It’s been a bad summer to be a bad movie, and a good summer to be a good one. Studio heads have spent the past few months grousing about the effect that review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes is having on the grosses of their would-be blockbusters. Baywatch (19 percent positive reviews), The Mummy (16 percent positive reviews), and Transformers: The Last Knight (15 percent positive reviews) all underperformed the expectations of box-office analysts. Meanwhile, many of the summer’s biggest over-performers have had the Rotten Tomatoes scores to match: Wonder Woman (92 percent), Spider-Man: Homecoming (92 percent), and Baby Driver (95 percent).
Until last week. The Emoji Movie, which—at a dismal 6 percent—is easily the worst-reviewed movie of the summer, debuted. Audiences didn’t like it much better than critics did, giving it a B ranking on Cinemascore. (Cars 3, by contrast, got an A.) And yet The Emoji Movieopened to a solid $24.5 million, staving off an almost universal lack of enthusiasm for the material.
How did they pull it off? Part of it is that children’s animated movies are uniquely resistant to poor reviews—especially in the summer, when parents and babysitters are just looking for the chance to burn off a couple of hours in an air-conditioned room. The Emoji Movie also opened nearly a month after the last children’s animated movie, Despicable Me 3. If your young kids had already seen that, The Emoji Movie was pretty much your only option.
But that’s only half of the story. Sony’s creative scheduling didn’t just extend to the release date of The Emoji Movie; it extended to the way it rolled the movie out. Press screenings are generally extended to critics around a week before a movie’s release, in order to give time for critics to actually write the review—and, if the movie is good, generate an early, buzzy groundswell of support. And when movies do screen early, it’s generally on the condition of an embargo date: the earliest moment you’re permitted to post a review. As The Hollywood Reporter notes, the first reviews for The Emoji Movierolled in at 3:00 p.m. EST on June 27—less than a day before the movie’s actual release date. And many Friday releases now open on Thursday evenings. It’s a clever tactic to goose a box-office score and serve the fans who are desperate to see a new release as early as possible—but it also narrows the window in which a critic can write a review even further.\
Studios can make it difficult for critics to see a movie—and, of course, to file their reviews. When those reviews get published, Rotten Tomatoes will dutifully assemble them into an aggregate score, but not before some audience members have already bought tickets to see it.
The film business relies on buzz. Sometimes, that buzz is essentially self-generating. (Just try to keep the internet from poring over even the tiniest little nuggets about a Batman movie.) But more often, it’s a complicated aggregate that relies on trailers, posters, junket interviews, magazine profiles, promotional appearances on late-night shows by the film’s stars—and, at the end of the line, reviews. If those reviews are good, studios tout them on posters and trailers. Last year, trailers started cutting out the middleman and putting positive Rotten Tomatoes scores right into the commercials. If the studio is deliberately circumventing that route—as they did with The Emoji Movie—there’s probably a good reason for it.
You might be thinking: Who cares? Even if Rotten Tomatoes didn’t exist, does anyone really go to The Emoji Movie expecting it to be great? Probably not. But if the strategy worked for The Emoji Movie, it’s likely to be replicated by a bunch of movies down the line. I am disheartened to report that Sony is employing the same strategy this week with the long-awaited Stephen King adaptation The Dark Tower.
The Dark Tower has long been plagued by rumblings of production and post-production problems. Just this week, Variety reported that an early cut screened for audiences last year ended up testing disastrously—so much so that the studios considered bringing in a new director to recut the whole film. Were those problems corrected in time to salvage the movie? I wish I could tell you! But for a high-profile blockbuster just days away from release, Sony is making it abnormally difficult for critics to see the movie—and, of course, to file their reviews. When those reviews get published, of course, Rotten Tomatoes will dutifully assemble them into an aggregate score—but crucially, not before some audience members have already bought tickets to see it.
Click over to Rotten Tomatoes right now and you’ll see scores for a bunch of movies that come out next week: Annabelle: Creation, Ingrid Goes West, and Good Time. Logan Lucky, which doesn’t open until August 18, already has 19 positive reviews (and, for now, a rare 100 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes). But as of Wednesday evening, The Dark Tower, which opens on Friday, had zero reviews, because Sony hadn’t even screened it for critics yet—let alone given critics the go-ahead to write about it.
That changed this morning, as critics rushed to file their Dark Tower reviews overnight. As of this writing, the movie sits at a dismal 18 percent, with 28 reviews filed—albeit without the “critical consensus” that Rotten Tomatoes can only compile when a larger number of reviews have been published.
Critics don’t like reading tea leaves. They’d rather see a movie and judge for themselves. But when a studio is intentionally withholding a movie right up to the last minute… well, it’s usually not because that movie is great.