Memorial Day weekend was a bust at the domestic box office this year, with returns coming in well below projections for even the weekend’s top earner, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. The fifth installment in the most successful franchise based on a Disney ride (last place: The Country Bears), took in $77 million domestically over the four-day holiday weekend, according to Variety. That’s $13 million less than the series’ last installment’s opening weekend (back in 2011, before Pirates star Johnny Depp was accused of spousal abuse). Meanwhile Baywatch, the weekend’s other big new movie, didn’t even make second place, bringing in only $22 million, while Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 bested it with $25.1 million. Overall, it was the worst Memorial Day box office haul in 18 years. Fortunately, as Deadline reports, studio insiders know just who to blame: Rotten Tomatoes! Commentary editor John Podhoretz highlighted this astonishing passage on Twitter:
Insiders close to both films blame Rotten Tomatoes, with Pirates 5 and Baywatch respectively earning 32% and 19% Rotten. The critic aggregation site increasingly is slowing down the potential business of popcorn movies. Pirates 5 and Baywatch aren’t built for critics but rather general audiences, and once upon a time these types of films—a family adventure and a raunchy R-rated comedy—were critic-proof. Many of those in the industry severely question how Rotten Tomatoes computes the its ratings, and the fact that these scores run on Fandango (which owns RT) is an even bigger problem.
It’s true that Rotten Tomatoes has had a mostly pernicious effect on movies: Review aggregation is a boring and ugly way to think about art. But that’s not the argument being made here. Instead, studios would prefer that audiences not find out that anyone else thinks a movie is terrible until they can plunk down their money and experience the awfulness for themselves. There’s as much condescension in the phrase “aren’t built for critics but rather general audiences” as there was in Trump’s birtherism, and the rest of the article is a delightful tour of the thinking that produces an endless stream of atrocious reboots and uninspired sequels. Did you know it was possible to use the phrase “the onus for making Baywatch” in earnest?
Suggested solutions to the problem—again, the problem is too many film critics telling the public that they think a movie is bad, thus discouraging them from buying tickets—include moving all critic screenings back to opening day or eliminating them entirely. Not considered: trying to make good movies, instead of feeling a responsibility to turn any intellectual property with name recognition into a tentpole franchise, based on the notion that “general audiences” are unfathomably stupid.
The news was better abroad, where Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales pulled in $208.8 million, pushing Disney over the $4 billion mark for the entire franchise. Baywatch hasn’t opened wide internationally yet but did well in Taiwan, leaving Paramount feeling good about its overseas prospects. “We’re making movies for a global audience,” Disney’s head of distribution Dave Hollis told Variety. At least as long as the rest of the world never finds out about review aggregation.