Behind the All-Female Review Site Ready to Take on Rotten Tomatoes

Rotten Tomatoes can be helpful, but it’s not without its flaws: With just its “fresh” versus “rotten” binary, it gives no indication of when a movie is, say, not a must-see but good enough for a plane ride, or a sick day, or a Friday night iTunes rental. That, and its critical voices skew heavily male. Those shortcomings are why filmmaker Miranda Bailey created an alternative. This week at South by Southwest, she announced the impending launch of CherryPicks, a review site consisting of reviews by critics who identify as female, with a four-level rating system.

Our friend John Horn of KPCC’s radio show and podcast The Frame spoke to Bailey about CherryPicks and the impact she hopes it will have throughout the entertainment industry.

It’s been a quiet little week for you at South by Southwest. You’re introducing your directorial debut, You Can Choose Your Family, and announcing CherryPicks. What is it like to not only launch this website, but also launch a film?
They’re all kind of the same in the sense that they’re creative things that you work on for a while and you’re just really excited about. I got lucky that I happened to get in, to have my film get into South by Southwest because then I’m like, “Oh, South by Southwest is a perfect place to announce CherryPicks.” It was great that they gave us a panel and we were able to have a real discussion with a music critic and a film critic, and then there were other critics in the audience, and we could really talk about CherryPicks in a way that I don’t think we would have a platform anywhere else to do.

Those critics include Ann Powers, who’s a music critic for NPR, and Claudia Puig, who’s a regular on film week at the station. What was the conversation like from their point of view? What were the things that you are trying to address in terms of female critics and the voices that they represent?
They were both articulate and awesome. Like most women in any field, they’re underrepresented. Claudia, for instance, she runs the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the numbers there are just really, really off. I mean, they’re off in a lot of areas.

Because I’m a filmmaker, this is one place where I’ve noticed that film criticism is skewed toward one point of view — even though everyone’s an individual and everyone has different points of view, and all men don’t think alike and all women don’t think alike, in terms of representation of their opinions, there just weren’t enough women. It’s the same in music; in video games, even more. So what I wanted to do with CherryPicks is have a place where I could go or where women could go and go, “Well, what do my fellow women think about this film? What do my fellow women think about this concert? What do they think about this video game?” because we have a bit more, I think, nuanced way of thinking about media and thinking about art.

For us, it’s not always splat versus tomato, or black and white. There is a range in between, and so, with CherryPicks, we want to be able to do a bowl of cherries, which is like, “You can’t miss it,” to the pits, which is like, “Don’t bother.” But there are also one cherry and two cherries, which are kind of in between — like, “That movie was great to see, but don’t bother going [to the theater] to see it,” or like, “Oh, it’s awesome if you have strep throat and you’re watching Bridget Jones’s Diary [kinds of movies],” or whatever. “It’s a perfect movie for a date.” “It’s a perfect movie for staying at home on a rainy day,” but maybe would get a splat at Rotten Tomatoes.

Or, for instance, the movie Bad Moms. I feel like that keeps being my example. Maybe it’s just my own personal opinion of it, but Bad Moms did really well in the theaters, but the women I talked to about it feel the same way I do, which is that it’s an incredibly cliché movie with absolutely no depth and it’s basically a male view of what bad moms and funniness for women would be.

There is this idea in film school and film theory about the male gaze, the way that a male director looks at the world and, specifically, looks at women. Is there a similar argument that there is a male gaze in film criticism, that men see a movie differently than a woman might?
Yes. Like I was saying earlier, everyone has a different opinion. Not all men have the same male gaze. Growing up, I watched Siskel and Ebert. I love reading film reviews because I love the art of film criticism; taking a piece of art and dissecting it to its core pieces and themes. And I think that, with social media and Rotten Tomatoes, I feel like we’ve lost some of that art, and part of this is also a way to bring that back and encourage more journalists that are younger women to get into the journalism and into the job of critical thinking when it comes to media.

I was looking at a tweet in reaction to the news, and it said, “Dear Miranda Bailey and Rebecca Odes,” your partner in this, “Congratulations on launching CherryPicks. I hope you’ll be including the voices of trans women, women of color and women with disabilities, et cetera, not just heterosexual white women.” What’s your reaction to that?
I found that tweet a little strange because I’m like, “Did we say anywhere we were only doing white women?” But, no, of course. That’s one of the main goals. We’re going to be a site for people who identify as women. Where men can go to the site as well, but in terms of aggregating reviews, it’ll be from people who identify as women.

There are a few I’ve met already, predominantly trans women who are professional critics, and, yes, they’ll be included. So that’s not an issue, and then we met with Remezcla, a Latino website; we want to meet with some of the other smaller African-American websites, and we also want there to be Asian [representation]. We want to be able to open up the narrow guidelines that Rotten Tomatoes has. In order to be a certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s a very, very narrow [acceptance window] in order to qualify, especially the top critics.

