How do movie rating sites work, and are they trustworthy?

Sometimes it’s hard to choose what movie to watch, so movie rating sites help might come in handy to see the average rating of a film. But, have you ever wondered how they came to be and what do they really mean?

By Verónica Suárez

Every year so many movies come out making it very hard to choose which one to watch, will it be good? Will it be so bad it’s good? Will it be really bad?

A way many people end up deciding whether to watch a movie or not is taking a look at their average on movie review sites that tell you all the details you need and/or want to know. More specifically they look at that number that summarizes the opinion of critics and the general audience. This average is called “score,” and most people focus solely on that even though there are more extensive reviews available for reading.


But, what do those scores mean? Here are the explanations for some of the most popular sites:

Rotten Tomatoes

Rotten Tomatoes is the most popular site of all and one that's even taken as an authority on the matter. Their influence is so great that some movies use it for marketing purposes.


The site uses two percentages and graphics, one for critics and another for the audience. For the critics’ scores, the site uses "tomatoes" to tell the users how good the movie is in three levels: a fresh tomato, a normal tomato, and a splattered tomato. To decide this score, the "Tomatometer" takes into account the scores that can be submitted by critics themselves or chosen by the site’s curators to add them.

The fresh score is given to movies that have 75% approval or more by at least 80 reviews for wide releases (meaning that the movie is playing at the same time at movie theaters in most of the US), and 40 reviews for limited releases (this is generally used for specialty films or highly anticipated films to qualify for Academy Award nominations, so the movie is only released in metropolitan areas, like Los Angeles and New York). It also has to include at least 5 reviews from the site’s Top Critics.


If it doesn’t meet the criteria or is below 75%, it will display a red (normal) tomato, and if it falls below 60% it starts being considered "rotten," and is given the splattered tomato. For the audience scores, the site considers 3.5 and above to be a positive and anything below that as negative. To show the reviews it uses a bucket of popcorn, where a 60% or above is a positive rating and shows a full bucket of popcorn, and if it’s below that it shows a tipped-over bucket.


Founded in 1978, CinemaScore it’s a very popular way to measure the audience’s reaction to a movie. It’s generally seen as a letter grade beside a movie poster, with the score coming from a survey given to audiences on a film’s opening night. Because it is a poll given available for voting on the opening night of a movie, it means that the score is more about the initial reaction of audiences. This is mainly a site that measures if the audience is satisfied with what they have just watched. The letter grade is based on the US’ grading system, where: A+ represents 97% - 100%, A: 93% - 96%, A-: 90% - 92%, B+: 87% - 89%, and so on.



This site is different from the others because it gives grades to movies, video games, TV shows, and music, though all of them are calculated in the same way. It’s also different because it uses weighted averages, meaning that some reviews have more "weight" than others.

This way the well-established critics have more importance than smaller outlets, meaning that the ones at the top will have more power over the score than newer ones. Metacritic renews the list of publications every year, but they don’t show the weight each critic has inside their formula.


The Metascore is a number from 0 to 100, where 0 - 39 is red, 40 - 60 is yellow, and 61 - 100 is green. The score is calculated with only critics’ reviews, but the movies with 81 or more that are reviewed by 15 or more publications are given the Metacritic Must-See Award.

IMDb Ratings

The IMDb score is one of the first shown when googling a movie, and it’s just an average of the reviews given by all registered users that can go from 1 to 10. It doesn’t show any graphics or colors.


If the site seems to notice that there’s suspicious voting activity, those reviews may receive a lower weight in the overall average “to preserve the reliability” of the final score. This can happen by creating bot accounts to vote in a certain way, for example.

The ratings are given by the registered users but it can also give averages of age, gender, country, and other things. Nevertheless, it’s less reliable than CinemaScore for not being verified or in-person.


Photos from: Shutterstock / @rottentomatoes / @cinema_score / @metacritic / @imbd

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