By Lane Brown With Reporting by Luke Winkie for Vulture
In 2018, a movie-publicity company called Bunker 15 took on a new project: Ophelia, a feminist retelling of Hamlet starring Daisy Ridley. Critics who had seen early screenings had published 13 reviews, seven of them negative, which translated to a score of 46 percent on the all-important aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes — a disappointing outcome for a film with prestige aspirations and no domestic distributor.
But just because the “Tomatometer” says a title is “rotten” — scoring below 60 percent — it doesn’t need to stay that way. Bunker 15 went to work. 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. In another break from standard practice, several critics say, Bunker 15 pays them $50 or more for each review. (These payments are not typically disclosed, and Rotten Tomatoes says it prohibits “reviewing based on a financial incentive.”)
In October of that year, an employee of the company emailed a prospective reviewer about Ophelia: “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.”
“More input from different critics” is not very subtle code, and the prospective critic wrote back to ask what would happen if he hated the film. The Bunker 15 employee replied that of course journalists are free to write whatever they like but that “super nice ones (and there are more critics like this than I expected)” often agreed not to publish bad reviews on their usual websites but to instead quarantine them on “a smaller blog that RT never sees. I think it’s a very cool thing to do.” If done right, the trick would help ensure that Rotten Tomatoes logged positive reviews but not negative ones.
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. The writer of a negative review says that Bunker 15 lobbied them to change it; if the critic wanted to “give it a (barely) overall positive then I do know the editors at Rotten Tomatoes and can get it switched,” a Bunker 15 employee wrote. 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. 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.
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