Book, Movie, and Product Reviews Are Being Bought and Paid For

Anyone who writes critics for a living have heard it before, and many: “How much did you get paid to write this?”

I've criticized a lot of things over the years: movies, wine and spirits, and all kinds of tech gear, for WIRED and other publications. And no matter what I write about, there's always that guy who chimes in in the comments, suggesting that my opinions have been bought and paid for.

It was invariably easy to ignore these comments, but things got complicated in September, when Vulture published an article revealing the incalculable scale of the paid review industry. The story showed, among other things, how publicists paid certain independent film critics to review independent films and non-mainstream releases. These reviews, often published on independent film review sites, were then collected by Rotten Tomatoes. This meant, the story suggested, that a coveted Certified Fresh score on the hallowed Tomatometer could potentially be bought, not earned.

The story caused chaos in the film industry.

Take a look beyond the world of art houses and streaming services and you'll quickly realize that this practice is commonplace. Reviews on everything from gadgets to books to clothing to hotels to liquor and more are all potentially compromised, depending on your definition of that word. And the deeper you dig, the weirder things get.

Following the Vulture story, Rotten Tomatoes took action and began running reviews of films that it claimed had taken payments from the platform. In doing so, the company upended the lives of many film critics and blew up a common tactic employed by independent titles to gain exposure. Defenders of this practice have argued that these small films would have gone unnoticed by critics without a financial incentive to watch them.

The scenario highlights a fundamental paradox in online reviews. Independent films — hell, anything independent — make the creative industry a better place, and boosting their signal above the noise is a clear win for anyone with tastes outside the mainstream. The practice of amplifying these independent voices by paying for coverage can be viewed as misleading, dishonest, and mercenary by readers who are unaware of the bigger picture.

This big picture is actually a blockbuster. No matter what you produce, there is probably a way to buy a review. There is a network of platforms to connect filmmakers, authors and product manufacturers with writers, blogs and publications who can build their brand for a fee. My inbox is flooded with foreign white label tech manufacturers who desperately want to pay me to write a review if I can get it published in WIRED or some other outlet. I politely declined and for decades never accepted outside payment to write a product review.

Until the day I did.

The problem with bunker 15

Lane Brown's article in Vulture, “Decaying Rotten Tomatoes,” claimed the popular movie review site could be “easily hacked.” At the heart of the article is an advertising company called Bunker 15. It's one of several companies that help independent filmmakers get reviews for their films that can count toward the all-important Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer rating. For the service, some reviewers pay $50 per review.

Brown emailed me before his story was published to ask if I had been paid by Bunker 15 for my review of the film. Ophelia– also the heart of his article – and, honestly, I didn't know if that was the case or not. I posted my review on Film Racket, an independent film site I've run since 2013, over five years ago, and I don't have any records going back that far. I told Brown it was possible and that we had worked with Bunker 15 on other films over the years. After the story was published, I dug deeper and discovered that, yes, I was one of the critics who had been paid $50 to write a review of the film, and that it was probably the first film that the company submitted to Film Racket for a proposal. blanket. It's not a good movie, but I gave it three stars out of five, which Rotten Tomatoes marked as “fresh.” This remains the only review I have ever personally written of a Bunker 15 film or for which I was paid by a third party; other writers did the rest.

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