Oral Histories

An Oral History of RT, Part One: The Beginning

In the first of a three-part series, the founders of RT talk about the site's early days.

by | June 23, 2008 | Comments

To commemorate the 10th anniversary of Rotten Tomatoes, we asked some of the founding members of RT to share their memories. What follows is an oral history of Rotten Tomatoes’ early years, from the people who were there at the beginning. In this installment, we cover the genesis of the site — how the founding Tomatoes turned their love of movies into a destination for cinema fanatics the world over.

In 1998, Senh Duong (right) was working as the creative director of Design Reactor, a Bay Area web design firm founded by a group of University of California-Berkeley graduates. A big movie buff, Senh was looking for reviews of Jackie Chan movies one night when a light bulb went off in his head.

Senh Duong: My first visit to the theater was in junior high. And it was a double bill — Raw Deal starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Cobra with Sylvester Stallone). My friends and I thought Cobra was the better of the two. So my inclinations tended toward action movies. It’s my favorite genre. And my favorite actors then were action stars: Arnold, Stallone, and Bruce Willis.

I discovered Jet Li and Jackie Chan during high school, and I’ve always felt it was a shame that neither were known in the US then. When I got to college and was living in the dorms, I would always put on a Jackie or Jet movie, and they would always draw a crowd. When Rumble in the Bronx came out in the US, I was really curious to see how critics would react to it. I would search the web for reviews of each of his Asian imports.

I had the idea while searching for reviews of Jackie Chan imports — Rumble in the Bronx, Supercop, Twin Dragons, and First Strike.

In high school, I started looking at the box office charts every week to see what movies were popular. I also started watching Siskel & Ebert, which obviously had a huge influence on me. When I was started picking a domain name for Rotten Tomatoes, I was gonna call it “Thumbs Up” as a tribute to them, but luckily (for copyright reasons), all variations of the show’s trademarked rating system were taken. I ended up with Rotten Tomatoes because I didn’t think anyone had used it as domain name. And I was right!
So I guess the love of Jackie Chan movies and Siskel & Ebert eventually gave birth to Rotten Tomatoes.

The name “Rotten Tomatoes” came to Senh while watching the fantasy film Leolo, about a boy who imagines himself to be the offspring of an Italian peasant and a giant tomato. Though it initially seemed like an interesting side project to his work Design Reactor, Senh soon realized he’d stumbled upon a really good idea.

Senh: I spent about two weeks designing and coding it. Back then it was pretty simple. The movie pages were influenced by movie ads in newspapers. The home page back then looked like a big giant leaf with bite marks made by caterpillars.

 Rotten Tomatoes as it looked in 2000.

Rotten Tomatoes went live on August 18, 1998. Early reaction was profoundly encouraging.

Senh: On the very first day, it had about 100 views. I got that from posting in Usenet movie groups telling people to check it out. A few days later, it was picked by Yahoo! as the site of the day, which got the site a couple thousand views. In the following week, it was spotlighted by USA Today and Netscape (which was huge back then); each of those got the site tens of thousands of views. And then came Roger Ebert and the rest of the mentions.

Buoyed by the positive response, Senh decided to devote himself to Rotten Tomatoes full-time.

Senh: After launching the site, I was burned out working at Design Reactor during the day and Rotten Tomatoes at night. I resigned from Design Reactor and moved back to Sacramento.

Needing help to run the site, he recruited two high school friends, tapping Binh Ngo as editor-in-chief and Bobby Ly to handle internet marketing.

Binh Ngo: I was working in a vet lab back then but I quit to work on RT full time with Senh and Bobby Ly back in 1999. We were working out of Senh’s apartment in downtown Sacramento.
After a few months, Rotten Tomatoes and Design Reactor merged, moving into new digs in Emeryville, CA. Fellow Berkeley grads — and Design Reactor colleagues — Stephen Wang and Patrick Lee were instrumental in turning Rotten Tomatoes from a good idea into a solid business.

Senh: We decided to concentrate on RT. This was during the internet boom, and we thought RT had more potential then. As soon as we merge, we handed off the design stuff to another company, which we had a stake with.

Paul Lee (marketing manager): I think we always knew that it would be viable, it was just a matter of getting enough users and page views.

Senh: The more advanced features were added later by Stephen and everyone else who worked on the site then. Pat structured RT into a company. Stephen turned the site from static HTML pages into a database-driven dynamic site.

 The RT gang, 2000 (L-R): Pungkas Nataatmaja, Mark Moran, Patrick Lee, Lily Chi, Brandon Sugiyama, Senh Duong, Stephen Wang, Paul Lee, Binh Ngo, Geoffrey Pay, Joe Huang, Suzanne Wood, Bobby Ly, Eric Yeh, Boon Khoo. (Photo by Kendra Luck of the San Francisco Chronicle)

However, in the early days, the site had several problems. The coding was done in a patchwork manner, and some early diehard users felt Rotten Tomatoes had sold out by accepting advertising.

Paul: I remember though that when we started RT, the site had zero revenue. It was all hand-tweaked static HTML. We spent the first year turning it into something that was dynamic, database-driven, and one that supported ads in the design. When we launched the beta with the new design and ads, we got a huge amount of negative feedback. A lot of people were really angry about the presence of ads, and it was my job for a while to respond to all the feedback. One thing is that no matter how angry a person was, if you responded to them in a personalized way, 99 percent of the time, they would write back immediately apologizing for shooting off an angry email, and then expressing surprise and delight that a human being actually answered the letter. I probably spent four to six hours a day for a few months answering feedback, but it just goes to show you that being responsive and attentive goes a long way when most people expect faceless form responses.

