Does Rotten Apples Toss Out Some Good Ones, Too?

The website seeks to sort the movies of bad men from everything else. That’s more fraught than you’d think.


Photo illustration by Slate. Photos via Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images; spaxiax/iStock.

More than two dozen men with ties to the entertainment industry have been fired, suspended, or otherwise censured in the 10 weeks since the New York Times published its initial exposé of producer Harvey Weinstein. If you’re having trouble keeping up with all the boldface names you should now refile under alleged scum, you’re not alone. In keeping with the rest of the news from this terrible year, the downfalls of accused creeps quickly became a torrent of stomach-churning but easily mix-up-able updates. For moviegoers who wish to avoid films made by or starring sexual malefactors, there should be an effortless way to find out how to watch responsibly.

That, anyway, is the thinking behind Rotten Apples, a searchable database that aims to inform users if a movie involves an actor, screenwriter, director, or producer facing allegations of sexual misbehavior. Enter a movie in the search window, and the site’s left half will deliver a verdict in stark red or green: Rotten Apples or Fresh Apples. “Rotten” results include a link to an article about the pertinent accusations.

Less than a week old, the site is a viral hit, with nearly half a million searches in the first 50 or so hours, according to its creators, who are advertising professionals in Los Angeles unaffiliated with the film business. For those ready to dismiss Hollywood as a latter-day Babylon, more than three-quarters of searches at the time of interview have yielded a “Fresh” rating, though that may be due in part to the incompleteness of the site’s list of sexual harassers and assaulters. The database is notably less reliable when it comes to actors and directors of eras past. Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography took a day or two to switch from green to red, while the result for Gone With the Wind still says (at the time of writing) that there is “no known affiliation to [sic] anyone with allegations of sexual misconduct against them,” despite a recently unearthed charge of rape against Clark Gable by his one-time co-star Loretta Young. (Users are encouraged to report inaccuracies to the Rotten Apples team.)

All of which, for the conscientious moviegoer, raises a host of uncomfortable questions: As the flood of allegations forces us to reassess what feels like the entire cinematic canon, do we consign the works of apparent monsters to the dustbin? And if we’re fine with that, does that punish the other artists and professionals who worked on these films? Is it fair to sort movies into “Rotten” and “Fresh”? The creators of Rotten Apples, it turns out, are just as concerned about these questions.

As an example of the slipperiness of these issues, consider Frida. In a harrowing op-ed published on Wednesday about her experiences with Weinstein behind the scenes of the 2002 Frida Kahlo biopic, Salma Hayek inadvertently pointed out the folly of tossing out the baby with the bath water, cinematically speaking. Hanging over Hayek a threat to shut down production, Weinstein forced the actress into a sex scene with full-frontal nudity—a demand so humiliating it gave Hayek a nervous breakdown on set. (Weinstein denies “pressuring Salma to do a gratuitous sex scene with a female co-star.”) But Hayek also speaks of Frida as the pinnacle of her artistic career—a tarnished trophy, but the biggest one she’s got. It netted her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress—an accomplishment few actresses of color have achieved —and allowed the Mexico native to pay tribute to her mother country’s greatest female artist. Despite Weinstein’s grotesque behavior during the making of Frida—and his alleged attempts to pressure Hayek into sexual situations before shooting—my guess is that Hayek would still want fans and cinephiles to watch her most lauded film.

Which brings us to Rotten Apples’ good intentions and limited utility. Type Frida in the site’s search box, and you get a “Rotten” rating—but only for supporting actor Geoffrey Rush, who has been accused of “inappropriate behavior” during a 2015 production at the Sydney Theatre Company. Weinstein doesn’t show up in the Frida results since, according to IMDb, he isn’t a listed producer but received a “very special thanks” in the credits.

Rotten Apples’ four founders—Justice Erolin, Annie Johnston, Bekah Nutt, and Tal Wagman (two women and two men)—are fine with the site’s unipurpose. (The quartet work for the female-owned Zambezi ad agency, but Rotten Apples is unaffiliated with the firm.) The stark interface—a black backdrop with just the site name, the search box, a series of social media icons, and a badge for the About Us text—underscores the site’s minimalist objective. The group insisted that the black background color was grounded in aesthetic motivations (“it looked nice”) and was meant to evoke watching a movie in a theater—not to inject a forbidding sense to the proceedings. Though feedback has been “mostly positive,” the team has had to grapple with the question of whether it’s fair to condemn entire productions that have been tainted by the involvement of one individual. “Are we penalizing other people who worked on the project who are innocent bystanders?” Nutt asked rhetorically. She also described excluding allegations of domestic abuse and other criminal behavior as “hav[ing] to draw a line in the sand.” Right now, at least, the site only focuses on charges of sexual misconduct.

Like the Bechdel test (and the website that determines whether a film passes it), Rotten Apples is designed as a blunt instrument. Perhaps the site’s chief value lies in reflecting our confusion about how to grapple with the projects that sexually abusive artists have produced. It’s simple enough to boycott a Woody Allen movie if you believe Dylan Farrow’s allegations of child molestation (as I do), since the auteur habitually writes and directs his own projects. It’s harder to argue that audiences should shun Wonder Woman, a landmark of female superheroism on screen with links to the producer Brett Ratner, or Coco, the relatively rare diverse animated film, because of Disney animation exec John Lasseter’s misdeeds. Films are a collaborative medium, frequently involving hundreds, if not thousands, of contributors. And yet, continuing to employ, say, a Johnny Depp in a family film like the next Fantastic Beasts installment implies, especially to impressionable young viewers, that domestic abuse allegations aren’t serious or that women lie about being battered by their husbands.

Rotten Apples says that it wants to “help make ethical media consumption easier” but, at least to me, it mostly serves to emphasize the fact that we have very little idea what “ethical media consumption” looks like. The site leaves it up to users to decide what to do with the information it provides, as it should. But what’s sorely missing are guidelines about how to determine if watching or supporting a certain film is morally justifiable, not to mention weighing an artist’s ethical shortcomings against their works’ artistic or historical value. The Rotten Apple founders themselves seem torn about how the site should be used. Johnston hopes that the light that the site shines on the problems in the film industry will lower the rate of abuse in the future, but she also thinks about “how the women or the cast and the crew persevered to make [a film], not just the men who have the allegations against them.” On the question of iconic directors like Hitchcock, whose documented misbehavior has yet to lead to a reappraisal of their status, her co-founder Wagman is far less equivocal. “We’re into taking down statues, if statues have to be taken down.”*

*Correction, Dec. 18, 2017: This article originally misquoted Tal Wagman as saying, “We’re into taking down statues, and statues have to be taken down.” He said, “We’re into taking down statues, if statues have to be taken down” and was specifically referring to Alfred Hitchcock. (Return.)