Right now, a lot of the attention in Hollywood is focused on the systemic sexism of those making films, whether it be actors, directors, producers, or crew members. But as the Time's Up movement begins to gain a foothold and discussion of measures such as inclusion riders to fight the representation problem heats up, what of the industry that covers Hollywood and shapes its image? Sexism can be found in a place like Rotten Tomatoes too.
The rating and review aggregator, in fact, has an implicit bias against women, according to filmmaker Miranda Bailey. (A recent study found that more than 80 percent of Rotten Tomato reviews by top critics were written by men.) That’s why the director, producer, and film distributor is launching CherryPicks, a new destination for film ratings and aggregated reviews all written by women.
The website, which launches this fall ahead of awards season movies in hopes to “elevate the voices of some of the better movies out there that are female-directed, female-written, and female-composed and be a support system for them,” is the first of its kind. CherryPicks won’t just be aggregating film reviews, either; it will also cover television, music, and video games. “Let’s say there’s a new Jack White record coming out—we’ll cherry-pick the female voice for it,” Bailey said over the phone. “I think it will be interesting to see where there’s no female reviewers—that’s where we may hire out a professional reviewer.”
An even more potent theoretical, perhaps, is if CherryPicks were already around for the release of Steven Spielberg’s divisive adaptation Ready Player One, a gamer culture play that drew criticism for its objectification of women well before its release this week. This is something that CherryPicks would surely note with a warning in its reviews, as well as whether movies pass the Bechdel Test, how inclusive a film's cast and crew are, and if there are triggers to be aware of.
Perhaps most importantly, CherryPicks won’t just be setting up a new standard for the public's perception of a film's quality; it will be effecting change in the industry from the inside out. The platform will have preset tiered fees for contributors so everyone will be paid equally relative to experience level. Plus, Bailey said, the publication is making culling diverse voices a priority. “We want to elevate the art of criticism and also update the art of criticism, which is why we’re opening it up to bloggers,” she explained. “Not everyone has gone to Harvard and studied film and published at a paper. The majority of reviews are not from those people and the majority of people going to the movies aren’t those people.”
Not everyone (read: some men) is going to get it, though—and Bailey is okay with that. “The name was part of the idea and it was about cherry-picking the female voice out,” she said. “I’ve read things online from men about how it has to do with virginity and I’m thinking, Oh my God. This is exactly what’s wrong with you f---ing people.”
How does the scoring system work?
We’re cherry-picking the female voice out and we’ll have a scoring system that is not so binary. It will be a bowl of cherries, the pits, and then one cherry and two cherries. Then, we’ll have our own internal reviewing system, which is called the Cherry Check. That will show how many points something has for having women in the crew, if there’s objectification in it, if there’s triggers in it, and if it passes the Bechdel Test. There’s blatant obvious ways that women have been oversexualized and their personality is gone. There’s the Headless Women of Hollywood campaign about how women’s bodies are always shown without their face. There’s also more subtle things when women’s characters don’t have an arc; their place is to be a prop and wouldn’t it be nice to notice that.
Like this movie I directed called You Can Choose Your Own Family—the reason I wanted to do it is because I related to the son and the father is my father. The draft I got is about a man who has two families and he loves one wife but the other wife he’s just sticking around with. The way it was written originally is that the working woman who is a lawyer and a hardass is the one he didn’t love that much, and the one he really loved was an amazing cook and stayed at home. I was like, "I love this movie and want to direct it but we’re going to change some things." I’m never making a movie that shows the working woman is the one you don’t love and I don’t want to make the one who isn’t a working woman that, either. So I changed it altogether and made one of them an artist and one a homemaker. It was a big deal for me to make sure that they both had an arc.
When did the idea first come to you and how long did it take to get off the ground?
It was very rapid. I remember the moment when the idea came: I was driving, at a light on Melrose and Gardner. I tried to ignore it but it haunted me. Two or three weeks later, right around Toronto Film Festival, I decided I would do it. That’s when I called Rebecca Odes and we took it from there.
That summer there were a lot of articles coming out about Rotten Tomatoes. Filmmakers were complaining about it hurting their box office, feeling like it was too binary—this is good, this is bad. As a filmmaker and distributor myself, knowing how important, especially for indie films, reviews are, that part was concerning to me. Also, there was a study that came out and showed a seven-to-one ratio of top critics were males. I thought there’s no way we can get women’s stories out there and get women behind the camera as much as we say we want to unless we affect consumers, because, at the end of the day, the studios put out what the consumers want to buy and the consumers are listening to the critics. If the critics are overwhelmingly Caucasian, white males, then they’re getting a specific idea of what they should buy. The world is more diverse than that. At Cherrypicks, I want to have females and all races to be represented.
According to UCLA’s diversity study released this year, people overwhelmingly prefer to see movies that are inclusive. Do you think this has always been the case? Do you think there’s been a paradigm shift among the consumers?
