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So What Do You Do, Matt Atchity, Editor-in-Chief of Rotten Tomatoes?

'With film journalists, there's a pitfall of getting too indie-focused.'

- June 27, 2012
On the marquee for the Internet's top movie websites, the hierarchy is clear: For tracking film favorites, it's IMDb and Yahoo! Movies. Buying tickets? Head over to Fandango and Moviefone. But, when all you need to know is what the critics (be they actual journalists or just finicky fans) are saying about The Avengers or if the premise of Abe Lincoln killing vampires is genius or just ridiculous, Rotten Tomatoes is king.

And, with new parent company Warner Bros. behind it, RT could be poised for even more clicks. The site joined forces with Flixster to create an even bigger smorgasbord of evaluative movie data, there are plans to syndicate that infamous Tomatometer, and there's even a Sirius XM show hosted by editor-in-chief and veteran film journo Matt Atchity.

We caught up with Atchity to talk about some of the criticisms leveled at RT's movie rating system and the insanity of critics who pull out their smartphones at press screenings. Call it a "Fresh" look at the entertainment Internet trenches, from a man who has been there since the very beginning.

Position: Editor-in-chief,
Resume: Except for a 2000-2002 sojourn with advertising agency Chiat/Day, Atchity has worked mainly on the consumer content side of the Internet with Aol, Warner Bros. and Yahoo!. He was also briefly director of production for the music download platform Jrae Live.
Birthday: December 18
Hometown: Kansas City
Education: University of San Francisco, 1989-1991
Marital status: Married
Media idol: Roger Ebert
Favorite TV shows: Game of Thrones, Mythbusters, The Office, 30 Rock
Guilty pleasure: Comic books
Last book read: Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent
Twitter handle: @matchity

People occasionally suggest having a third, more neutral way of categorizing reviews on your site, like "Ripe" to go along with the "Fresh" and "Rotten." Do you agree, and what tweaks to the overall ratings system are currently being considered?
I'm not sure I agree with that, partially because we feel that there's great value in our simplicity. The Tomatometer isn't meant to represent an overall grade for a movie; it simply measures the percentage of favorable reviews. We're pretty transparent with our system, and anyone can look at the way reviews are marked and see how we arrived at the Tomatometer score. However, when reviews come in, we do allow critics to add a numeric rating, and that results in an "Average Rating" figure that's displayed on a movie's Tomatometer page. Admittedly, that number can be easily missed, but that's probably as close as we're going to get to the type of categorization you're talking about.

Every once in a while, an early review on RT gets savaged by reader comments, like a negative take of a heavily anticipated summer comic book movie. What are a couple of your favorite examples of RT users interacting with critics and why?
I have to be honest. I have really mixed feelings about the way some of our users respond to reviews. It seems particularly bad with comic book movies. I can't say that I have a favorite, because we end up spending a lot of effort policing the outlying reviews to keep comments in line with our terms of service. I'm all for a healthy debate about movies, but so many of the comments are often so out of line that it can be a bit depressing. We'll never get rid of our commenting system, but we may move in the direction of not allowing comments from anonymous users. In other words, if you're going to comment on a critic's review, you have to use your real name (in the hopes that the discussion would be a bit more civilized). But that's a bigger debate for another time.

"The studios' marketing machines have done more to try and drown out critics than the Internet ever has."

What's your "state of the union" view these days on the state of film criticism? Has it evolved as it always will, or is it in a bit of tangled lull?
I think that criticism has changed, and is still changing, but it's still pretty healthy. There are more people writing about movies now than we saw 30 years ago. It's easy to point to bloggers as the death of criticism, but I think that's a simplistic view of the world. There was a time when a local critic really had a lot of influence on the movie-watching habits of their community, but I think the studios' marketing machines have done more to try and drown out critics than the Internet ever has. Admittedly, there are some less than stellar online writers out there, but there are some dodgy print critics out there, too.

On RT, we try and make sure that we've got the most important writers with the broadest reach. It does bother me that critics are some of the first on the chopping block when a newspaper, for instance, makes cutbacks, and I know that what we do at RT is a part of why that happens. But I would never want to see what we do replace actual criticism. I strongly believe that professional critics are extremely important. We absolutely ought to be analyzing the media we consume.

NEXT >> AvantGuildSo What Do You Do Richard Lawson, Senior Writer for The Atlantic Wire?

You are currently hiring a senior TV and film editor for the LA office. Has the position been filled yet? And what generally do you look for when hiring?
That position is very close to being filled, as a matter of fact. I'm looking for someone who has as much a passion for pop culture as they do for movies, because I think that will help connect to the audience.

What's your take on people who use smartphones in the theater, and how prevalent is that these days at free, critics' preview screenings?
I think texting or using your phone in a theater is simply inexcusable. If you're messing with your phone in the theater, you're either stupid enough to think it won't be distracting to others, or you're simply too selfish to care. The sad thing is that you'd think critics' screenings would be safe from this, but you’d be wrong. I've seen more than a few film journalists using smartphones while the movie is playing. (There's one person, in particular, I have to try and sit in front of if I see him, because he's always using his phone.) At a recent screening of Snow White, some jerk in front of me actually answered a phone call. To me, the theater is sacred ground; it's a shared experience, and we should be respectful of those sharing that experience with us. When the theater owners talk about actually encouraging texting (as they did at Cinema Con recently) it makes me think they're simply going to drive away an already shrinking audience.

"If you're messing with your phone in the theater, you're either stupid enough to think it won't be distracting to others, or you're simply too selfish to care."

The discrepancy sometimes between the critics' aggregate Tomatometer rating for a title and that of the public is hilarious. What is the widest margin that's ever been recorded on that front?
We'll see margins as high as 70 percent sometimes, and I think that happens when an audience's expectation and movie experience don't match up. For instance, critics loved Drive and most of the audience hated it, because I think people were expecting something like The Fast and The Furious. It's more interesting when the audience score is lower than the critics score, because I think the audience score is usually skewed too high. I don't usually put too much stock in audience scores, because I think it's a self-selecting pool. As a culture, we're usually pretty successful at picking movies we think we're going to like, and I think the audience scores reflect that. If people were more willing to see movies they were on the fence about, I think the audience scores would be a lot different than they are now.

What are some of the golden rules of engaging readers that remain as true today as they were when you started out with AOL in the mid-1990s?
With film journalists, there's a pitfall of getting too indie-focused. When you're seeing three, four movies a week, Hollywood formulas can be boring, and so it's easy to start paying more and more attention to indie and foreign films, because that's what's interesting. But there's not a lot of traffic in covering indie movies, compared to coverage of mainstream movies. I think ending a piece with a question for the user's thoughts on a subject is still a good way to get engagement. Lastly, users never get tired of photo galleries. As long as the user experience is good (i.e. not reloading the entire page for each new picture), photo slide shows are something that audiences really respond to. Slide shows with good captions are an easy traffic win for online writers and producers.

NEXT >> AvantGuildSo What Do You Do Richard Lawson, Senior Writer for The Atlantic Wire?

Richard Horgan is co-editor of FishbowlLA.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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