Interview: Patrick Lee, co-founder of Rotten Tomatoes

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When Martin Scorsese pens an entire essay about how your company has ruined cinema, you know you’ve made an impact. But where are the original founders of the ‘industry destroying’ site? What do they think of it now, and would they do anything to change it?

While in Melbourne as part of an event with Hacker Exchange, connecting Aussie entrepreneurs with Silicon Valley, Mandy spoke with the former CEO and original co-founder of Rotten Tomatoes, Patrick Lee. Working with Sarah Moran of Girl Geek Academy, the two tech entrepreneurs combined forces to host a #goldopen fundraising screening of “Crazy Rich Asians”, and support Asians in film.

Given the film’s staying power at the box office, the #goldopen initiative seems to be working.

How did you get involved with Girl Geek Academy?

Patrick: I met Sarah at an event with Hacker Exchange, and then we ended up talking about a bunch of different things, including that I had been helping to get the word out about “Crazy Rich Asians”.

It’s a huge moment for Asian representation in Hollywood. How relieved were you when you saw the film and it delivered?

Patrick: I actually didn’t know, we saw the film, we did a screening to some a bit earlier with some other influencers to help get behind the film to support it, and at that point in time I don’t think the ratings have really started coming out, and all I could base everything on was the trailer, and I was like ‘I can’t really tell how good a movie is going to boom based on its trailer’, and after I saw it I was like ‘okay I’m pretty sure that’s going to “fresh”‘. And when it came out it was you know very fresh, it was holding at a hundred percent for a few days, and then it settled around I think 93 percent but that’s still amazingly high.

Very high!

Patrick: Yes and also you know since it was important to make an impact with the box office, and the director of the shoot was saying $20 million would be really good, and it totally blew that as well.

Yes, $34 million that first week,  just in the U.S., and it’s held so well. I’m Caucasian and female, so I always notice the gender disparity when I’m looking at films generally, you know at screenings and it’s like ‘great, another male protagonist in a male dominated film’, but I have been trying more recently to also look at diversity in general, and this film certainly brings attention to cultural representation, the first all-Westernised Asian cast since “The Joy Luck Club” in 1993.  

Patrick: Yes, I mean it’s not just the director is Asian, the writers are Asian, yeah it’s been a really long time [since “The Joy Luck Club”], and when that came out I was still relatively young and you know everyone thought ‘oh this is going to change things’ and yeah, they didn’t change, but this time around, we can’t let this be a blip again, we have to really show Hollywood ‘hey, people will come out and support these things’, and they totally did. I think they said normally Asians are about 11 percent of the market usually and this was like 40 percent.

It’s interesting how these “fresh” and “rotten” scores are affecting, or perceived to be affecting, the box office now. Do you think if this film hadn’t done well with critics that would have impacted the box office?

Patrick: You know if it came out and it was very rough I think it definitely would have had a negative effect in that situation. It’s rare for a film to get 90 something percent with this, you know over a hundred reviews, so when there’s all this word of mouth, that actually adds to the word of mouth. I mean it was like the end to the trailers, that it was ‘certified fresh’ and then everyone was sharing it and then there’s always articles also writing about how it’s how it was not only like people trying to support this movie, and get the word out but the fact that it was you know so fresh, I think it definitely helped versus you know the other possibility where it works is here

I know you’re not involved with Rotten Tomatoes anymore, but obviously founding a company takes incredible commitment – mentally and financially – and I read that you lived in the office for six months in the beginning. You’ve invested so much getting it started, is it strange to see I guess how big and influential it has become?

Patrick: I mean everyone from the original team is super happy that it’s still around is continue to grow and even when we were running it it was pretty well known, but now it’s just on another level. For me personally, it’s kind of funny because after we sold I went to Asia for nine years, and in Asia very few people knew about it, you know there was little about Hollywood entertainment that they know, and then suddenly I come back after being away for almost a decade, and then everyone is like ‘oh my god you did Rotten Tomatoes’ and it was part of the public consciousness, and that was actually really interesting. Again I’m just happy it’s around, because a lot of my friends’ companies some that got sold at the time, within a year they didn’t exist anymore, because buyers run it to the ground, and they lose control.

