The curious case of Rotten Tomatoes and ‘The Brass Teapot’

A little over a week ago, I got an e-mail from Stuart Zakim, a publicist I've heard from a few times in the past, and I scanned it, as I try to scan everything that hits my e-mail box.

Here's where I'm going to give you a look at how the sausage gets made. For the most part, I write based on instinct and time and opportunity. I would like to write ten times the material I write at the moment, because there are that many things I'd like to share with you. There are that many things worth discussing. And every time I feel the moment to discuss something slip by, and I don't get a chance to write about something, it drives me crazy.

So one of the things I try not to get pulled into is what I like to call “other people's priorities.” That sounds heartless, and there are moments where it feels heartless, but I have to have some rules about what I'll cover. There are things that are obviously very important to the people who are e-mailing me, and considering I get about 30 of those a day on slow days and sometimes many more than that, there's absolutely no way I can even begin to do that for all of them.

I had to adopt the policy, for example, that I can't write any articles about any Kickstarter campaign, because the moment I write about one, then everyone else who has an interesting Kickstarter campaign will expect that I'll write about theirs as well, and that would certainly be fair. But my job isn't to help get films made.

Is it?

I scanned Stuart's e-mail, and I went on with reading the rest of my mail for the day, and I didn't immediately think anything of it. But it sort of stuck with me and nagged at me as I thought about it, and I went back to read it again later in the day.

Here it is, in full, so you can read it for yourself:

Imagine spending a year working on achieving a lifelong dream and all that goes with it – the endless hours, the emotional roller coaster, the sacrifices – and once you”ve finished it, its barometer of success is a standard that, by some computer algorithm, creates an identity for your project that defines it and you to your peers and which affects how you are viewed by the industry you”ve devoted your career.
This is the situation my client, writer/director Ramaa Mosley, finds herself as it applies to what happened with her directorial debut, “The Brass Teapot.” The film tells the story of a struggling young couple who discovers that a brass teapot they steal from an antiques dealer has a power to pay them money whenever they hurt themselves, and how they determine how far they are willing to go to keep the money coming.  Filmed in 19 days on a budget under $900,000, the film generated positive buzz in the independent filmmaker world, and was accepted and screened at the 2012 Toronto Film Festival where Magnolia Pictures acquired it for distribution.  Its cast was composed of actors with name and face recognition, driven by their attraction to the storyline. Magnolia released it in 2013 to mixed to positive reviews, highlighted by its most positive review in Variety.
In spite of best efforts by the studio, only 27 film critics ultimately reviewed “The Brass Teapot,”.  Of those, 19 were rated negative and 8 positive.  Enter our dilemma.
The website, Rotten Tomatoes, as you know, is an aggregator of film reviews on any given title.   They have an extensive list of member critics, of which you are one, whose reviews are analyzed and rated via their Tomatoemeter.  “The Brass Teapot,” as a result of its limited reviews, has a 26 out of 100 score.
Ms. Mosley is trying to raise money to fund and cast her second film, which she anticipates starting production on in the Spring of 2015.  As she meets with a variety of potential investors and agents who represent the talent she is seeking, she is faced with having to answer the question about the reviews of “The Brass Teapot” and it is an obstacle to moving forward with her next film.
As a critic on the “Rotten Tomatoes” roster, I wanted to enlist your help in our cause to change the ranking.  I recognize it”s been a busy season and the last thing you want to do, after watching and reviewing the holiday season and Oscar contenders, is take a look at a film that is a few years old.  However, this is a film that fell through the cracks; we all are aware of the intense competition of films to be accepted by the Toronto Film Festival; it indicates the film stands out from others and the TIFF”s stamp of approval is one that often predicts success, so it”s to ‘The Brass Teapot”s” credit to have accomplished that feat.  Magnolia Pictures, an independent studio known for their selectiveness in the films they acquire, is another plus for both the film and Ms. Mosley.
We”re asking you to take a look at “The Brass Teapot.”  It is currently available to Netflix subscribers. If you”re not, here”s a link to a downloadable copy.

You can read up on Ramaa at http://www.ramaamosley.com/ and I”m sure you”ll agree that she is a filmmaker worthy of this effort and we”d really appreciate your help in changing her Rotten Tomatoes score.
Please let me know if you have any questions and would like to speak with Ramaa about her experiences connected with this.
Wishing you and yours all the best for a great 2015.

So a few more days go by, and I find myself thinking of the letter every time I fired up Netflix. Finally, I added it to my queue, which typically has about 400 things in it at any given moment.

As the year got underway, I watched several things, just sort of randomly picking. Tim Burton's “Sleepy Hollow” after I got annoyed by a still from “Alice In Wonderland.” “His GIrl Friday,” which I adore and like to listen to almost like a radio play every so often just to hear the rhythm of the dialogue as it gets fired back and forth. “Supercop” because my friend Jeremy had mentioned it in passing on Twitter.  Zak Penn's documentary about the Atari cartridges supposedly buried in the desert because our EIC Richard Rushfield mentioned running into Zak the other day. And each time I finished one of them, I saw “The Brass Teapot” there in my queue, and I felt a pang of guilt.

