How the Rotten Tomatoes thing works

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Last week I posted an angry letter I’d gotten from someone who has presumably found me via Rotten Tomatoes, and in the comments a couple readers asked questions about the Rotten Tomatoes thing. Namely: Do I choose the quote they use, or do they? And how come for a while I was designated a “Top Critic”? What’s up with that? (I am paraphrasing the questions.)

The requirements for becoming a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic and getting on the Tomatometer have changed over time. The current rules are here. Until very recently, simply being a member of one of the critics groups listed there (including the Online Film Critics Society, of which I’m a member) was enough to get you into RT. But now they’ve started vetting critics individually, so joining one of those groups is a good start but not a guarantee.

I don’t remember exactly what the process was when I got on RT, but I believe it happened in late 2000. I wasn’t a member of the OFCS yet then, so apparently I met whatever the other criteria were at the time. Just general awesomeness, probably.

As for the quotes used for each review, I choose those myself. Every RT-approved critic has an RT login that allows him or her to post a link to a new review, select “Fresh” or “Rotten,” and choose a quote to use. However, RT also has some kind of automated system that goes looking for new reviews at members’ sites, so if I neglect to do it myself, after several days a link will show up anyway, with no quote. (It will just say “Click here to read article.”) Then an RT staffer will eventually go in and find a quote manually, or I can do it myself.

But I don’t think this automated system works for all the critics. My hunch is that it used to, back when I joined, but that at some point they stopped implementing it when new critics came aboard. I also know that big-shot critics like Roger Ebert and the Entertainment Weekly people and the New York Times people don’t have to post their own links and quotes, and probably never do. The RT staff handles them.

The “Top Critic” designation is peculiar. RT used to have a “Cream of the Crop” section, where critics from the most distinguished publications were gathered. “Cream of the Crop” applied to the publications more than to the specific critics; if you wrote for one of the designated outlets, you were automatically considered creamy. Then RT underwent a redesign, stopped segregating “Cream of the Crop” critics from the rest of us commoners, and simply marked former “Cream of the Crop” people as “Top Critic.”

The problem, however, is that “Top Critic” still applies to the publication, not the writer. I’m only labeled “Top Critic” when I’m writing for Film.com, and so is anyone else who writes for Film.com. When I write for Cinematical or EricDSnider.com, I’m not a “Top Critic.” Likewise, since Entertainment Weekly is a “Top Critic,” that means anyone who writes a review for them — even if it’s the third-string back-up guy because the main critics are on vacation — is called a “Top Critic.” And when that poor schlub starts writing for his own site, he won’t be a “Top Critic” anymore.

Obviously, it should be called “Top Publication” or something, since that’s really what they’re going by. It doesn’t make any sense to call someone a “Top Critic” when he writes for one outlet but not when he writes for another. I’ve pointed this out to no fewer than three different Rotten Tomatoes staff members, and all of them have said, “Huh, you’re right. Good point. I’ll bring it up at a meeting!” And that’s as far as it’s gone.

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