In an apparent confirmation of what many audience members have suspected for some time, a new report has revealed that Hollywood has been contracting the services of at least one public relations company to help save the Rotten Tomatoes scores of various terrible movies by paying critics for more positive reviews.
This apparent operation was first brought to light on September 6th, courtesy of an extensive deep-dive into the situation provided by Vulture’s Lane Brown and Luke Winkie.
According to the pair’s report, the PR company in question, Bunker 15 – whose official website boasts that the company “offers innovative media planning, editorial support, social media advisement, and automated promotional engineering to help your film reach top critics and influencers,” – has regularly been hired by a number of small- to medium-sized films to save their reputations by artificially boosting their respective Rotten Tomatoes scores.
Detailing their activities, Brown and Winkie explained, “While most film-PR companies aim to get the attention of critics from top publications, Bunker 15 takes a more bottom-up approach, recruiting obscure, often self-published critics who are nevertheless part of the pool tracked by Rotten Tomatoes.”
The most damning aspect of this operation, however, is that per “several critics”, the PR firm “pays them $50 or more for each review” – a practice which explicitly violates the site’s own expectation that “both applicants and approved critics to honor journalistic integrity and observe ethical behavior.”
When pressed by the outlet on this latter accusation, the review aggregator elaborated on their above rule and affirmed that they do not allow “reviewing based on a financial incentive.”
One such recipient of Bunker 15’s services, as noted by Brown and Winkie, was Daisy Ridleys’ 2018 Ophelia.
Produced with the aim of “recalibrat[ing] the classic Shakespearean tragedy of Hamlet so that its unspoken, complex heroine may share her own story,” the film walked away from early screenings with a poor 46% ‘Rotten’ score across 13 critics, as calculated by using the site’s own criteria of blanket classifying a given critic’s thoughts as either positive or negative and then dividing the amount of positive reviews by the overall number of aggregated reviews.
Faced with this damning reception, Ophelia‘s production team is said to have enlisted Bunker 15 to help save the film from going down in history as yet-another-gender-swapped-misfire.
To this end, the PR firm proceeded to reach out to various critics who fit their above criteria and ‘encourage’ them to leave the Ridley-led film a positive review.
“It’s a Sundance film and the feeling is that it’s been treated a bit harshly by some critics (I’m sure sky-high expectations were the culprit) so the teams involved feel like it would benefit from more input from different critics,” wrote Bunker 15 to one critic, who shared the excerpt with Vulture.
In turn, the critic inquired as to what would happen if he earnestly disliked the film, to which Bunker 15 replied that it was standard practice for “super nice [reviewers] (and there are more critics like this than I expected)” to refrain from publishing their negative opinions on their main outlets and instead delegate them to “a smaller blog that RT never sees.”
“I think it’s a very cool thing to do,” the Bunker 15 employee added.
Unsurprisingly given the current state of media criticism and integrity, it appears these efforts paid off for Ophelia, as Browne and Winkie ultimately found that “Between October 2018 and January 2019, Rotten Tomatoes added eight reviews to Ophelia’s score. Seven were favorable, and most came from critics who have reviewed at least one other Bunker 15 movie.”
“I also discovered another negative review of Ophelia from this period that was not counted by Rotten Tomatoes, by a writer whose positive reviews of other Bunker 15 films have been recorded by the aggregator,” said Brown. “Ophelia climbed the Tomatometer to 62 percent, flipping from rotten to ‘Fresh.’ The next month, the distributor IFC Films announced that it had acquired Ophelia for release in the U.S.”
Further, one writer who left the film a negative review informed Vulture’s reporting team that he was subsequently contacted by Bunker 15 in an effort to have him ‘flip’ his review.
“[If you] give it a (barely) overall positive then I do know the editors at Rotten Tomatoes and can get it switched,” a Bunker 15 employee promised the reviewer.
Pressed for comment on Vulture’s reporting, the responses from the main entities involved ranged from silence to adamant denial.
While Ophelia‘s production company, Covert Media, did not respond to Brown’s requests for comments, Rotten Tomatoes “delisted a number of [Bunker 15]’s movies from its website and sent a warning to writers who reviewed them.”
“We take the integrity of our scores seriously and do not tolerate any attempts to manipulate them,” the review aggregator told Brown. “We have a dedicated team who monitors our platforms regularly and thoroughly investigates and resolves any suspicious activity.”
Further, as of writing, Rotten Tomatoes has wholesale delisted Ophelia from their website.
Speaking on behalf of Bunker 15, founder Daniel Harlow met Brown’s claims with an assertion of, “Wow, you are really reaching there.”
“We have thousands of writers in our distribution list,” he said. “A small handful have set up a specific system where filmmakers can sponsor or pay to have them review a film.”