Scorsese penned a passionate, thought-provoking column on the state of film criticism

By Nick Romano
October 10, 2017 at 11:19 AM EDT
J. Countess/Getty Images

When it comes to film criticism, Rotten Tomatoes and CinemaScore are points of contention. Members of the Hollywood industry continue to question the larger implications of these rating systems in light of films like mother! (which received an F CinemaScore) and Flatliners (which started out with a 0 percent Rotten Tomatoes grade). For Martin Scorsese, who penned a passionate and thought-provoking column on the state of film criticism, these platforms have become “hostile to serious filmmakers.”

“Like everyone else, I’ve received my share of positive and negative reviews,” the Oscar-winning director writes in The Hollywood Reporter. “The negative ones obviously aren’t much fun, but they come with the territory. However, I will say that in the past, when some critics had problems with one of my pictures, they would generally respond in a thoughtful manner, with actual positions that they felt obliged to argue. Over the past 20 years or so, many things have changed in cinema.”

One of these changes, he continues, is how entertainment journalism focuses on box office.

“I’m afraid that they’ve become…everything,” Scorsese remarks. “Box office is the undercurrent in almost all discussions of cinema, and frequently it’s more than just an undercurrent. The brutal judgmentalism that has made opening weekend grosses into a bloodthirsty spectator sport seems to have encouraged an even more brutal approach to film reviewing.”

Market research firms like CinemaScore and online “aggregators” like Rotten Tomatoes “have absolutely nothing to do with real film criticism” and instead “rate a picture the way you’d rate a horse at the racetrack, a restaurant in a Zagat’s guide, or a household appliance in Consumer Reports,” he continues. “They have everything to do with the movie business and absolutely nothing to do with either the creation or the intelligent viewing of film. The filmmaker is reduced to a content manufacturer and the viewer to an unadventurous consumer.”

Scorsese asserts that the rise of these platforms yields the decline of “film criticism written by passionately engaged people with actual knowledge of film history” and an increase of “people who seem to take pleasure in seeing films and filmmakers rejected, dismissed, and in some cases ripped to shreds.”

The “rush to judgment” with Darren Aronofsky’s mother! prompted Scorsese to pen the column. “Good films by real filmmakers aren’t made to be decoded, consumed, or instantly comprehended. They’re not even made to be instantly liked. They’re just made, because the person behind the camera had to make them,” he writes in defense of the film. “And as anyone familiar with the history of movies knows all too well, there a very long list of titles — The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life, Vertigo, and Point Blank, to name just a few — that were rejected on first release and went on to become classics. Tomatometer ratings and Cinemascoregrades will be gone soon enough. Maybe they’ll be muscled out by something even worse. Or maybe they’ll fade away and dissolve in the light of a new spirit in film literacy. Meanwhile, passionately crafted pictures like mother! will continue to grow in our minds.”

Brett Ratner, who’s directing a biopic of Hugh Hefner with star Jared Leto, was another voice calling out Rotten Tomatoes as “the worst thing that we have in today’s movie culture” and “the destruction of our business.” However, a study from the Data & Analytics Project at USC’s Entertainment Technology Center determined there was “no (positive or negative) correlation in 2017 between Rotten Tomatoes Scores and box office returns.”

Jordan Vogt-Roberts (Kong: Skull Island), meanwhile, had more to say about what Scorsese refers to in his column as “brutal judgmentalism.” Vogt-Roberts condemned the YouTube series CinemaSins in response to a particularly scathing dissection of his King Kong film.

Mystery Science Theatre built something artful, endearing and comedic on top of the foundation [of] other people’s work,” he wrote in a series of tweets. “It had merit to itself,” Roberts began in a series of tweets. “Things like [CinemaSins] simply suck the life blood of other people and are often just wrong about intent or how cinema works. It’s terrible.”