More women get to throw tomatoes as movie-review website diversifies

LOS ANGELES • Ms Shannon McGrew admits she has had it a little easier than other women establishing her chops as an online film critic.

Unlike some of her contemporaries, she said, “I have not received death threats.” But during her nearly five years as a critic of horror movies on her own website, Nightmarish Conjurings, she has battled detractors who belittled her work.

“I think sometimes we are not considered as serious as our male counterparts, ” she said.

That is starting to change, with help from Rotten Tomatoes, the influential website known for tagging badly reviewed films with a splattered green tomato.

Ms McGrew is one of 600 critics – writers not already working with a major media outlet – who were approved to post reviews on the website over the past year as part of a diversity initiative. The company said more than half are women.

“It was a huge moment for me,” Ms McGrew said. After four years of writing reviews and waiting a year for her application to be recognised, the Los Angeles-based reviewer and interior designer will get greater access to screenings and industry events for new movies.

With the growing reach of social media, online reviews and aggregator websites like Rotten Tomatoes can make or break a movie. Consumers can quickly look up a rating before deciding whether to watch a new film. The website has become so influential that some producers have railed against the company – even though it is owned by two Hollywood studios.

Up to now, though, the contributors have been largely white and male. This is particularly true of Rotten Tomatoes’ Top Critics, reviewers employed by mainstream publications.

While some studios like Comcast’s Universal Pictures have made commitments to diversifying their directors, casts and crews, the ranks of movie reviewers have barely shifted.

In the horror genre, “women don’t have much of a voice”, Ms McGrew said. “There have to be opportunities to allow new voices to come in.”

Rotten Tomatoes said that of the 600 new critics, freelancers account for 60 per cent and 10 per cent publish via YouTube or podcasts. Of the 100 or so publications that have Top Critics status, only 30 per cent of their contributors are women. In all, the company has about 1,100 unaffiliated individual reviewers, with about 42 per cent women.

The website is also working to increase the ethnic diversity of its line-up, but gender and ethnicity are not the only hurdles reviewers have to clear. Some are financial. The cost of attending high-profile film festivals can be prohibitive for independent critics. They also have to gain access to the free screenings that major publications enjoy.

To help these newest critics, Rotten Tomatoes’ parent company – the ticketing website Fandango – is committing another US$100,000 (S$138,000) next year to support diversity at festivals and industry inclusion initiatives. Fandango itself is owned by AT&T’s Warner Media and Comcast’s NBCUniversal.

With its growing influence among film fans, Rotten Tomatoes has taken other steps in recent years to make the website fairer.

It changed its audience ratings to stop so-called review bombing, in which films with more women and minorities were flooded with negative commentary. Captain Marvel (2019) and Black Panther (2018) were among the movies targeted. Now people trying to submit an audience review have to prove they have watched it.

Ms Hanna Flint, a newly recognised Rotten Tomatoes contributor who is of Tunisian descent, found herself scrolling through the website in May to find a review of Walt Disney’s live-action Aladdin from a critic from South Asia, the Middle East or North Africa. She put a call out on Twitter, but found very few, and ultimately raised this lack of diversity with the website.

“As much as film is diversifying, film criticism has to respond to that and reflect that,” Ms Flint said. “As a reader of reviews, I look for someone who is like-minded…It’s nice to be that person for other people, but I want other people to be that person for me. “