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Rotten Tomatoes president: We didn't change site to protect Captain Marvel

Users will no longer be able to leave a review for a movie that hasn't yet hit theaters, among other changes.

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Brie Larson stars as Captain Marvel in the upcoming Marvel movie. The film received numerous negative comments on Rotten Tomatoes from site users who had not seen it, but referenced Larson's comments about wanting diverse critics.

Marvel

Review site Rotten Tomatoes is instituting some changes, leading many to believe it's responding to the recent controversy over the site's Captain Marvel page. But Paul Yanover, president of Fandango, which owns the site, told CNET that's not the whole story.

In case you were snapped away by Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, and thus missed the recent controversy, here's a recap. Captain Marvel doesn't come out until March 8, but users were already leaving negative comments about the film on Rotten Tomatoes, a process dubbed "review bombing." Many recent comments seemed to come from those who are angry at star Brie Larson.

"(The changes) are not simply a reaction to, 'Oh, gee, there's some noise created around (certain movies),'" Yanover told me. Yes, some adjustments are aimed as what he calls "noise reduction," when high-profile films such as Captain Marvel or Star Wars movies attract trolls with agendas. But as a whole, these changes are part of a long-term site strategy, he said.

Larson drew fire in part for telling Marie Claire magazine she had noticed the critics covering her films were "overwhelmingly white male." After that was confirmed by a USC study, she said, "moving forward, I decided to make sure my press days were more inclusive." She's also spoken out to support underprivileged girls seeing the film.

Larson later told Fox 5 in Washington, DC, that she wasn't trying to take away access, only to create more of it.

"What I'm looking for is to bring more seats up to the table," Larson said. "No one is getting their chair taken away. There's not less seats at the table, there's just more seats at the table."

But that's not how some interpreted it.

"Larson has made it clear ... men need not attend this movie," read one comment left on Rotten Tomatoes before the changes. Another wrote, "I somehow feel that (the Captain Marvel Skrull characters) are not the enemy, but that I am, since Brie (Larson) has been careful to state she doesn't want the press tour to include types like me."

Whatever the users' opinions on Larson, the comments don't pretend to review the film.

"Expressing that you don't want to see a movie is not a review," Yanover said.

Going forward, users will no longer be able to comment on a film before it comes out. That's just one of numerous changes announced Monday in the first post in a new Rotten Tomatoes blog that will be regularly maintained with information about site updates.

"We are disabling the comment function prior to a movie's release date," the post reports. "Unfortunately, we have seen an uptick in non-constructive input, sometimes bordering on trolling, which we believe is a disservice to our general readership. We have decided that turning off this feature for now is the best course of action."

Naturally, thanks in part to the Captain Marvel controversy, the change stirred plenty of social media buzz, with some supporting the changes and others opposing them.

The social media response wasn't unexpected.

"We knew people would (say), 'Wait, wait, what changes?'" Yanover said.

Rumors began to spread. Some wrote on social media that the changes were caused by some kind of payment from Disney to try and protect its Marvel films. Others claimed that Rotten Tomatoes is owned by Disney or Marvel. But the site is actually owned by NBC Universal with Warner Bros. Entertainment holding a minority stake, CNN reported in 2016.

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Yanover, too, has seen those social media reports claiming his site cut some secret deal with Disney, and says they're absolutely false.

"None of (the site is) owned by Disney," he said, noting that the idea that there was "some predestined arrangement between ourselves and Disney is completely untrue."

The changes apply to all movies on the site, not just Disney, or Universal, or Warner Bros. films, and Yanover stresses that this doesn't mean reviewers can't leave negative reviews.

"When the movie's available, (reviewers) can write," he said. But users are still required to conform to the site's established rules regarding hate speech and bigotry.

"We don't want people to use this as a political platform," he said.

I asked Yanover why the site ever allowed users to "review" a movie before it came out in the first place. He notes that the site turns 21 years old in 2019, and credits that option to an "earnest desire to capture fan anticipation" when the site was designed.

Another way to capture fan anticipation was Rotten Tomatoes' Want To See percentage score, which noted fans' pre-release interest level in a film.

That was confusing, Yanover said, in part because once the film opened, the Want To See percentage was physically replaced with a completely different percentage score, the Audience Percentage score, showing the percentage of all users who have rated the movie or TV show positively.

The site still asks readers if they want to see an upcoming movie -- you can see that option on the Captain Marvel page, for example -- but it's been moved and made visually different from the Audience Score and Tomato Meter options. And it's no longer expressed in a percentage, but as an absolute number. Yanover compares this to Facebook likes, which don't say which percentage of users hit the blue thumbs-up button, but do give a number.

Those who react strongly when sites make changes, be warned: Rotten Tomatoes isn't done yet. Additional changes to the site's reviewing and filtering systems may be coming later. 

Rotten Tomatoes may eventually tie in to the Fandango ticket-purchasing system, or other ticket systems, showing that a reviewer did indeed buy a ticket to that movie. It's not unlike how Amazon notes when a book review is written by a verified purchaser of the book. And readers may be able to one day filter reviews as they choose. For example, a user who generally likes Marvel films may be able to choose to read write-ups from those who feel similarly.

Yanover knows these possible changes won't please everyone either, but the updates are a work in progress.

"This is not the end, this is the beginning," he said. "We know that (Rotten Tomatoes) is a highly visible product, and we're committed to being really good stewards."