I finally watched “The Brass Teapot” last night, and the first thing I'll say is that I hope Ramaa does make another film. My barometer for filmmakers is very simple: if your voice strikes me as interesting, even if I don't like your movie, then I'll always be willing to watch whatever's next. Voice is the most important thing to me when I watch a film. Does it feel like someone has some idea of how to tell a story? Aesthetics and structure and dialogue and all of those details are all important, but before any of that matters, it's about voice. In the case of “The Brass Teapot,” it is apparent that Ramaa Mosley has a voice, and that “The Brass Teapot” is a focused, controlled piece of storytelling that displays real control.

What if I felt differently, though? What if I hated it? What if I felt trapped ten minutes into the movie, as happens sometimes? There are films where I know pretty much by the font of the opening titles that I am not in synch with the choices being made by a filmmaker, and likewise, there are times where you can just feel from the opening frames that someone has an idea of what they're doing and a reason for doing it.

If I hated the film, would it be fair to write about it and post my reaction to Rotten Tomatoes now, two years after it came out? Because that's obviously what I'm going to do since I like it and I like her as a director and I feel comfortable supporting all of the above. It would seem like Stuart is taking a calculated risk by putting the film back on my radar and asking me to take time out of the holiday season to go watch it. In this case, I think the risk is going to pay off because I did like the movie. But before I pressed play, I decided that I was going to write about it either way because that's the only fair way to make that decision.

If I did strongly dislike it, though, I would have felt guilty publishing anything about it and hurting it worse than it's already been hurt. I don't have that pang of guilt if I'm writing about a movie just before its theatrical release. If I have to write a negative review of something, I don't feel like I'm somehow transgressing. That is my job. But for a film that's been out for a few years, there's a larger degree of choice involved, and if I do choose to catch up, there's no urgency to me writing about that or making sure my review is on Rotten Tomatoes.

When I say that, I am obviously talking about my perspective, and Stuart's letter nagged at me precisely because it poked at that idea, challenged the notion that it doesn't matter. Have you noticed how people seem to forget films exist the moment they're out of their active marketing window? I feel like I'm always playing an elaborate game of catch-up, always watching as many movies as possible. But I guarantee that the things I write about films that are only because I'm interested and not because of a release window get read less and shared less and treated as brush-offs. In the meantime, those release window considerations drive everything editorially, and it can be so frustrating.

But none of that matters to a filmmaker who is desperate for people to just plain try their film. Cutting through all of that noise and getting people to watch the film is always going to be the hardest part. Yes, even harder than the actual making of the film. In the case of “The Brass Teapot,” it is obvious that every review for the film matters, and while I know that's a form letter with my name typed in at the top, that e-mail makes some very strong points. The one that I couldn't let go of, the one that eventually got me to press play, was the point about how hard it is for her to get funding for that next film right now. While there are more ways to make films than ever before, and there are more ways to get those films seen, there is also more noise than ever before that you have to cut through, and in that sense, the publicist was right to make the kind of plea he did.

There was a piece I wrote last year after the release of “Winter's Tale” where I talked about how hard it is for filmmakers to pull off a sort of modern-day fairy tale tone, how difficult it can be to create a reality where magic seems possible, and “The Brass Teapot” is an example of a filmmaker thinking about that and carefully building their own set of rules, a visual vocabulary that makes it feel right. In the film, a young couple who is struggling to stay afloat financially discover a magical brass teapot that will produce money for them, but only if they hurt themselves. The film is silly at times, sexy in places, and it even flirts with real darkness at times. I think the film works because Juno Temple gives a great performance in the lead as Alice, the young wife who has a master's degree and no way to actually use it to find employment. She's frustrated and angry, and she believes that the teapot is a way out. She's the one who finds it, like it calls to her, and the film is ultimately told from her perspective. It's a subtle thing, but I think most male filmmakers would have told this story from the POV of the husband. Instead, Michael Angarano feels like he's playing the supporting part. I'm not normally a fan of his work, but he's solid here. He plays well off of Temple, and that's all that matters since so much of the film is just the two of them.

So I'm going to post a positive review to Rotten Tomatoes. I'm going to do my part to boost the score that little bit. And I'm going to hope that we see another film from Ramaa Mosley. And to all of you who pitch me stuff that I don't respond to, just realize that there is an ocean of these requests that I have to sort through each year, in addition to all the things that I already generate on my own, and while I wish I could watch every single “The Brass Teapot” that's out there, I know I can't. All any of these films can hope is that they'll find their champion, someone who can say the right thing in the right place at the right time.

It's got to feel a little bit like trusting your future to a magic teapot.

“The Brass Teapot” is currently available on Netflix Instant.