And then there were seven. Doing the job of 25.
The year is 2001: Rotten Tomatoes, nearing its third birthday, is on the brink of dying a dotcom death. Despite launching to immediate growth and notoriety in 1998, profitability for the site was worlds away. In those days, you woke up every morning to the overnight news that another once-sizzling Silicon Valley startup failed. pets.com. Webvan. eToys.com. CDNow. Rotten Tomatoes had a weirder name than all of them. The site had no previous business model to work off of. Exactly how do you make money collecting movie reviews?
Rotten Tomatoes could’ve died then. But it didn’t, saving at least a few million people from ruining their nights with Cats or Gigli.
This is the story – drawn from recent extended conversations with the founders and early employees, as well as an oral history pieced together at our 10th anniversary – of how Rotten Tomatoes survived. How seven Asian-American believers held together, scraped by, made no enemies, and laid the foundation for a lasting institution in movie and TV criticism, conversation, and recommendation.
I’ve known Senh Duong for 15 years now, just a few days longer than my employment with Rotten Tomatoes. He was there in 2006 when I, in my senior year of college, came to their Emeryville, CA office for an intern job interview. Senh – soft-spoken, relaxed, and never coming close to anything you’d call fazed – was introduced to me as the founder of Rotten Tomatoes, at his cubicle. This surprised me. Rotten Tomatoes wasn’t a household name yet, but if you knew movies you knew the site, and here was its distinctly non-maniacal Dr. Frankenstein, chilling in his cube a few yards from where I could be working, if I didn’t blow the interview.
Another thing that stood out: There were barely over a dozen employees, and they were majority Asian-American. It wasn’t a total surprise, I suppose, with the Bay Area being the most Asian-diverse place in the country, but I still wasn’t expecting it at the headquarters of a site that was steadily radicalizing how we talk movies.
Jen Yamato, now a film reporter for The Los Angeles Times, got her start at Rotten Tomatoes. After departing from the company in 2010, Jen went on to The Daily Beast, Deadline, and, now at the Times, co-hosts the Asian Enough podcast. A generous and collaborative communicator always armed with a refreshing point of view, Jen had interviewed me for the Rotten Tomatoes job in 2006.
“It was the most wonderful first real job of my career, because I was hired at a time when the co-founders were still running the place,” Jen told me in a recent conversation. “I remember the office culture of Rotten Tomatoes having this really youthful energy. They were still operating to some degree with this startup energy of just being excited about a project and then throwing themselves into it to get it done.”
During my internship – which lasted six months before I was hired in 2007 – I gathered a fragmentary history of Rotten Tomatoes, starting with how it all started because of the Jackie Chan-Chris Tucker movie Rush Hour. Senh was a Jackie Chan fan. And 1998 was a good time to be one, since his movies were finally being released in theaters. “Seeing someone like that on screen, subconsciously it makes you feel more accepted,” Senh tells me.
Senh is ethnically Chinese but was born in Vietnam, part of a group otherwise referred to as hoa people. After the Fall of Saigon, democratic sympathizers and non-nationalists were driven out by the communist party. Senh fled with his family on a ship, and was hijacked by pirates. A common threat, though their valuables were hidden well enough to not be purloined. They eventually reached Hong Kong, before settling in rural Sacramento by the early 1980s. I had never really met someone whose background was so similar to my own: My parents were among the hundreds of thousands of boat people of the late 1970s, South Vietnamese who escaped communist rule by taking to the ocean on perilous, frequently fatal journeys.
“My first visit to the theater was in junior high,” Senh told my colleague, Tim Ryan, for a 10-year oral history of Rotten Tomatoes published in 2008. “It was a double bill: Raw Deal and Cobra. My friends and I thought Cobra was the better of the two. So my inclinations tended toward action movies. I discovered Jet Li and Jackie Chan during high school, and I’d always felt it was a shame that neither were known in the US.”
Rush Hour then was an event: Chan’s first major American studio movie, scheduled for August 1998. Senh liked reading reviews to get a sense of a movie’s quality before deciding to see it, but recalled how cumbersome it was tracking down critical remarks on other Chan movies, Rumble in the Bronx, Supercop, Twin Dragons, and First Strike. The only time you ever saw a bunch of critics reviews in one place was on posters, and those were trying to sell you the movie. Which inspired a thought: What if there was a site that collected all critics reviews for a movie, good and bad?
