February 3, 2006

World of film reviews changed by Internet

By Anne Thompson

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Once upon a time, you
checked your local newspaper's film critic for advice about
what to see on any given weekend. Or maybe you read the New
York Times, Entertainment Weekly or the New Yorker, or checked
out TV critics with national clout such as Roger Ebert or Gene

Not anymore. With the advent of the Internet, geography is
history. Today, more than 90% of the target moviegoer
demographic ages 13-34 go online to get their movie
information, says Gordon Paddison, New Line Cinema's executive
vp integrated marketing.

Two movie sites changing the relationship between
moviegoers and critics are http://www.RottenTomatoes.com and
http://www.Metacritic.com, where a click brings you the
best-reviewed movies in release. Recent Oscar nominees "Capote"
and "Good Night, and Good Luck" have a "fresh" ranking of 92%
and 94%, respectively, at RottenTomatoes. They get Metascores
of 88 and 80, respectively, at the more streamlined Metacritic.

"Far more people are reading reviews on the Internet than
they are in print," Paddison says. "This has a huge impact on
cinephiles and any review-based demographic."

The original idea for RottenTomatoes sprang from the film
buff brain of Senh Duong, 31, a University of California at
Berkeley graduate who studied art, computer animation, film and
design. He was working with his entrepreneurial pals Patrick
Lee and Stephen Wang at their first Internet startup, Bay Area
Web design firm Design Reactor, which created official sites
for such studios as Warner Bros. Pictures and the Disney
Channel. A rabid Jackie Chan fan, Duong found himself trawling
the Internet for reviews each time the Hong Kong star opened a
movie. "I thought, this could be pretty useful for other
people," Duong says.

So he started his own Web site with 30 reviews of the 1998
releases "Blade" and "Your Friends and Neighbors," measuring
the content of each review and creating a ratio of positive to
negative. Anything that ranked 60% or higher is rated "fresh"
with a bright red tomato icon. Anything 59% or below is
"rotten," with a squished green tomato. Duong's goal: "If we
could be the EW (Entertainment Weekly) of the Internet, that
would be great."

Swiftly, RottenTomatoes was promoted by Yahoo!, USA Today
and Netscape. Duong was killing himself working two jobs at the
time. "Every Thursday and Friday I basically pulled
overnighters," he says.

So he went to his Design Reactor partners. At the height of
the Internet boom, based on their established track record,
they were able to raise $1.2 million for RottenTomatoes. The
partners took a 40% stake in Design Reactor and sold it to
another company. They staffed up RottenTomatoes to 25
employees. One month later, the Internet's boom crashed.

RottenTomatoes survived by staying "lean and mean," Duong
says. It cut back to 10 employees and spent as little money as
possible as it built up to 400 reputable regular print and
online Tomatometer critics within a database of 1,000 critics.
Today, two-thirds of its critics enter their own reviews on the
site. "We cover every movie, big or small," Duong says.

With 3.6 million unique visitors a month (per
Nielsen//NetRatings) RottenTomatoes now actually "has a sales
guy," Duong says. On its busily cluttered homepage, there is a
plethora of movie content, including a "spotlight" on "Imagine
Me & You," lists of the box office top 10 and new openings, a
link to the site's first-ever Sundance Film Festival coverage
("We couldn't afford to go before," Duong says), links to
recent news and features, show times by ZIP code and recently
rated fresh and rotten movies. (The best-rated movie ever, with
100%: "Toy Story 2.")

If you want to click on a movie to buy a DVD, you go to
http://www.Pricegrabber.com, which compares prices on the Web;
RottenTomatoes gets a slice of every sale. The site now hosts
50,000 blogs, all sharing their favorite movies.

The site turned the corner to profitability in 2004, says
Duong, who finally sold RottenTomatoes for a reported $10
million to the No. 1 video game site on the Web, IGN
Entertainment. The site's page views continue to spike.

"Every year it's like a straight line," Duong says. "Last
year our traffic increased 60%. Now we're supported by ads. The
consumer wants information, especially about genre films, even
anime. We're very democratic. Even though genre films get the
most hits, even if a movie opens in only one theater, we still
cover it."

Revenue is up because ad sales are skyrocketing on the
site. While nowhere near as big as http://www.IMDb.com (17.5
million unique visitors per month as of December) or
http://www.YahooMovies.com (10.7 million), according to
Nielsen//NetRatings, RottenTomatoes (3.6 million) is bigger
than http://www.iFilm.com (2.76 million),
http://www.EOnline.com (2.73 million) and Harry Knowles' fanboy
site, http://www.aint-it-cool-news.com (623,000).

"RottenTomatoes is a great place to advertise if you've got
a movie like 'A History of Violence' that is well-reviewed,"
New Line's Paddison says. "People who go there are a little
more savvy than your regular Joe."

On the opening weekend of "Thumbsucker," Sony Pictures
Classics co-president Tom Bernard "roadblocked" RottenTomatoes,
he says: "We bought all the ads on the site for three days.
RottenTomatoes' younger audience was perfect for reaching our
teen target."

Fox Searchlight Internet marketing executive Mark Geller
buys ads on RottenTomatoes partly because they don't cost as
much as YahooMovies for a front-page ad. "RottenTomatoes casts
a pretty wide net," he says. "Their readers like everything
from 'Spider-Man' to indie fare. If you're confident you've got
a strong, well-reviewed movie, then you leverage
RottenTomatoes." (News Corp., parent to 20th Century Fox, now
owns both Internet powerhouses IGN Entertainment and

RottenTomatoes' only competition comes from Metacritic
(206,000 visitors a month per Media Metrix), founded in January
2000 by three lawyers using private equity: Marc Doyle, Jason
Dietz and Julie Doyle Roberts. Another aggregate review site,
Metacritic not only measures film reviews but also music,
games, books and TV, on a strictly number scale, from 1-100,
with color codes of green (positive), yellow (mixed) and red
(negative). Among recent theatrical releases, "Annapolis" rates
a 37; "Big Momma's House 2," 34; "Nanny McPhee," 59; and
"Fateless" an 89.

Co-founder Doyle says the site limits itself to about 40
reputable critics, including those from Slate, Salon and
Reelview. "We want users to know who the critics are. We stick
to a set number that we follow every week rather than anyone
who is not reliably professional. With the aggregation process
you get a span of opinion; it's more democratic. Without the
Internet, it would not be possible."

With its basic staff of four plus freelance contractors,
the austerely elegant Metacritic sticks to its bread and
butter: aggregating reviews. "We're not as much a multimedia
site as RottenTomatoes," says Doyle, who stresses that
Metacritic doesn't post as many ads, allow pop-ups or offer as
many page views because it is catering to the consumer
experience. "We were the first to include the indie film
market," he says. "Now we both do it."

Metacritic's revenue comes from licensing data, advertising
and links to affiliates like Amazon.com, which gives it a
percentage of every sale. Metacritic also was sold last year --
to CNET for a reported low-seven figures. Change is in the air,
Doyle says: The site will now add more trailers, images and a
community of blogs.

As RottenTomatoes morphs into a movie content site where
the reviews are taking a back seat, Metacritic is sticking to
its original purpose: collecting critics.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter