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Does Rotten Tomatoes Need a Spoiler Warning System?

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by Matt Singer
April 17, 2012 11:39 AM
2 Comments
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If you were looking for negative reviews of "The Cabin in the Woods" on Rotten Tomatoes last weekend, you may have stumbled across one from The New York Observer's Rex Reed. And if you were in the mood for a good laugh, you may have clicked over to read the whole thing. Reed's pull-quote looked harmless enough: "An entire row of what they called 'fanboys' at the screening I attended laughed all the way through the movie, although I failed to see anything remotely amusing." What could go wrong?  

if you did click through, though, Reed had some surprises waiting for you: a whole bunch of spoilers. He revealed the secret behind the cabin in the woods (or what he thought the secret was; he actually got most of the details incorrect), noted which kids died and which survived, and even disclosed the film's big surprise cameo. In this situation, Rotten Tomatoes is in a tough spot. They don't control the content of Reed's review, but they send thousands of readers to it, with very little warning that the article could potentially ruin their time at the movies.

Pieces like Reed's prompted an interesting suggestion from Geoff LaTulippe, the screenwriter who wrote the underrated comedy "Going the Distance." "Dear @RottenTomatoes," he tweeted, "I believe the next immediate, natural step for your site is to alert readers to spoiler-heavy reviews." Makes perfect sense to me.  Readers can click to reviews with confidence, secure in the knowledge they won't reveal Bruce Willis is dead Darth is Luke's dad the Titanic sinks the big twist they're paying twelve bucks to see, and critics can write more freely, secure in the knowledge that readers know that the piece contains spoilers.  Rotten Tomatoes improves its site, readers get better service, writers get more freedom. Sounds like a no-brainer.

Of course, that doesn't mean a spoiler early detection system will be a no-brainer to implement. After watching this conversation unfold on Twitter, Rotten Tomatoes Editor-in-Chief Matt Atchity reached out to me to discuss some of the intricacies involved with such a plan. "I think the spoiler warning thing isn't a bad idea," he told me, "but there are a lot of challenges."

Among the challenges he listed in our conversation: tech issues, volume concerns (the site posts hundreds of reviews each week; every one would need to be vetted), and the thorny gray area surrounding what exactly qualifies as a spoiler.  Let's take an example from "The Cabin in the Woods." The movie opens with the characters played by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, middle-aged co-workers at a nondescript office, discussing their jobs. Because the film is supposedly about a bunch of teenagers at a cabin in the woods, is the mere mention of Whitford and Jenkins a spoiler? (let's hope not, otherwise I just totally ruined that for you, in which case, I am deeply sorry.) What if I tell you where Whitford and Jenkins work, but don't explain why.  Is that the spoiler? As Atchity points out, the threshold between synopsis and spoiler is tough to define even for someone who's seen a movie, which many on the Rotten Tomatoes staff haven't when they're posting reviews.  "It's usually pretty straightforward to interpret a review as positive or negative even if you haven't seen the film," he adds. "But trying to figure out what is and isn't a spoiler would have to require that the RT editor see the film."

Passionate movie fans care deeply about spoilers, or at least they care about complaining about them online, which made me curious: just how often do members of the general public, regular folks using Rotten Tomatoes to help them decide what movie to see over the weekend, complain to the site about spoilers? According to Atchity, it "doesn't come up that much." He also noted that "between the studio marketing and publicity departments and almost every film website, it's almost impossible to see a movie without knowing a significant amount about it before you walk through the door."

Atchity had one other point to make, and I think it's an interesting one so I'm going to post it in its entirety:

"I think that the expectant fan has to take some responsibility for the media they're consuming.  You have to know that reading reviews comes with the risk of telling you more than you may want to know about a movie.  Many critics are saying more than 'see it' or 'don't see it.'  A lot of reviews are about how the movie executes its intention, and to address that, you'll have to give some details away.  In fact, that's why we have a score...  if a Tomatometer for a movie like 'Cabin in the Woods' is over 90%, and you still need to read individual reviews to make your decision (and an overwhelmingly positive score isn't enough for you) then I don't think having some kind of 'spoiler' bug on a review link is going to protect you from yourself. Honestly, if you're that excited about a movie, go and see it.  If you're on the fence but worried about spoilers, just look at the Tomatometer score."

