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How Rotten Tomatoes Plans to Shake Up White Male-Dominated Film Criticism

At a time when film criticism is being criticized for being dominated by white men, Rotten Tomatoes is trying to highlight more diverse voices.

The review aggregator, known for its “fresh” or “rotten” Tomatometer ranking system, said it is changing its criteria to include new media platforms, such as podcasts and streaming shows, as opposed to only boasting written notices. In addition, the site will include writers whose work may appear on personal blogs or other platforms instead of only focusing on the pieces they publish for specific print outlets. As part of the change, over 200 new Tomatometer-approved critics have been added to Rotten Tomatoes and the service expects to keep growing its ranks.

The new criteria comes after months of reaching out to critics to get their suggestions for ways to expand the pool of reviewers to include more women and people from under-represented communities.

“The feedback we kept getting is that film criticism has changed,” said Jenny Jediny, Rotten Tomatoes critics relations manager. Layoffs at major print publications and magazines have left a mark, she said. “More people are freelancing, but our site didn’t reflect that. We were only focused on the reviews they were writing for pre-approved publications.”

Inclusion has become a hot-button topic when it comes to movie-making, with various groups to include more women and minorities in front of and behind the camera. Even as the issue of diversity has become more pressing in Hollywood, the composition of the people grading the best of cinema has remained stubbornly monochromatic.

White critics wrote 82% of the reviews of the top 100-grossing films of last year, according to a  recent study by USC, while critics from underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds penned a mere 18% of reviews. Just over 20% of the 19,559 reviews that the study’s authors evaluated were written by women.

Some prominent figures in the entertainment industry are calling for a change. Actress Brie Larson, for instance, made headlines when she suggested that the lack of diversity was impacting reviews for movies that feature protagonists of different races or backgrounds.

“I do not need a 40-year-old white dude to tell me what didn’t work for him about ‘A Wrinkle in Time,'” Larson said last June at the Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards. “It wasn’t made for him.”

That, in turn, impacts box office returns. Filmgoers often turn to Rotten Tomatoes to inform their ticket-buying choices. A weaker Tomatometer can have a tangible financial impact.

Film festivals, such as Sundance and the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), are trying to change things by offering at least 20% of their top-level press passes to under-represented critics. However, getting to these festivals and securing lodging is a costly proposition, particularly for journalists working as freelancers. To that end, Rotten Tomatoes has established a $100,000 grant program. Over the next year, the company will provide grants to non-profit organizations that help critics with expenses associated with festival attendance. The first grant of $25,000 will go to the American Friends of TIFF fund to help reviewers defray their travel expenses to Toronto.

Paul Yanover, president of Fandango, Rotten Tomatoes’ parent company, said the site isn’t done tinkering. Currently, Rotten Tomatoes separates “top critics,” a designation for reviewers from well-known outlets, from the rest of the critical pack. That may change, he suggested. For Yanover, Rotten Tomatoes benefits from boasting more voices.

“It creates a better product,” he said. “More reviews means we’re including more points of view and more platforms… By opening the aperture wider, we’re being more reflective of where film criticism is going.”

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