Do Rotten Tomatoes Scores Significantly Impact Box Office Performance?

Following the release of Dolittle, Rotten Tomatoes once again found itself in the line of fire. The big-budget, family-friendly film boasts Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role, alongside a group of neverending A-listers comprising the voice cast. So, how could it do so poorly at the box office? It’s Downey talking to animals; seems like the perfect night out for the family, right? Should those behind the film blame the 17% critics consensus on Rotten Tomatoes

Robert Downey Jr. of Dolittle
Robert Downey Jr. attends the premiere of Universal Pictures’ ‘Dolittle’ | Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

Over the last few years, Rotten Tomatoes has become both the source of directors’ worst nightmare and their saving grace. When a movie opens to poor critical reviews — and subsequently faces poor box office sales — Rotten Tomatoes is the culprit, the scapegoat. 

On the other hand, when a movie opens to positive critical review before widespread release — and endless ticket sales follow suit — it’s a gift, a little proof of merit to help the movie along. However, does Rotten Tomatoes actually impact a movie’s box office performance? And, are there no other scenarios — besides the aforementioned two — that can come to play when discussing the relationship between a critics’ consensus and ticket sales? There are a few different arguments surrounding the matter, so let’s start with the statistical analysis once reported on by Variety.  

Study finds Rotten Tomatoes scores “have never played a very big role in driving box office performance” 

Back in 2017, Variety wrote an article about the relationship between box office sales and Rotten Tomatoes. Relying on a statistical analysis performed by Yves Bergquist — the Director of the Data and Analytics Project at UCS’s Entertainment Technology Center — the article claimed a fact counter to the opinion that was quickly gaining steam in Tinseltown. 

While many started to believe that a causal relationship between Rotten Tomatoes and box office sales existed, the study found that “Rotten Tomatoes scores have never played a very big role in driving box office performance, either positively or negatively,” as Variety quoted. While the study claimed that Rotten Tomatoes does not play a “very big role” in driving ticket sales, could there be a role at play, and to what extent may Rotten tomatoes help or hinder movies? 

The other side of the coin 

Vox, in an article about Rotten Tomatoes — from the score calculation process to the box office relationship — argued that the site can impact box office performance, but “not necessarily in the ways you might think.”

The site explained that a strong Rotten Tomatoes score can be beneficial to smaller films in particular — films that only release in a few major cities before widespread release. The hope is that the positive buzz a strong score can create — on social media outlets and beyond — will help the movie sell tickets when it releases on a wider scale. 

On the other hand, the outlet explained that developing a correlation (or a causal relationship) between Rotten Tomatoes and big budget and/or franchise films is much more complex and, if there is a connection, it’s not immediately obvious. A good score for an expected “blockbuster” has not guaranteed success in the past, nor has a bad score demolished ticket sales for every big-budget franchise film; if such were the case, Warner Bros. would have quit making DC films ages ago. 

People will continue to blame Rotten Tomatoes when a movie “destined for success” opens to critical condemnation — as it seems like the perfect culprit to attack. However, whether several critics’ poor reviews actually changes the outcome remains difficult to prove. And, maybe the real question is, “how do we determine when a movie is destined to succeed?” What makes a box office smash? Should the once-presumed necessary factors be reevaluated?