The age of “fake news” is coming for film criticism.
The new Gotti, which stars John Travolta as the infamous mob boss, seems like a solid contender for the title of worst movie of the year. Technically, it premiered at Cannes — if by “premiered” you mean “had a screening almost no press attended in the smallest theater at the Palais” — and garnered abysmal reviews from the critics who were there.
It then screened for a very small set of critics (I was not invited to any screenings), who found it so awful that it wound up with the rare 0 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes and a damning-by-faint-praise 24 on Metacritic.
But the film’s marketers have fought back, launching an offensive that doesn’t just suggest but outright accuse critics of mounting a coordinated hit on the movie.
In all likelihood, it’s just a marketing tactic for a silly movie, and it will have little, if any, effect on either the film’s bottom line or the field of movie criticism. Yet the tactics lurking behind the Gotti campaign bear an eerie resemblance to the much larger problem of “fake news” in our time.
Looking at Gotti is like staring through the wrong end of a telescope and seeing everything you need to know about “truth” on the Internet, only in microcosm and applied to the least important thing imaginable: a bad movie.
Can the critics be trusted, or are they fake news?
“Fake news” started out as a term to describe sensationalized, fabricated stories concocted for profit. But it was quickly co-opted by Donald Trump and his followers as a lazy slur to sling at any story he didn’t like, something he’s outright admitted. “Fake news” is shorthand for “this story doesn’t paint me in a good light.”
That’s the Gotti ad method, too:
Audiences loved Gotti but critics don’t want you to see it… The question is why??? Trust the people and see it for yourself! pic.twitter.com/K6a9jAO4UH
— Gotti Film (@Gotti_Film) June 19, 2018
In case you didn’t finish watching the video, here’s what it says:
AUDIENCES LOVED GOTTI.
CRITICS PUT OUT THE HIT.
WHO WOULD YOU TRUST MORE?
YOURSELF OR A TROLL BEHIND A KEYBOARD [sic]
For critics, it’s pretty impossible to watch this without chuckling. (The aforementioned “troll behind a keyboard” definitely describes a lot of the people who show up in your Twitter mentions if they don’t like your opinion about a film.)
But it’s a good template for how to get the “fake news” claim to stick. First, it’s important to cast doubt on the trustworthiness of the people generating the stories and opinions you find objectionable. Do it over and over again. Call them “disgusting” and challenge their right to exist.
And don’t forget to suggest that there’s a conspiracy afoot. “Put out the hit” doubles as a clever topical metaphor for a movie about a crime boss and an implication that critics get together in shadowy, secret back rooms at family restaurants and plot to take down movies over cigars and grappa. We wish!
People like believing conspiracy theories, because they seem to make sense of a confusing world, and they’re impervious to attempts to refute them. And there are lots of conspiracy theories about film critics, the most popular being that we’re paid by Disney, which owns Marvel Studios, to give negative reviews to DC films. So Gotti is playing right into an idea that some people already believe, though the ad doesn’t bother to suggest any plausible reason critics would bother to “put out a hit” on a film so small most people didn’t see it.
Finally, suggest that the purveyors of whatever you’re deeming “fake news” right now are out of touch with or outright harmful to “real” people, ordinary agenda-less folks whose opinions are be default better than “elites.” This is a time-honored tactic for stars in blockbusters who don’t like what they read about their films.
For instance, here’s Samuel L. Jackson after the 2012 release of The Avengers:
#Avengers fans,NY Times critic AO Scott needs a new job! Let’s help him find one! One he can ACTUALLY do!
— Samuel L. Jackson (@SamuelLJackson) May 3, 2012
And here’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson after the release of Baywatch, which only netted a score of 18 percent on Rotten Tomatoes:
— Dwayne Johnson (@TheRock) May 26, 2017
That kind of populist appeal works on some people for the same reason it works in politics: there’s a sizable group of people who harbor resentment against anyone they think of as looking down on them. When film critics trash a movie that audiences like, they generally aren’t thinking of the audience. But we sometimes get feedback on those reviews that implies the reader is going to “own” us by going to see the film. I don’t care if you go see the film to which I gave a bad review, nor does any other critic I know, but that kind of reply shows a common perception — and marketers and stars know how to use that perception to their advantage.