We’re not going to take just like anyone off the street who decides to write a couple of words, but there are so many blogs and bloggers out there that, for a living, blog about film and music and whatnot, and they are oftentimes in these underrepresented communities. So we will be opening it up to some of those critics, for sure.

Walk me through the rating score on CherryPicks and what the criteria that you’ll be using to score films really means. You have bowl of cherries, pair of cherries, single cherry, and the pits. Bowl of cherries I assume is the best, the pits not so much?
That’s right. Pretty easy.

Why do you want to have distinctions that are not just yay or nay, that you wanted to have gradations as opposed to a splat — that is, rotten — or fresh?
I think a lot of people are choosing not to go see films based on an image that they see, which is a splat on Rotten Tomatoes. That really does a disservice to the artists making the movies and the distributors releasing them. We don’t always have to go to the movies to see the absolutely best thing in the world. You just want to know what you’re getting yourself into. In my opinion, a splat should be reserved for things that are really, really bad and not worth it.

Unfortunately, I think what’s happened with Rotten Tomatoes is that just more than half of the things end up being a splat, and they’re pretty darn good, I have to say, like … and then when it comes to representation with women, there are a lot of movies out there that women will like and have liked that get a splat. The Zookeeper’s Wife was an example of that. That and Lake Bell’s second film that I produced were two kinds of reasons I was like, “I have to do this.”

The Zookeeper’s Wife, predominantly male critics did not like that film, and all the women that I talked to did, and the female critics did like that film, so there was a real difference there. There are so many women that were not able to go out and see that movie because there’s just a splat and their husbands don’t want to go with them because they’re like, “Oh, look, Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t like it.”

Has that been the case for the films that you have produced yourself, that you have noticed that women and men tend to see the films that you have made differently?
I guess, perhaps. I love Swiss Army Man, for example. It’s a buddy comedy about boners and farts. I’m a woman and I really liked that, but I think there were some women critics that perhaps didn’t like that movie and some men that did. I guess that might be an example in the opposite way that would be helpful, but when I made Lake Bell’s second film, which is called I Do … Until I Don’t, one of the biggest things that I noticed was the way that she was treated as an artist different than male artists with the critics, and they all were scolding her for what she should have done as opposed to what she did, and I found that really odd.

They personally tore her apart because they expected more of her. They wanted her to say something feminist or say something political with this movie when, really, she just wanted to have a cute, fun little love story kind of romp, and she made exactly the movie that she wanted to make. The women who are not in the business that went to go see it had a great time seeing it and loved it. If you look at some of the reactions of just consumers online, female consumers like that movie. But high-end critics tore it apart because they expected her to do, basically, a follow-up to what she already did.

In your press release, you say that you’ll also be offering data services to studios and others. What impacts do you hope that might have?
Yeah. I’m in the movie business, and we’ve been talking for years about how we need more women represented behind the camera and more female stories and, at the end of the day, the producers and distributors — and I’m a producer and a distributor as well — say, “We’re going to do what the consumers are going to buy.”

Indie film doesn’t have this quite so much, but the studios would always say, “Oh, well, you know, it’s a female lead, so that’s not going to carry with the audiences,” or … I’m trying to remember. “There’s not enough female directors. We really would love to have a female director, but there’s just not enough of them.” There are. There definitely are enough, and there are enough audiences that want it.

It’s hard to change the way things work internally in Hollywood without changing the way the consumers are consuming, and if the consumers are listening to a gatekeeping system that consists of primarily older, Caucasian males and has been for years, then what they’re told is worth buying and spending money on is kind of put through that lens. So I hope that with CherryPicks and with women talking about movies, not just female movies, but just movies in general — we’re going to be doing just as much as Rotten Tomatoes is doing — hopefully, people will be able to see that there’s more consumers out there that are open to products that have to do with female stories and female leads and that kind of thing. Female rock and roll, female heavy metal, female video games, stuff like that.

Will you also be reviewing television?
Yes, although television is a little harder because I think these critics get, from what I’m learning about it, like 18 hours or something like that to review a whole season. It’s not just one, so, yes, if there are television reviews that are out there … that are by females, we’ll aggregate them, for sure. I think Rotten Tomatoes has actually been trying to do that for a while, but I think it’s just very hard for an actual critic to be able to do it, so, yes, we’ll be taking those.

When do you hope to launch?
We will be launching in the fall, so before Thanksgiving, I’ll say that much. It’s really exciting.

The All-Female Review Site Ready to Take on Rotten Tomatoes