June 19, 2018

Is MoviePass Manipulating User Reviews on Rotten Tomatoes to Get Butts in Seats?

Here's a closer look at why the marketing team behind 'Gotti' is attacking film critics.

Each week on Indie Film Weekly, we like to bring up a few movies that are hitting theaters. One film we didn't mention last week was the limited release of a new John Travolta vehicle called Gotti. Now, I know what you’re thinking, we’re usually all over John Travolta news, but be that as it may, we decided it was better to spare you the recommendation (or even the knowledge that this film exists). That’s because it’s currently sitting at an almost impressive 0% on Rotten Tomatoes and has been universally panned by critics since its sneak preview at the Cannes Film Festival.

A biopic of the legendary mobster, the film opened last Friday on 500 screens across the country to a paltry box office gross of $1,719,902. Now, that may not seem like too terrible a number on the indie scale, but once you add in the fact that Travolta’s passion project is rumored to have had a production budget north of ten million dollars, it's easy to see why this venture could be considered a bust.

Not wasting any time in finding someone to blame for their misfortunes at the box office, Gotti’s marketing team quickly took to attacking the critics who panned their movie, calling them out of touch and unable to identify what audiences really want. They backed up this accusation by pointing towards the very same platform that seems to have caused all the trouble in the first place: Rotten Tomatoes

Once again, that Tomatometer rating rests firmly at a 0%. That’s 0 fresh reviews, compared to 26 rotten, with an average rating clocking in at a miserable 2.4/10. The critic's consensus byline simply (and hilariously) reads: “Fugheddaboudit.” The marketing team zeroed in on another statistic, however, and that is the Tomatometer's stark contrast to the “audience score." The rating which signifies any random user's affinity towards a film is at an unusually high 74%.

Credit: Rotten Tomatoes

This morning, a new 16-second marketing campaign for Gotti appeared online, with the words “Audiences loved Gotti. Critics put out the hit,” teased between brief flashes of footage from the film. The final line featured a direct attack on the critics who had been responding to the film, asking, “Who would you trust more? Yourself or a troll behind a keyboard?” 

They’re coming out pretty strong against critics here in what seems like a very desperate (yet decidedly of the times) plea for an audience. Things get even more fishy, however, when you go back and study that Rotten Tomatoes audience score. 

Dan Murrel of ScreenJunkies tweeted out his own suspicions this morning, noticing, “On Rotten Tomatoes, the movie Gotti has a quite unique score of 0% BUT it has a really good 77% audience score; looking at it, it has over 6,900 user reviews which is an insane number for a movie that opened to a miserable $1.7 million on 500 screens.” 

Credit: Dan Murrel

He then decided to investigate the matter further. To put things in perspective in terms of the amount of user reviews, Gotti’s 6,900 are just a few less than this week's top selling film Incredibles 2  which features 7,454. That's also over 2,000 more than Ocean’s 8 at 4,592.  Incredibles 2 made $180 million at the box office this weekend. So the fact is, these are huge budget blockbuster movies that Gotti appears to be putting up similar numbers too.

He then compared Gotti to a film much more similar in terms of scope, the Sundance darling Beirut, which earned 5 million dollars on 700 screens. The film only received 708 user ratings. That seems like a much more realistic number.

Credit: Dan Murrel

So is it possible that distributors Vertical Enterainment and MoviePass Ventures are padding these numbers unfairly, not only to sway public opinion on the film, but also roll-out a lazily produced ad campaign? Unfortunately, all signs point to yes.

"Now things get even worse, as he discovered that seven of those reviews had only reviewed Gotti and one other movie. That movie? MoviePass Ventures’ American Animals."

The dagger comes after Reddit user wunder_3 went in to take a look at the written user reviews on Rotten Tomatoes only to realize that of the first 58 reviews, 45 had come from accounts created in June 2018. Out of those 45, 32 had only reviewed Gotti

Now things get even worse, as he discovered that seven of those reviews had only reviewed Gotti and one other movie. That movie? MoviePass Ventures’ American Animals. Bart Layton's film was their first acquisition (in partnership with The Orchard), released on June 1, 2018. Gotti is their second. To really put the icing on the cake, MoviePass also sent out this push notification a few hours ago to every one of their subscribers.

Cool.

The Rotten Tomatoes debate has been one that’s run wild through Hollywood over the last couple of years, with many studios arguing that the one-stop review resource deters audiences from going to see their blockbuster projects. Now it seems like studios and distributors may have found a way to fight back.

And while, of course, it’s easy to see that this sort of artificial manipulation is rampant on the internet today, this whole revelation is an uncomfortable one for viewers who are already navigating a tricky media landscape looking for film recommendations. Who knows, maybe there are just a whole bunch of dedicated Gotti-heads out there who are really trying to get the word out on this film and it's all legit? But this is not a good look for MoviePass, a company that has undergone some public doubt as of late, and recently resorted to strange stunts like partnering with a student loan company called Laurel Road promising a free annual membership to anyone who signed up with for refinancing.

Perhaps the silver lining here, however, is an effect that actually has the direct opposite effect of what Gotti’s campaign team was looking for in the first place. Audiences should always look to find critics whose tastes they trust and whose writing they identify with when deciding whether or not to see a film.    

How do you feel about all this? Is it a deceptive marketing strategy or just all part of the business? We'd like to hear your thoughts in the comments below.      

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2 Comments

Everyone, just watch Grease and forget this ever happened.

June 19, 2018 at 5:17PM

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Henry Barnill
Director of Photography
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Funniest thing I've read all day!

June 21, 2018 at 11:27AM, Edited June 21, 11:27AM

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