Senh: Sometimes I don’t think people understand how hard we worked back then. My routine was work, eat lunch at the office, work, play basketball, come home, work, sleep for six hours. Repeat process.

While the formula for calculating the Tomatometer has been the same since RT’s inception, there were other paths that the company explored that were ultimately not taken.

Stephen Wang: The formula for calculating the Tomatometer has remained the same throughout. The simple calculation as opposed to methods used on other sites is easy to understand and provides good guidance to people. The original site features are largely intact and everything has been about building on top of the core idea.

Paul: We had this idea that RT could do all kinds of reviews, not just movie reviews. We would have a category for car reviews or maybe restaurants or maybe electronic products. In the end, we had enough challenges that we just stuck to movies, which was probably a good thing. We did later tentatively expand into game reviews, but it never worked nearly as well as movie reviews.

Stephen: It quickly scaled to 250,000 unique visitors in the 16 months between it started and January 2000, when we began working on RT in earnest as a company.

Next: The RT gang navigates the rough waters of the dotcom era

Tag Cloud

VH1 Hulu Anna Paquin Podcast Premiere Dates 007 Women's History Month Music LGBTQ Trailer foreign Trophy Talk toy story BET comiccon Nat Geo independent nature green book Amazon Prime Star Wars OneApp boxoffice dragons latino comics miniseries sports breaking bad Paramount Network ABC south america TCA 2017 Baby Yoda Peacock Best and Worst Lifetime Christmas movies Mudbound werewolf political drama Tubi MSNBC Superheroes Acorn TV Classic Film Syfy Mary poppins FOX binge joker psycho Starz TLC Disney+ Disney Plus Character Guide Paramount dceu cartoon Dark Horse Comics WGN Spike Amazon Prime Video diversity revenge Elton John witnail Cannes Fall TV sequel SXSW Sundance Now romantic comedy Writers Guild of America anthology Rocketman TCA Winter 2020 Biopics teaser singing competition USA Network game of thrones DC Comics Disney Plus USA canceled Mindy Kaling Marvel Television CBS Disney streaming service 2018 PaleyFest Walt Disney Pictures Shudder Warner Bros. medical drama The Purge cancelled Reality Competition Grammys San Diego Comic-Con History romance award winner Binge Guide Western Action Nickelodeon YouTube Red Awards streaming Countdown RT History Box Office quibi BBC America Teen Year in Review Amazon NYCC natural history Emmys Pride Month Tomatazos adaptation Creative Arts Emmys festivals Rom-Com war Valentine's Day Tarantino Pirates kids Ghostbusters versus dc Quiz Pet Sematary Sci-Fi Showtime President documentary Opinion X-Men politics The CW doctor who YouTube Premium Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Musical Esquire A&E LGBT spain Turner Britbox cops Disney Channel Polls and Games Universal zombie ITV Super Bowl Film Festival Vudu sag awards cancelled TV series police drama Holidays Disney discovery cancelled television Spectrum Originals First Look renewed TV shows social media christmas movies Crunchyroll TBS theme song NBC crime thriller spider-man children's TV ratings elevated horror TV renewals 21st Century Fox Thanksgiving spanish language science fiction zombies TCM jamie lee curtis Crackle Academy Awards Spring TV Awards Tour unscripted slashers canceled TV shows Lucasfilm Trivia Fox News Chilling Adventures of Sabrina ghosts TV true crime IFC Star Trek Brie Larson CBS All Access APB Oscars justice league cancelled TV shows mockumentary richard e. Grant casting Certified Fresh Epix TNT Hallmark See It Skip It Television Academy game show disaster thriller Apple TV Plus Pop Film adventure Summer Ellie Kemper docudrama 2020 strong female leads Marathons Drama Turner Classic Movies Hallmark Christmas movies National Geographic The Walking Dead CW Seed CNN Cosplay DGA hist Adult Swim GIFs Marvel television GLAAD Marvel Studios GoT Family video TIFF ESPN FX blaxploitation 71st Emmy Awards free movies Extras series Netflix Christmas movies blockbuster Toys rotten movies we love MTV Election Heroines 20th Century Fox serial killer IFC Films indie Emmy Nominations Video Games DC Universe Rocky cinemax FXX Calendar 45 TCA Sneak Peek name the review cars YA finale Photos composers Shondaland cats screenings animated Sundance Christmas AMC Food Network SDCC Bravo Set visit Mary Poppins Returns Martial Arts based on movie crossover crime drama Fantasy RT21 TruTV Animation HBO Amazon Studios Winter TV movie halloween batman spinoff Columbia Pictures reboot Arrowverse Sony Pictures supernatural New York Comic Con Interview SundanceTV psychological thriller Horror Stephen King Mary Tyler Moore spy thriller 2016 Black Mirror Endgame Comedy Central Superheroe CMT First Reviews Song of Ice and Fire directors Winners VICE historical drama Nominations transformers travel vampires Cartoon Network YouTube Apple TV+ movies hispanic Apple cooking DC streaming service 2017 American Society of Cinematographers cults Mystery Musicals Watching Series Freeform Avengers dogs Ovation A24 robots E3 BBC zero dark thirty Lionsgate Holiday stand-up comedy WarnerMedia talk show OWN Reality tv talk Comics on TV harry potter anime Comic Book what to watch Kids & Family Red Carpet crime screen actors guild biography The Witch Pixar Tumblr The Arrangement book golden globes Comedy technology Lifetime Masterpiece period drama TV Land aliens Chernobyl Discovery Channel Netflix sitcom DirecTV HBO Max Captain marvel Infographic 24 frames MCU Schedule mutant facebook Country ABC Family Rock 2015 El Rey E! Sundance TV comic 2019 space PBS dramedy Logo