Senh introduced the concept to friends Patrick Lee and Stephen Wang. The three had met as students at UC Berkeley a few years earlier, and were coding websites at their Shattuck Avenue startup, Design Reactor, co-founded by Patrick and Stephen in January 1997. Design Reactor had over 20 employees, nearly all of them Asian-American friends sourced from their Cal days, especially from the campus Wushu group where they got together to train and practice the martial art. Patrick was from Los Angeles, while Stephen had come to California from Columbia, Maryland. Daniel Wu, who starred in Into the Badlands, became friends with Patrick and Stephen through the Wushu club.
“The value of that little UC Berekeley Wushu incubator was that it taught us how to be obsessed with discipline and hard work to get results,” Wu recalls, “We lived and breathed Wushu all day all night. We watched Wushu movies and tournaments on VHS, we talked incessantly about training and making up moves. It was intense. That obsession then transferred over to their careers and their various start ups culminating in Rotten Tomatoes.”
Speaking about the history of the site to a group of budding entrepreneurs in 2012, Patrick recalled: “We didn’t do it for money, we did it for friendship. When you graduate from high school, you go all over the place for college. When you graduate from college, you go all over the place for work. We thought, ‘Why does it have to be like that?’ Let’s work together. Let’s all stick together.”
In a blog post reflecting on the site’s 20th anniversary, Stephen said that Senh’s initial idea struck him as compelling. “It was quite a genius, outside-the-box idea,” he wrote. “He collected all of the news articles and film reviews in the weeks preceding the movie’s release and put them on a single page. In reality, while he meant to build a site for Rush Hour, since the film’s release got delayed, he actually continued the process for other movies about to release.”
It’s one of those butterfly effect questions: Had Rush Hour not been delayed to September, would Rotten Tomatoes exist?
The site launched on August 18, 1998, as a hobby project within Design Reactor, whose bread-and-butter was creating entertainment sites for film and television clients, including ABC and Disney. Senh spent two weeknights in the office hand-coding the site, with the core elements there from the get-go: Fresh, Rotten, and a percentage tabulation of a movie’s positive reviews, with 60% the dividing line. Calling it the Tomatometer would come later.
The name Rotten Tomatoes itself came to Senh after watching Jean-Claude Lauzon’s coming-of-age fantasy Léolo, wherein a woman believes she is impregnated by tomatoes.
Officially, the first movie to get a Rotten Tomatoes score was Neil LaBute’s black comedy, Your Friends & Neighbors – currently Certified Fresh at 77% on the Tomatometer – though other movies released that maiden Friday included Blade, Wrongfully Accused, Dead Man on Campus, and Dance With Me.
“On the very first day, it had about 100 views,” Senh recalled in our oral history. “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.”
Early encouragement was the currency that fueled Rotten Tomatoes early on, especially considering there was no revenue model. Yahoo! Internet Life was a print magazine from the era, and legendary film critic Roger Ebert, who published a monthly column in its pages on the intersection of pop culture and the developing online world, wrote a glowing endorsement of Rotten Tomatoes.
Stephen and Senh idolized Ebert; the nationally syndicated movie review show Siskel & Ebert had been another major inspiration for the site’s creation. “That was one of the motivations for us to really raise funding and do Rotten Tomatoes full-time,” Stephen tells me. “He didn’t need to do that for us. ‘Two thumbs up’ back then was the end-all, right? He didn’t need to say any kind words about what could potentially be a competitor to his prestige. That was really meaningful.”
A turning point for Patrick came in November 1998, on the Thursday before Pixar’s follow-up to its game-changing Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, opened. A pattern of site traffic spiking the day before the week’s major releases entered theaters had developed as people checked the Tomatometer scores of the weekend’s options. (This practice lives on to this day, in a way, when users crowd a majorly anticipated movie’s page as its review embargo lifts, at which point critics are able to publish their thoughts on the film and a Tomatometer score populates.) However, on this particular Thursday users were sticking around. The page for A Bug’s Life was constantly being refreshed and the team worked out the traffic was coming from just a few miles away. The likely source? The Pixar campus in Emeryville, where Patrick surmised employees were apparently refreshing their browsers to catch each new review uploaded.
