But then Scorsese turned to a more dubious, though quite popular, argument about how Hollywood has changed for the worse. “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,” he said, going on to blame the likes of CinemaScore (which gives each major film a rating based on interviews with theatergoers) and Rotten Tomatoes for why interesting movies tank. As an example, Scorsese cites mother!, which was given a wide release in September and debuted to a disappointing $7.5 million, before quickly dropping off. Though reviews were generally positive, audience reaction was apparently universally negative enough to earn it an F CinemaScore, an extremely rare feat.
Scorsese isn’t wrong to critique how the current industry environment hampers creativity and originality: “The filmmaker is reduced to a content manufacturer and the viewer to an unadventurous consumer,” the director argued. But while Scorsese aptly identified many of the challenges artists must deal with, there’s also a much deeper problem facing films like Professor Marston and mother!—the sheer amount of competition they have to overcome to get noticed, and the fact that Hollywood no longer seems very interested in marketing itself to adults.
In his piece, Scorsese wrote that “firms and aggregators [like Rotten Tomatoes and CinemaScore] have set a tone that is hostile to serious filmmakers,” suggesting that they have conditioned viewers to be less interested in complex offerings. “People seemed to be out for blood, simply because the film couldn't be easily defined or interpreted or reduced to a two-word description,” Scorsese continued. “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.” It’s a passionate defense of not just mother!, but also the kind of chance Paramount took by releasing a movie that was tricky to categorize and even trickier to advertise.
But (as Scorsese himself acknowledges) CinemaScore has existed since the 1970s, giving Fs to excellent, if similarly difficult-to-summarize films like Jane Campion’s In the Cut or Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris (along with genuine bombs like I Know Who Killed Me or Disaster Movie). Rotten Tomatoes, too, predates this current age of Hollywood, having been launched in 1998. Its aggregated percentage scores of positive and negative reviews might play some part in a consumer’s decision to buy a movie ticket, but they’re just a reflection of the critical industry itself, even if, as Scorsese said, “the actual name Rotten Tomatoes is insulting.” As my colleague Derek Thompson wrote, it’s long been true “that film criticism moves audiences at the margin but isn’t determinative.”