Over at The Wrap, Joshua Weinstein has up a piece on movie aggregators, and whether they “matter,” looking at Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and Movie Review Intelligence. It’s a nice but not particularly deep or instructive thumbnail-type read, mainly because it doesn’t get into the substantive failings — or shortcomings, at least — of each aforementioned site.
Aggregators are enormously important, of course, because they can both help connect readers to new writers and allow them to more easily follow their favorites. The oldest, biggest and unarguably most populist is Rotten Tomatoes, of course, in which all critics (500-plus, they say) are created equal. Metacritic (which is owned by CBS Interactive) assigns scores to its 44 polled critics, as well as to their reviews; the greater a critic’s stature, the more influential that critic’s opinion is on the overall Metacritic score. Movie Review Intelligence, meanwhile, rates and weighs its supposed 51 polled publications (though there seem to be a lot more on its site) by readership.
While providing some modicum of sifted elitism that places it above the riff-raff of bloggerdom (one assumes no honest Tea Partier could check either of these sites), neither of the latter two sites seems to have hit upon quite the right formula. While the more manageable numbers allow for greater shades of grey in their filmic rankings (as opposed to Rotten Tomatoes’ yea-nay system), they hardly seem inclusive or representative enough, geographically or culturally, for a true, digital-age canvassing.
And what of their measurements — for MRI, how frequently are readerships audited, and by what means? Is a print subscription base the same as readership, and/or how is that stacked up and weighed against more discretely measured web traffic? (Their critics roster, meanwhile, is littered with infrequent contributors to name-brand publications.) Even more elusive is Metacritic’s somewhat dodgy notion of “stature.” Is it a zero-sum game? As one critic’s stature or star rises, does another’s have to necessarily wane? Who watches the watchmen, in other words — sitting astride the cultural world as arbiters of approved opinion?
The best formula, as yet untapped, seems somewhere in the middle. Like it or not, as full-time single outlet perches further dwindle, film critics and those otherwise professionally assaying culture will become de facto free agents, employed full-time by a small(er) number of outlets but also free (and wise) to write on their own, and/or pitch out special pieces. Rotten Tomatoes might do well to bring in a nominal multiplier to its formula, to apply to heavy-volume reviewers who see and write about more films annually. But its system (even with more rigorous application standards than it first had in its heyday) is still the most egalitarian and useful, and ergo not by accident the most popular with consumers. It astounds me that, given all the hyper-generational advances in SEO and other arenas on the web, movie aggregator sites have not done a better job in tweaking their formulas and managing their own growth. Hopefully they turn an eye toward that in the short-term future, because social media massage is not a skill set with which all writers are naturally equipped. For The Wrap’s full read, click here.