Those assigned grades are then translated into numerical scores -- a B-plus is an 83, a C-minus rates a 42, and so on. Rather than simply average those scores, Gross applies a weighting system based on a reviewer's circulation, with People magazine (circulation: 3.7 million) receiving the greatest weight. "All that counts is what moviegoers are reading and seeing," Gross says. "I think the most important thing is to reflect what is going on in the market -- in the real world."
Metacritic, which was launched in 2001, uses a similar methodology to assess the 43 reviewers it surveys, about half of whom don't use stars or letter grades. But rather than translate a review into a letter grade, the site's staff scores notices on a 0-100 scale in 10-point steps. "It's still often hard to distinguish between what's an 80 and what's a 90," says Marc Doyle, one of the founders of Metacritic. Some critics will contact the site to say its scoring of their reviews was wrong, and Metacritic will amend its mark.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, June 17, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 91 words Type of Material: Correction
Movie review websites: An article in Saturday's Calendar about websites that aggregate movie reviews misstated the percentage and type of positive reviews needed to earn a "certified fresh" rating from Rotten Tomatoes. The story said that the rating is given if a movie gets favorable notices from 60% of the critics it surveys. In fact, for a film to be certified fresh it must be reviewed by 40 or more reviewers, with at least five considered top critics by the website, and 75% or more of the reviews must be positive.
Whereas Movie Review Intelligence weights reviews for audience size, Metacritic tips the scales for "prestige," a calculation it calls its "secret sauce" that it won't disclose. "Roger Ebert is weighted more than someone you've never heard of," Doyle says.
Doyle says that when critics are consistently 75% favorable in their reviews of a movie, its Metacritic score is a 75. But that same movie could be 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. "That's a fundamental difference," he says.
Gross says that because Rotten Tomatoes gives equal weighting to Time and tiny websites, it penalizes circulation. "What's going on hurts critics, it hurts moviegoers and it hurts the industry," Gross says. "What difference does it make if some fan boy says thumbs down to 'Terminator Salvation'?"
Unlike many of the filmmakers who get poor scores on his website, Rotten Tomatoes' Ludovissy says he doesn't mind the criticism. Even if the site simply scores reviews yeah or nay, Rotten Tomatoes endeavors to get its marks right. When a critic writes a mixed review, the site will call the author to see if they actually liked the film. (When a film is scored 59%, publicists will call Rotten Tomatoes to lobby the site to reevaluate some mixed reviews to push their movie over the magical 60% mark.) And the site does have an application process to admit its critics.
"All of them are accredited by some organization," Ludovissy says. "It's not just that Joe Blow starts a blog and then he's a critic for us."
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Good, bad or who really knows?
Metacritic and Movie Review Intelligence assign a numerical score to a critic's review (0 through 100) and calculate an average for all sampled reviews. Rotten Tomatoes' percentage reflects the ratio of positive to negative scores -- if four out of five critics like a movie (even not very much), for example, it receives a score of 80%.
'The Taking of Pelham 123'
Movie Review Intelligence: 68.2%
Rotten Tomatoes: 48%
Movie Review Intelligence: 60.7%
Rotten Tomatoes: 43%
Movie Review Intelligence: 55.7%
Rotten Tomatoes: 33%