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