Anyone who writes reviews for a living has heard it before, and plenty: “How much did you get paid to write this?”
I’ve been a critic of many things over the years: movies, wine and spirits, and all manner of tech gear, for WIRED and other publications. And no matter what it is that I’m writing about, there’s always that one guy who pipes up in the comments suggesting that my opinions were bought and paid for.
It was invariably easy to dismiss these comments, but things got more complicated in September, when Vulture published a story that revealed the untold scale of the paid reviews industry. The story showed, among other things, how publicists were paying some independent film critics to review indie films and non-mainstream releases. These reviews, which were often published on independent film review websites, were then getting grabbed by Rotten Tomatoes. This meant, the story suggested, that a coveted Certified Fresh score on the hallowed Tomatometer could potentially be bought, and not earned.
The story caused chaos in the film industry.
Cast an eye beyond the world of art houses and streaming services, and you soon realize that this practice is commonplace. Reviews of everything—from gadgets to books, apparel, hotels, booze, you name it—are all potentially compromised, depending on your definition of that word. And the more you dig, the weirder things get.
In the wake of Vulture’s story, Rotten Tomatoes took action and began to boot movie reviewers who it believed had taken payments off the platform. In doing so, the company upended the lives of many film reviewers and blew a hole in a common tactic employed by indie titles to get visibility. Defenders of the practice argued that those smaller films would have gone unnoticed by critics absent a financial incentive to watch them.
The scenario points to a fundamental paradox in online reviews. Indie films—heck, indie anything—make the creative industry a better place, and boosting their signal above the noise is a net win for anyone with tastes outside of the mainstream. The practice of amplifying these independent voices by paying for coverage can be seen as deceitful, dishonest, and mercenary by readers who aren’t aware of the bigger picture.
That bigger picture is in fact a blockbuster. No matter what you produce, there’s probably a way to buy a review for it. A network of platforms exists to connect filmmakers, authors, and product manufacturers with writers, blogs, and publications who can boost their brand for a fee. My inbox is inundated by overseas manufacturers of white-label tech products who are desperate to pay me to write a review if I can get it published in WIRED or another outlet. I politely declined, and for decades I never accepted outside payment to write a review of a product.
Until, one day, I did.
The Trouble With Bunker 15
Lane Brown’s piece in Vulture, “The Decomposition of Rotten Tomatoes,” claimed that the popular movie review site could be “easily hacked.” At the core of the article is a publicity company called Bunker 15. It’s one of many businesses that help independent filmmakers get reviews for their movies that can count toward the all-important Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer rating. For the service, it pays some reviewers $50 per review.
Brown emailed me before his story was published to ask if I’d been paid by Bunker 15 for my review of the film Ophelia–also central to his piece–and, honestly, I didn’t know if I had or not. I published my review at Film Racket, an independent film website that I’ve run since 2013, more than five years ago, and I don’t have records going back that far. I told Brown it was possible, and that we did work with Bunker 15 on other films over the years. After the story was published I did more digging and discovered that, yes, I was one of the critics who was paid $50 to write a review of the movie, and that it was probably the first film the company ever submitted to Film Racket for proposed coverage. It’s not a great movie, but I gave it three stars out of five, which Rotten Tomatoes marked as “fresh.” It remains the only review I have ever personally written of a Bunker 15 film or for which I’ve been paid by a third party; other writers did the rest.