Rotten Tomatoes, Patrick realized, was being adopted by the industry. The potential was dawning.
One problem: Senh had left Design Reactor and taken Rotten Tomatoes with him. The site was still hosted on Design Reactor’s servers, but the trio decided that Senh would leave the company to devote himself to his passion project, and be replaced by a new Creative Director. Senh left the Bay Area and went back to Sacramento, but the accumulative work burnt him out. Even Rotten Tomatoes – where everything was still manual and included treks to the library to copy review quotes from newspapers – had lost its luster. The site stopped being updated for several weeks. People wrote in asking what was happening. Perhaps, Senh thought, he’d take a crack at his original love: Filmmaking.
Senh got in touch with two Sacramento high school friends: Bobby Ly, an accountant who clerked at his family’s Chinese video store where Senh rented Hong Kong movies, and Binh Ngo, who at the time was working the night shift at a veterinarian clinic. Bobby would nominally update Rotten Tomatoes, while Senh and Binh set out to shoot a movie, using Robert Rodriguez’s Rebel Without a Crew – which chronicles the director’s early and frugal days in the industry – as a guide and bible. The plan was to adapt horror novelist Dean Koontz’s novel Fear Nothing, whose protagonist has xeroderma pigmentosum, a genetic disorder that causes severe sunburn and skin pigmentation after brief daylight exposure, something that would facilitate many night shoots. After a few weeks, they had enough footage to show to close friends and family, including Binh’s sister, whose response was blunt: “This is horrible.”
“How did that feel?” I asked Senh.
“Not good,” he says, laughing.
Did negative reviews save Rotten Tomatoes? Maybe, but both Bobby and Binh had convinced Senh that Rotten Tomatoes was still worth pursuing. The three resumed work on the site. Fear Nothing remains un-adapted.
Cut to early 1999, with the dotcom bubble in full bloom. I could tell because I was in high school in San Jose, the heart of Silicon Valley, and traffic was getting worse every day. Modern life had evolved computers from luxury to necessity, and mass adoption of the Internet was connecting the world in an unfathomably exciting new way. And with that, new opportunities to get rich. An idea, presented well enough, was enough to get venture capitalists to rattle their bank accounts for cash to invest, as a billion dollars in frenzied speculation transformed the Bay Area.
Design Reactor was growing, significantly helped along by a deal with Disney to create and maintain everything Disney Channel online. Things were going well enough that they hired a CFO, Lily Chi, and a Marketing Director, Paul Lee, who had actually been one of Design Reactor’s co-founders.
Still, people weren’t exactly tripping over themselves to invest in a web design firm. It was the ’90s. They wanted edgy, extreme. Rotten Tomatoes was identified as the breakthrough Trojan horse. Senh accepted an offer from Patrick and Stephen to reunite, bringing Binh and Bobby with him. Patrick, who was the best of the group when it came to working with people and managing relationships, raised $1.2 million across 1999. Rotten Tomatoes aimed to be incorporated January 2000. Design Reactor and its business would be taken over by another company in San Jose at that point. All 25 of its current employees elected to make the jump over to Rotten Tomatoes the next year.
Meanwhile, with Rotten Tomatoes back in the fold, Design Reactor’s Susan Nakasora was brought over to RT right away. She had an English degree, and her job was to copyedit everything on site, including the quotes from reviews that you see on a movie’s page. Binh, relatively along for the ride, was installed as Rotten Tomatoes’ first editor-in-chief, though most of the writing involved creating spotlight copy on the homepage pointing to movies around the site. This was the start of the editorial team at Rotten Tomatoes.
Binh, jokingly reflecting on the job, told me: “I kept on thinking that I only wrote two sentences through all my time there: ‘Click here’ and ‘Read more.’”
(It wouldn’t be until November 2004 that Rotten Tomatoes would expand into news coverage, with features, interviews, and more. The first article we posted reported on development rumors of a Halo movie. Some things never change.)