I think it’s always been that way I just don’t think anyone ever did tests on it. I don’t think enough things with diverse voices have been made to be measured. I think what’s great about the paradigm shift is that people are actually asking that question. Even two or three years ago when we were out pitching a movie that has a female lead or an African-American lead, we got “There’s not a market for this.” This was recently. It’s been that way since I’ve been producing movies for 20 years. TV is different, I think. I think Hollywood has accepted that there’s a large female audience for television, particularly reality television. But a big problem is that’s them thinking they know what women want. Not to say that women don’t love the Kardashians, but I think there’s a large number of women that do not love the Kardashians. Let’s make stuff for those people, not just soap operas. We’re not idiots.
Does a site like CherryPicks have the potential to reshape what Hollywood is making?
I do think it will have an effect. Because I’m also a distributor for indie films I know [the studios] need as many marketing tools as they can have to release a movie. If your movie has a Splat on Rotten Tomatoes, but two Cherries on CherryPicks, as a distributor you can license those quotes from CherryPicks and gear it towards women and say, “The women of CherryPicks gave it two cherries. This is a quote from so and so.” For the movies like Moonlight that are overwhelmingly incredible, I think that men and women will agree. The duds will probably be the same, too. It’s really that middle ground area, which is where we’ll see that difference, and studios can use [CherryPicks] as a tool to get people to see it. There are so many movies that are in that 60 percent that I really like.
I really love what other people consider to be terrible rom-coms, and I feel like there can be a discrepancy in that category on Rotten Tomatoes. I do wonder if it’s because there were more men than women writing about them.
For those specific movies, yes, for sure. One thing that’s interesting is as a distributor, you can request a specific journalist to review your movie. So sometimes there are more women writing reviews, but that’s because the studios target a specific reviewer because they assume the female consumers will like it. I kind of hate that.
I made the movie Swiss Army Man, about two guys, and there’s boner and fart jokes. Women like so many more things than 27 Dresses, and I don’t think we’re given enough credit for that. There are tons of women who love horror movies and there are men out there on the internet that say women don’t like horror movies. To suggest that all we like is stupid romantic comedies is ridiculous. That said, I love stupid romantic comedies.
Is Rotten Tomatoes’ slant against women something that you just noticed after reading about it, or something you’ve picked up on as filmmaker?
It’s definitely been a thought my whole career, but it really occurred to me after we released Diary of a Teenage Girl in 2015. The voices of women in Hollywood started becoming louder at that time. We’ve always been here, but we somehow started to get listened to around then. That propelled us to stand up and make changes. CherryPicks is one of those things.
I get asked a lot, “Don’t you think it’s sexist against men? Shouldn’t we have one site where everyone can go?” My answer to that is yes. I think there should be one site where we can all go—that’s Rotten Tomatoes, and look how it’s working out so far. I also feel like saying no one is complaining about there being thousands of websites just for men or just for women. Why would they complain now that we’re only using female reviewers? I want a place to go where I can find out what my fellow women think of media. If they want to create one that’s all for men, someone should do that.
That’s the rest of the internet.
[Laughs] I know. That is essentially Rotten Tomatoes.
What are some of the best case studies of Rotten Tomatoes’ systematic sexism?
I was releasing a movie called I Do...Until I Don't, with Lake Bell. It’s not trying to be an Oscar movie, but it’s a really cute movie. I found these male top critics were disappointed because it wasn’t what they wanted and expected her to make, and I found their reviews to be really condescending. Like, why are you judging this on what you wanted and not what she was making? The Zookeeper’s Wife was another one that a lot of women and female critics liked, but it didn’t get a Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes because it didn’t appeal to the men that were writing about it.
What’s the vetting process for the reviewers at CherryPicks?
We’re not having user reviews at the beginning. We’re having legitimate published reviews that are aggregated, but we’re opening it up to a broader section of broads. There will be aggregated reviews from The New York Times, the papers, Black Girl Nerds, and lots of different publications, so we can really diversify the female voice. If you’re already Rotten Tomatoes–certified you will be CherryPicked. There’s a lot of movie websites for different ethnicities that are writing about movies all the time and they’re not necessarily certified on Rotten Tomatoes but they’re professional critics, especially within video games. We have a list of female video game bloggers and we’ll definitely be showing their voices. Women are highly underrepresented in video games. I personally don’t like them but I have cousins or aunts who love them. My sister-in-law has written reviews of video games on her own blog. We want to know what women think of video games because basically we’re depicted in all of them as violent sluts. I’m all for violent sluttery, don’t get me wrong, but I think we can have discussions about the game.
We want people to know their critics. Right now they’re being featured in our newsletter but eventually you’ll be able to see their favorites within their genre—film, TV, music or video games. Once you know the voices you like across these things, you’ll be able to personalize CherryPicks. You can filter reviews based on rating and just read the reviews of people you identify with the most. We’re also going to feature student writers reviewing media for their college newspaper, for instance, as Cherry Blossoms with the goal of creating a community that encourages them to have a voice.