According to Atchity, Rotten Tomatoes will likely work out the kinks and implement some sort of spoiler warning system in the next few months.  In the meantime, though, readers would be wise to heed his comments, which recontextualize the debate over spoilers into a conversation about entitlement. We all know the expression about how the customer is always right. But in this case, the customer is incapable of being right because what they want -- maximum information about the films they're excited to see that is also totally spoiler-free -- is impossible.  You can't have it both ways: if you're scouring the Internet for the details of Loki's henchmen in "The Avengers" or Joseph Gordon-Levitt's role in "The Dark Knight Rise," you can't turn around and cry spoiler when you find it.  Don't blame the outlet that posted the information; blame yourself for being incapable of controlling your curiosity.

That doesn't mean a critic should write whatever they want without any consideration of his audience. But this issue demands shared responsibility between readers and writers. Which is where spoiler warnings come in. Abandon all hope, ye who enter, of remaining unspoiled.  At least that's my opinion. What do you think?

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More: Rotten Tomatoes , The Cabin in The Woods

2 Comments

  • Eric Robbins | April 18, 2012 11:36 AMReply

    I don't think the responsibility falls on Rotten Tomatoes at all. They're just an aggregate. A portal to the other reviews. They have no sway or say over the content of those reviews, and they don't owe the reader a preemptive explanation of what's about to come. Nor do I think the site has the manpower to do that to hundreds of reviews per movie. The responsibility lies on the reviewer to put a spoiler warning at the top of his review.

  • Geoff LaTulippe | April 17, 2012 7:31 PMReply

    As the party who helped espouse this situation, I'd like to weigh in on a few things:

    1. Matt's right - there's absolutely dual responsibility here. And he's absolutely right in the fact that if you're already going looking for stuff, there's no reason Rotten Tomatoes should be there to protect you.

    However, those are less the people that I was concerned about. Sure, people in LA and those who work in the large sphere of the entertainment industry can and should perhaps police themselves. But what about everyone else? What about the people who rely on reviews not to decide what movies they will or won't see, but to HELP decide which ones to pick from? What about the extremely limited releases that they otherwise might know nothing about WITHOUT a review to clue them into its existence? There are a hundred variables on this riff.

    Again, RT is responsible for absolutely none of this, nor should they be. I just felt that it would add value to their website to offer a bit of a watchdog approach when it's deemed helpful.

    2. Let's take the Rex Reed review for example: that was a negative review in a sea of positive reviews. A lot of people who were curious about the movie - or even the review's myopic pull-quote - might have clicked on it for any number of reasons, not the least of which was a curiosity as to how someone might have differed from a staunchly positive field. What they were treated to was a protracted explanation of most of the key plot details of the movie (some of which were indeed...um, fabricated, though that's obviously not the point).

    That's what actually got me thinking about this in the first place. Here's a major critic spoiling an entire movie (or so he thought) in his review. You can argue that he shouldn't have written it that way or that his editor should have included a spoiler warning or whatever, but at some point, it would have been nice if SOMEONE had said something.

    Like Matt said, it's impossible for everything to be policed and it's got to be a tough system to install and tweak. But I think there's probably a middle-ground somewhere.

    3. As we discussed on Twitter, it's incredibly difficult to read all the reviews and catalogue them as "spoilery" or not. But I don't think that's what anyone is asking for. Naturally, many reviews are going to spoil *some* elements of the plot in order to discuss it, and I think everyone who reads reviews assumes this going in. What we ended up talking about was that this warning - whatever it might be - should be applied to only reviews that tag THEMSELVES as having spoilers, or those in which MAJOR plot details/secrets/cameos/twists are discussed, especially when its well-known that the filmmakers have been attempting to keep them under wraps.

    I think the people at Rotten Tomatoes have done us all a solid by even considering implementing this system, and I hope they find something that works both for them and their users. I also hope that those who use their site don't assume that they can play God on the matter, and that if it shows up at all, it's there as a courtesy, not an obligation.

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