As part of their ongoing study of the diversity disparities throughout Hollywood, USC Annenberg’s Inclusion Initiative found a sizable gender and race gap among film critics on Rotten Tomatoes.
Since they don’t reflect the general population or even the moviegoing population, these gaps may skew a film’s scores and which movies get “Certified Fresh” on the site.
Rotten Tomatoes, which aggregates reviews from outlets and blogs, can influence how some moviegoers decide which films to see or whether they want to see it in theaters or wait for it to show up on Netflix – or if they will want to see it at all.
A rating of “fresh” or “rotten” on the site’s Tomatometer can also have an effect on which movies can blossom into awards season contenders. With all of this attention, Rotten Tomatoes has become a de facto industry standard Hollywood fears, curses or celebrates.
The Annenberg study looked at 19,559 reviews from the top 100 films from last year. In all, reviews came from mostly white (82 percent) and male (78 percent) critics. Women of color wrote only 4 percent of film reviews aggregated by the site, while male critics of color penned 13.8 percent of reviews.
Women critics of color were also less likely to review as many movies as their white or male peers, with roughly 87 percent of them contributing less than 10 reviews for the year.
Looking at individual critics, 53 percent of the cohort were made up of white men while 23 percent were white women. About 15 percent were men from underrepresented groups and 8.9 percent were women from underrepresented groups.
After Meryl Streep singled out Rotten Tomatoes for its lack of gender diversity in 2015, a few things have changed. At that point, women critics made up about 20 percent of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Now, the study claims that women – both white and from underrepresented groups – are about 32 percent of the critics on the site.
While the Annenberg study is a good start, it’s not yet a holistic view of criticism. The intersectional breakdown of race and gender stops at “underrepresented groups,” with no finer details of which groups and how underrepresented are they.
The study also doesn’t define the freelance/contributor/staff hierarchy of critics that ties into a larger conversation about the gender wage gap. If women – especially women of color – are found mostly at the freelance end of the spectrum, then it means they are being paid less and have less job security than their white male counterparts. That’s if they’re being paid for their work at all.
Another unexplored issue is the question of access. Part of the reason why critics of color can’t review more movies is because they’re denied accreditation or access to screenings. Publicity departments – be they from the studio, a festival or a third party – can play the role of gatekeeper. Invitations to advance screenings don’t usually find their way to underrepresented journalists and critics’ inboxes as easily as they do others.
Francisco Sanchez, a publicist for David Magdeal & Associates, explained a bit about the process from the publicity side. “We’ll reach out to outlets and see who’s interested in speaking [with our clients],” he said. “Most of the time, I find that they are looking for outlets based on coverage and readership. I don’t think it’s fair, because a lot of these up and coming writers – most of whom are writers of color – we don’t give opportunities to these writers. They get pigeonholed.”
The study puts some pressure on Rotten Tomatoes to add more women to their ranks, but the aggregator isn’t the one hiring or promoting critics at outlets.
That lack of diversity reflects on outlets parroting the gospel of diversity while not practicing it. The study helps us put numbers to what many in the field already knew: diversity is almost nonexistent in the film industry.
The real onus is on editors, outlets, studios and publicists to listen and act on the calls for inclusion and not just cash in on its headlines.