- Paul Yanover, the president of the online-ticketing site Fandango, talked to Business Insider about how the company was evolving its review-aggregator site, Rotten Tomatoes, to keep up with the times.
- Yanover also gave insight on the onslaught of customers buying “Avengers: Endgame” tickets last week and his plan to make his company a destination beyond selling movie tickets.
Despite all the talk of streaming destroying the movie-theatre experience, last week was a reminder that exhibition is certainly not dead. Just ask the folks at Fandango.
The leader in online movie ticketing treated April 2 like its Super Bowl because, in a sense, it was.
Before most people were awake on that day, Fandango had two war rooms going at full tilt: one back in its headquarters in Beverly Hills, California, and another in a suite at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, where the company’s president, Paul Yanover, and many other executives were attending CinemaCon, the annual convention of theatre owners.
Everyone was double- and triple-checking the system, and conversing on Slack to make sure that when 5 a.m. PT hit, they wouldn’t have a repeat of when “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” broke the site. At 5 a.m., advance tickets for “Avengers: Endgame” would go on sale, and Yanover and his team knew it would be huge.
“You could tell from the first 15 minutes of tickets going online it was going to be bigger than ‘The Force Awakens,'” Yanover told Business Insider the next day. “Because we can’t increase our scale to respond to a three-hour window every couple of years, we created a system to have an orderly management of the situation. People had to wait – there’s nothing we can do about that – but nothing crashed.”
You may have been one of those people who went on Fandango to buy tickets last week and were brought to a waiting room. That was by design. Yanover is the first to acknowledge that, when it comes to buying something on the web, there should be no such thing as “waiting.” But tickets to “Endgame” were a different animal, and the company essentially built a holding room to service all its customers, which was something it had never had to do before. But when the dust settled, as many chains were licking their wounds as their ticketing services couldn’t take the onslaught of activity, Fandango had its best ticket-selling day in its history.
It sold tickets in the millions in one day (Fandango would not give Business Insider an exact figure), besting the record held by “The Force Awakens.”
That day “went really smoothly because we thought as a technology company,” Yanover said. And he credited that mindset with Fandango’s continued growth.
The other factor that has helped propel Fandango in recent years is a website that has become an industry standard in Hollywood: Rotten Tomatoes.
In the 21 years Rotten Tomatoes has been in existence, it has gone from being a scrappy startup created as a way to compile reviews of Jackie Chan movies to the biggest studios using its “fresh” tomato symbol as the foundation of their marketing campaigns. That leap to household-name status has been helped greatly by Fandango since it acquired the site in 2016.
But there have had to be major tweaks in the past few years, for both Rotten Tomatoes and Fandango. And Yanover took us behind-the-scenes on the major recent decisions.
Systematically making Rotten Tomatoes more relevant
Rotten Tomatoes has often gotten a lot of attention because of comments by filmmakers about how they think the service is hurting the art of movies, like Brett Ratner’s comments in 2017 or Martin Scorsese’s later that year. But in the past few years, the company has made its own headlines after looking internally to see whether it’s serving its audience correctly and making changes based on its findings.
Last year, Rotten Tomatoes changed how it vets new critics, looking more at the individual critics instead of the publications they write for. A big reason was that in today’s world of criticism, many of the best are freelancers. There was also the issue of diversity in the pool of Rotten Tomato-approved critics.
“What we focused on is do the critics represents diversity that is the audience but also journalism?” said Yanover, who has been president since 2012. “If we want to be useful to the audience, they are going to want to know that a score is composed of young people, old people, white people, not-white people, male, and female. Because the viewership is all those.”
More than 500 critics have been added since last August to help bring more diversity to Rotten Tomatoes, including critics who don’t write but do reviews through video or podcast.
Then this year brought the issue of the audience score, which Yanover said Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes had observed for some time being weaponised around the release of some movies. In the latest case, it was “Captain Marvel,” the first woman-led Marvel movie. Internet trolls had purposely lowered the audience score on the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes page before it opened.
In response to that, Fandango announced that Rotten Tomatoes audience scores would not be visible until the movies were available to the public. It also said it would develop ways to ensure audience members giving reviews or scores on the site could verify they had actually seen the movie.
“We saw that this was becoming at times a message board,” Yanover said of the audience score. “They aren’t even talking about the movie, they are talking about their feelings that the movie happens to have triggered. We felt it can’t be that useful for you to listen to people speculating about something they haven’t seen. Or worse, talking off topic. So we addressed it.”
Yanover said addressing both the diversity of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes and the tweaking of when the audience score became visible were not from-the-hip decisions. For example, he said “Captain Marvel” having a lot of “high-frequency noise” wasn’t the deciding factor on making the announcement. Instead, it was the result of the company constantly looking at a site that has been around for 21 years.
“We want to be honest and transparent – I’m very proud of that,” Yanover said.
But it is hardly “Mission Accomplished” at Fandango.
Becoming everything for the moviegoer (except a movie-ticket subscription provider)
“Our feeling is if you’re in the business of the topic of movies, then just selling tickets is a limitation,” Yanover said. “We love the theatrical experience, it is the biggest scale thing we do, but if we want to be the topic of movies, we have to also be involved in movies in your home. The big change over the last five years is to reimagine ourselves as not a company that sells movie tickets but as a company that serves consumers around their entertainment.”
Acquiring Rotten Tomatoes certainly is the biggest example of Yanover’s mission. But the site also owns the YouTube channel Movieclips, which out of its network of channels has 44 million subscribers and is an endless deep dive of movie clips and trailers. And there’s also FandangoNow, which allows you to buy, rent, and watch more than 80,000 movies and TV shows online and on mobile devices (many of which aren’t on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime yet).
In an era when streaming options are only growing with Disney and Apple entering the space, Yanover is happy to boast: “We are the only retailer in America that is selling movies on all platforms, all windows, all prices.”
But there’s one area Fandango isn’t in yet: movie-ticket subscriptions. Though Yanover’s competitor, Atom Tickets, announced recently that it would provide movie theatres with its tech to help individual theatres launch their own subscription plans, Yanover isn’t ready to put his hat in the ring.
“The unknown question is what is the right balance of a price point and what scale,” he said. “I look at AMC as the furthest along in finding the right price/product-market match. We’re much more in a position of supporting the industry – AMC A-List users use Fandango – than staking a claim and saying I’m going to underwrite millions of tickets. I’m more focused on being the retailer that’s serving all people on all platforms.”
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