“Arrival” invaded theaters last month. It’s a heady science fiction story about communicating with an alien species whose way of thinking is totally different from our own — you know, an ideal primer for the holidays. But in an innovative move on the marketing, its perfect score on the website Rotten Tomatoes days before its release was a big part of the sell.
Film review aggregators have become an essential part of how a studio rolls out a movie. Bragging about a 100 percent fresh rating1 a week ahead of the premiere is smart as heck, especially when a film is beloved by every critic who’s seen it.
That is, until the score drops. Which happened for “Arrival” on Nov. 9, a mere two days before the film’s release, when negative reviews by Rex Reed of the New York Observer, Sarah Cullen of Film Ireland magazine and CJ Johnson of Australia’s ABC Radio made it into the Rotten Tomatoes database. The film’s score is now a hardly ethereal 93 percent. It’s 90 percent2 among a group of reviewers designated by Rotten Tomatoes as “top critics” because of their publication’s circulation, longevity and influence.3
But “Arrival” isn’t special. A decrease in the Rotten Tomatoes score as a premiere date approaches is incredibly common, and the drop can be a lot worse than just a few points. So if you’re buying movie tickets a week before it comes out, don’t fall for unanimous praise from review aggregators; generally, scores drop a relatively predictable amount. Here’s a guide for figuring out whether a movie is as good as it seems. Or, to put it another way: How likely is a movie’s Rotten Tomatoes score to change as its release day nears?
To find out what happens to a movie’s Rotten Tomatoes rating as the release date approaches, I pulled top critics’ reviews for every film that appeared on the site’s weekly box-office chart between July 2006 and August 2016. I found that a week before a movie’s release, the number of top-critic reviews it has on Rotten Tomatoes is a very small share of its final total. Only about 20 percent of top critics’ reviews come out two days before a film’s release. By the day before the film’s release, half of top-critic reviews have been published, and by the day after the release, about three-quarters have. The rest trickle in — some on year-end lists, in month-in-reviews, or through other commentaries not directly tied to the release date.
Reviews come out on their own publishing schedule, and review aggregators are only as good as the data they have. But even if we don’t have all the data, we can use what we know to make some judgments about what’s to come.
How early the reviews come in can tell us something about a movie’s quality. If a movie doesn’t have more than five reviews from top critics early in the week of its release, that’s a red flag that the movie may be very bad.
I sorted movies into five categories based on their score the day of their release — less than a 20 percent rating, at least 20 percent but less than 40 percent, at least 40 percent but less than 60 percent, and so on. The movies in the first bucket, the ones that turned out to be really bad, tended not to hit five reviews — the number a film must reach to receive a Rotten Tomatoes rating — until much later than their better counterparts. A full 66 percent of the stinkers4 — two-thirds! — did not have enough top-critic reviews to merit a score two days ahead of their premiere. For movies that would go on to be really good (a rating of 80 percent or higher on their release day), only 23 percent had yet to meet the five-review threshold at that point. If a studio is not confident in a movie, it doesn’t do critic screenings. If there aren’t any critic screenings, then there won’t be bad reviews.
Plus, early buzz is just that for a reason. Across the board, a movie’s Rotten Tomatoes score usually gets worse as the release date nears. You’ve seen this movie before! A highly touted indie film gets reviews that kick some dirt on it the week before release, rarely enough to tank it but just enough to drop the score a half-dozen points.
To show how this goes down, I hunted down the most mediocre5 movie in the whole dang set — 2012’s “The Paperboy,” whose plot was described as a “mess” in no fewer than four reviews. It was released on Oct. 5, 2012, to a middling 46 percent top-critic rating despite high hopes. The solitary speedbump of the McConaissance, the film was lousy with potential (David Oyelowo, Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman, John Cusack) but instead just turned out to be lousy. The film showed up at Cannes in May, and critics were split — The Hollywood Reporter started the bidding with a positive review on May 24, but the following days saw differing opinions hit the website: The Atlantic and Time were positive, while The A.V. Club and Time Out London hated it.
|DATE||DAYS UNTIL RELEASE||NEW REVIEWS||FRESH||ROTTEN||NEW SCORE|
|Oct. 2, 2012||3||2||1||1||57|
|Oct. 3, 2012||2||4||2||2||55|
|Oct. 4, 2012||1||14||7||7||52|
|Oct. 5, 2012||0||3||0||3||46|
The reviews on Oct. 2, 3 and 4 — the days ahead of the release — were all split, dragging the film’s score down 8 points. Roger Ebert called it “great trash” in his write-up, Peter Travers called it a “hot mess,” and those were the good reviews. But it was the reviews that dropped on release day that really kneecapped the movie: three strikeouts, damning the film to a 46 percent rating among top critics. In the end, “The Paperboy” finished with a 42 percent Tomatometer score among top critics, down 4 points from release day and 18 points from a week before launch.
It’s not just mediocre movies that can see a considerable slide in the week ahead of their release. Many movies experience the slide, but worse movies suffer way more than better movies. Taking those buckets of films from earlier, I looked at the difference between the tier’s average rating on release day6 and the tier’s average score on days before and after the release.
Movies that end up in the top tier miss a step ahead of their release, mediocre movies stumble, and the bottom tiers fall down an elevator shaft.
If it’s a week ahead of a film’s release and its score is under 50, it may be time to panic. It’s difficult to explain why a bad movie’s score drops 7 points in five days. Perhaps the higher ratings on the front end are a form of herding, when critics stick to what the majority are saying to avoid being an outlier, which has been well observed in other professions. Or it could be that all the meanest critics drop their reviews the two days before a release. Or reviews for bad movies could come out late in the cycle. Still, that can’t be responsible for all the variation, as drops are also observed in every other tier.
And how to explain that movies in the very top tier on average had slightly worse ratings two days before their release, compared with their scores on release day or the day before? Again, maybe the meanest critics release reviews on Wednesday.
Interestingly, the post-release reviews for all movies tend to be a bit reactionary; good movies lose around half a point by the time the score is finalized, while bad movies gain half a point.
Generally speaking, a good rule of thumb may be to mentally knock 3 points off the Tomatometer rating of a movie with a score above 50 if you’re pre-ordering tickets the weekend before its release — and maybe deduct 8 points if the film is sub-50. Not exactly brain surgery (or xenolinguistics).