If you can get people to doubt the sources, convince them there’s a conspiracy theory afoot, and suggest that the “fans” are obviously more correct than the critics, then you may just succeed in getting more people in the door at the movie theater — and that’s the whole idea.
Gotti went for the full three-pronged approach. The first two are impossible to argue with. I can’t convince you that I’m trustworthy, and no other critic can either — that’s the nature of the opinion-giving business. All you can do is read my writing and decide if you like it. And I can’t prove to you that we’re not conspirators, except to say that if you’ve ever known a group of film critics you’d know how funny the idea of us organizing anything at all is.
The third prong is tough to argue with, too. But in the case of Gotti, there’s an extra layer.
Does this audience even exist?
The idea that “audiences” loved Gotti was supported by the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, which as of today is at 61 percent. But there are two reasons to raise an eyebrow.
First, the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is all but useless. It can, and has, been gamed by groups like the alt-right and angry fans to drive down audience scores for films that are deemed objectionable, like Black Panther, The Last Jedi, and Ghostbusters. Anyone can rate a film, whether or not they’ve seen it — and that means sometimes films’ audience scores can be inflated or deflated before the film has even released in theaters.
Even if the site required the user to prove they’d seen the film, though, there’s still a flaw: audience scores by nature reflect the opinions of people who were inclined enough to see a movie (through interest in the subject matter, perhaps, or the star, or successful marketing efforts) to buy a ticket and give up a couple of hours of their day to see it. So there’s a natural curve built into the audience score. What audience scores at their best measure is what Cinemascore more or less measures: how much people who already wanted to see the film liked it. But critics don’t get that choice, and thus there’s more granularity built into their opinions.
But there’s one more wrinkle in the case of Gotti. There might be something fishy about the audience score.
First of all, it’s composed of more than 7,000 ratings, which is a remarkably high number for a film that only made $1.7 million on its opening weekend in 503 theaters (which implies a relatively low number of people in the audience). By contrast, Incredibles 2 made more than $183 million in 4,410 theaters and only has a little more than 8,000 audience ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. And Hereditary, which opened with more than $13 million in 2,964 theaters, has 5,529 ratings on the site.
Sure, it’s possible that Gotti fans are just extremely vocal and passionate about the film. But according to some people who dug through the data, it certainly looks like a number of the user accounts are very new users of Rotten Tomatoes. And while there could be a logical, non-shady explanation for that, there are other explanations, too, that have to do with someone rigging the system. (Rotten Tomatoes, for its part, stands by the score and claims there was no manipulation.)
Once again, herein lie shades of our age of “fake news”: the suspicion that trolls and bots are manipulating our “reality,” first online and then offline, too. There are the Russian “troll farms” that produced truly fake news and weaponized our social media feeds and the fake Reddit accounts that have had to be shut down and a lot, lot more. So it seems almost inevitable that whether or not they’re messing with the Gotti score to pump up the film’s visibility, trolls and bots will be part of the mess of audience scores some day soon.
Is this whole thing even for real?
It is very, very hard to tell if any of this is in good faith. Are the people behind the Gotti campaign earnest about their silly claims, or are they just trying to get a rise out of people in order to raise the film’s visibility?
This question extends to the audience reviews left on Rotten Tomatoes, which are pretty wild:
A thing about 2018 is that I have no idea if this user review is serious pic.twitter.com/CDyyy1xrFx
— Jason Bailey (@jasondashbailey) June 22, 2018
Trolling and shitposting are complicated, but they’re everywhere — weaponizing irony and “comedy” and memes and jokes to both exact some kind of revenge by making your enemy look foolish and confuse them into dismissing you.
That’s not to say that the alt-right is involved in this whole Gotti deal, though anecdotal evidence shows that there may be some overlap between the #MAGA crowd and Gotti fans.
— Peter Kafka (@pkafka) June 17, 2018
(MoviePass owns a 40 percent stake in Gotti.)
But the fact that we cannot even figure out if this ad campaign and the Rotten Tomatoes score is real feels very of a piece with everything in our fake news world. Call the critics fake news and stoke a conspiracy theory. Game the system through possibly shady tactics. And do it all in an environment where it’s totally possible to just say “we were kidding!” if you somehow get caught.
Gotti doesn’t really matter, and neither does its goofy ad campaign. But it’s a little depressing to see the things many of us worry about in the all-important spheres of policy and politics seeping into something as inconsequential as a terrible movie about a mob boss.