Rotten Tomatoes has a strict criteria of who’s film rating they will factor in to their overall score, and one criticism of the site is that most of the critics are white males. Do you think there should be some work done to ensure more diverse representation of who is assessing the films?

Patrick: So when we ran it, we had criteria about what was a professional critic, we tried to make that distinction versus you know, the amateur critic, and they’d have to have reviewed a certain number of movies, and be part of a film critic society, or with some sort of media or publication or website that has a certain reach. The main thing is that critics will see nearly all the films that come out, and so then the rating will be consistent. You have to see everything and the thing with, say, user reviews and stuff is we didn’t know if people actually saw the movie or not.

You can go on IMDB or a lot of other sites that have these user reviews and even others, you can put a rating in, and you may not have ever seen that movie. And also with people who post user reviews, these are people who have seen the movies willingly, they paid and bought a tickets to see it, so they’re kind of inherently biased – they want to like it,  it’s a decision to invest two hours and money that they spent, so there are those issues as far as trying to get more representation.

One thing I personally have always wanted, but when we ran it but we didn’t have the tech resources to build it, is what I call critics machine, where as a user go in and start putting in your reviews, and it will start trying to find critics and other users who have similar views on films, they could actually be a much better predictor for you than an overall critics score. But obviously that’s technically a lot of work, but I have suggested that many times because I think something like that would definitely solved the issues of representation, and I mean at the end of the day what is most important is just getting the rating that’s most accurate for you. And not everyone’s rating should be the same.

There was a study that found that male critics are harsher than women on female led films, films like ‘The Devil Wears Prada’, which has turned into a bit of a classic, across the board all the male critics rated it a lot less than the female ones. This was a film about fashion, not a film aimed at the traditional male, and that may have skewed their reception of it. 

Patrick: Oh that’s interesting. There’s ways to have more demographics on the reviewers, and then they could add a filter for the critics –  like a male, female or age or the other things. We don’t work there any more, but if we did, we would give you all of that.

But also on the other side, you don’t want it to be too narrow, or assume people different to you might enjoy the same things, or things they didn’t expect. I’d bet a lot of critics who reviewed “Crazy Rich Asians” didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as they did, and there’s something to be said for universality of storytelling. 

Patrick: I mean definitely, especially considering that most of these critics or almost none of the critics are actually Asian, it makes it even more powerful to see that rating.

And what’s next for the #goldopen initiative supporting Hollywood films with Asian influence?

Patrick: They are actually trying right now to kind of get support behind another film called “Searching” with John Cho, and so they’re doing that but it’s a little bit I think tough because right now everyone’s so focused on “Crazy Rich Asians”, it’s kind of getting lost in the noise, but I believe some of the folks behind #goldopen are just trying to make it more of a film movement. Because from what I understand like the African-American communities have been really good about mobilising behind African American films, movies like “Get Out” and “Hidden Figures” and “Black Panther” which was amazing, but those box office records didn’t show up randomly. It was something that built up over many, many years, decades even, and I think they were very good about consistently coming out, supporting any film that had a high percentage of African Americans in it.

I think Asians were not always as good about doing that, and I think that maybe wherever these kind films, if they come out, you have to support them, whether it is your kind of movie or not, you still have to get behind it because that’s the only way that there will be more reach happening.

It’s similar with Australian films, they can get lost in the box office next to the Hollywood blockbusters, which makes it harder to fund more Australian films because they don’t make any money. 

Patrick: And it really has to be the grassroots, like you got to start and it’s like that’s what we did with the cinema buyouts as part of #goldopen, we’re bringing people in there, and they’re like ‘how do we pay you for the ticket’, and we’re like ‘no, go out and buy more tickets’. That’s the way to make an impact.

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