tomatoes story suggesting Marvel and DC - the two comics giants whose fans root for their respective movies - were basically churning out films of equal quality, despite Marvel films getting overwhelmingly better reviews.
"We looked at every title with a Tomatometer and did the math, and the results were closer than you think," the Time Warner-owned site said, before noting that both sides have "produced some fantastic films [and] guilty pleasures".
The results were indeed close, but only because Rotten Tomatoes in its tally included all DC-related TV shows, an area in which Rotten Tomatoes is not often relied on.
But media types weren't the only ones up in arms about the Justice League move. DC fans suspected an agenda, too - of the opposite sort. They asked whether the grand reveal was meant to highlight DC's creative struggles.
"RT is very aware of the fact that DCEU [DC Extended Universe] films haven't gotten good critic ratings (the audience rating is always fresh, but they NEVER emphasise that, they just want to focus on the negative) and they're using that to their advantage and that isn't right," a writer from the fan site Comic Book Debate who goes by the name Donnia wrote in a message to The Post.
Other DC fans focused on the score itself. Sergio Ramos Ladecima, who tweets under the account @DCEUNews, posted "Guys... If even Man of Steel couldn't get a fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. Did we really [think] that Justice League would get it?" referring to an earlier Superman film.
The incident highlights the challenge faced by review-aggregation sites.
Rotten Tomatoes, along with its more complexly designed rival Metacritic, were launched in the late 1990s as a kind of snapshot of critical opinion, a portal to further study instead of a replacement for it. But as their readership has grown, they have embraced a more important and even activist role.
That has not sat well with many in the film community.
Last month, Martin Scorsese penned an essay in The Hollywood Reporter blaming the site for the commodification of the movie business.
"They rate a picture the way you'd rate a horse at the racetrack, a restaurant in a Zagat's guide, or a household appliance in Consumer Reports," the Oscar-winning film director wrote.
Critics say the system is too vulnerable to exploitation by studio marketing departments and too uninterested in creating a fair representation. They note that the percentages fail to weight critics - Pulitzer winners and unknown writers count equally - while a mildly negative review is not distinguished from one that pans the film.
"I think Rotten Tomatoes' influence on the industry is pernicious," said Michael Philips, the Chicago Tribune film critic. "While I don't wish extinction on the site, I live for the day when people are enslaved to it less."
For their part, studios have been mostly supportive, knowing that a high Rotten Tomatoes score can be a digestible marketing morsel at a time when much traditional TV and even digital advertising is ineffective.
But reviewers say they'd rather not be corralled into that process; they worry that Rotten Tomatoes sets up false dichotomies between fans and critics. Many of the poorly scored movies on the site have turned into rallying cries for fans in the way that legacy news media has become a target for populist voters.
The self-described "modern geek" blogger who runs a site called The Flite Cast tweeted this week of Rotten Tomatoes: "[I]t's time to finally stop giving that site and that score our attention. WE have the power, not them."
Lodge, the Variety writer, said fans would be wrong to blame critics for negative reviews: "I don't see the breach getting resolved as long as studios churn out films as bad as 'Justice League."' Then, realising that might come off a little like Rotten Tomatoes-style reductiveness, he added a more nuanced touch.
"The truth is studios are not as artistically invested in their blockbusters as they used to be, and that is damaging the culture to a degree."