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Ketchup Flies at Comic-Con as Rotten Tomatoes Pits Critics Against Fans

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by Sam Adams
November 8, 2013 2:22 PM
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I wasn't able to make it to the panel at last month's New York Comic-Con called "Your Opinion Sucks," which featured critics Andrew O'Hehir, Katey Rich, Owen Gleiberman and Robert Levin (as well as VH1 "personality" Carrie Keagan) squaring off against an audience of ordinary fans, orchestrated by the review aggregator (and fan-aggravator) Rotten Tomatoes. So I've been hoping an account of the panel would eventually surface, and now one has, courtesy of Vadim Rizov at RogerEbert.com

It's not a pretty picture. Though Rizov, a Comic-Con virgin, approvingly characterize the con's overall gender and racial makeup, which he compared favorably to the New York Film Festival's pale complexion, he had little good to say about the crowd inside the room:

An informed genre enthusiast is a wonderful thing, but that's not who was here. These weren't the passionate obsessed true believers weaned on Forrest J. Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland, an oft-cited periodical and foundational text in the development of the modern fanboy. In the early days of Harry Knowles' Ain't It Cool News, a lot of time was spent enthusing over Errol Flynn swashbucklers and other movies slightly outside the contemporary fanboy selection pool. Now the main thing seems to be clustering around the same couple of new movies every week (generally mainstream, heavily marketed and often quite expensive) and forming vociferously expressed opinions based on some very enthusiastic adjectives, sometimes in caps lock. Anyone with a relatively oddball opinion -- defending Speed Racer, say -- would pre-emptively say they knew they were about to get it in the neck. After stating their opinion, one of the panelists would then be called upon [to] argue the opposite, because critics are the opposite of normal, "real" viewers.

Not surprisingly, Rizov saw in the room a microcosm of the conformist culture for which Rotten Tomatoes' message boards have become ground zero, a place where critics receive death threats for spoiling a superhero blockbuster's perfect "fresh" score. You can argue the chicken-egg conundrum over whether it fosters that sort of groupthink or simply reflects it -- you don't see fans of 12 Years a Slave lobbing abuse at the four percent of critics who dared call it "rotten" -- but it seems as if the flesh-and-blood setup of the panel, which duplicated one held at San Diego Comic-Con in July , was designed to foster antagonism.

Given the way Rotten Tomatoes singles out -- or, if you like, stigmatizes -- divergent views, it's surprising, for example, that the panel attendee who spoke up in favor of Showgirls (Rotten Tomatoes rating: 17 percent) wasn't aware there's a small but articulate contingent who favor the film, including such high-profile critics as Time's Richard Corliss and the New Yorker's Anthony Lane. But Rizov paints the crowd as generally incurious, apparently interested in Rotten Tomatoes more for its aggregate rankings than any of the individual reviews it links to. 

It's too bad that Rizov's account doesn't include any quotes from the critics themselves: I'd like to know how they responded, and more generally how they navigate the shark-infested waters of online film culture. But it's a sobering picture of the climate they, and we, live in.

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