During this time, publicists began inviting staff to early movie screenings. Binh and Senh recall showing up and being denied entry the first few times, as studio representatives believed their invites to be fake. Binh presumes this was because they were fresh-faced Asians in a white male-dominated field, though Senh takes a broader interpretation.
“They were generally wary of online critics and treated them as second-class citizens,” Senh says. “That was one of the reasons why I wanted to feature online critics on the Tomatometer.”
January 2000: Three months before the dotcom bubble burst. Time to incorporate Rotten Tomatoes. One investor who was part of the $1.2 million angel funding had gotten cold feet, but Disney paying up on accounts receivable as Design Reactor was spun off to independence netted the team another million. Early after incorporating (under the name Incfusion, because something called Rotten Tomatoes was not considered a legitimate business), Patrick brokered a deal to have mySimon.com, a price search engine, integrated onto the site. Though no one could know it at the time, the monthly income from the deal would be crucial to RT’s imminent survival.
On April 14, the bubble officially burst as the Nasdaq dropped 9% in one day. By the end of the week, the loss would be 25%, and by the end of the year, $1.75 trillion in Internet stock will have evaporated. Traffic in the Bay Area returns to normal.
A 13-digit loss in market valuation spooked investors and the money dried up from the landscape. As other startups started dying overnight, the Rotten Tomatoes team knew hard decisions would have to be made.
“At the end of the day, you can’t really fight the numbers,” Paul says. “We had an all-hands meeting, where we were honest with everybody that we have to start reducing headcount. We wanted to make sure that everybody had a chance to find something else. Because everybody was doing something very important, we had to downsize in a way that wasn’t disruptive to the business.”
“We had to do what we had to do to stay alive,” Patrick says. “I remember it was 25, 21, 17, 14, 11, and then seven employees.”
This was Senh, Patrick, and Stephen, the founders of Rotten Tomatoes; editorial members Binh and Susan; and CFO Lily with Marketing Director Paul.
More drastic measures would be taken. mySimon.com was not spared its fate as a dotcom casualty, and when that monthly income went away in 2001, Patrick and Paul opted to take no salary for the next six months. Everyone else took a 30%-50% pay cut. Patrick himself decided to move into the office.
“Patrick and I were living off our savings, and one day, he had this idea that rent was his biggest expense,” Paul told us in our original oral history. “Using the justification that he was a neat freak (believe me, Patrick is borderline obsessive-compulsive when it comes to cleanliness), he kind of wondered aloud whether he could just simply move out of his apartment and live in the office.”
Patrick recalled: “It wasn’t bad. We had those pretty nice couches that could expand out. I had a little fold-out mattress and a sleeping bag, so I was pretty well hidden in case a security guard came through.”
Weekdays, they would work expanding the site. Weekends often saw casino trips to play poker, even down to Vegas, and hitting up the buffet line because food was cheap. Jet Li invited everyone to his house and treated them to magnificent Mongolian BBQ. Stephen got to know Ebert, and would travel to Chicago at his invitation to meet at film events he organized. A former employee who landed at Pixar got them tours and screenings at their campus down the street. And those late encounters with security at the office were never hard to explain because Senh, who disliked showing up before noon, would tinker on Rotten Tomatoes deep into the night. Some would stick around to watch movies, as others set up for that great gathering of those dotcom days: LAN parties.
In our oral history, Susan recalled: “For a while there was an RT guild in World of Warcraft, consisting of several current (for that time) and past employees, plus some friends. The guild’s tabard symbol was a shape that somewhat resembled a tomato splat. Binh was awesome – a gnome warrior who wore a deep sea diving helmet.”
“We would all end up playing Diablo II, until like two in the morning,” Patrick tells me. “Either fall asleep in the office or go home, and then do it again. And then on the weekends, Friday night, we would play until six in the morning, until we’re literally falling asleep at our computers.”
Dance Dance Revolution was another favorite party game, which Binh suspects didn’t ingratiate the team with their office neighbor the floor below.
The brand was on the brink, and times were rough, but everyone still believed in Rotten Tomatoes as a viable business. They were devoted to the site, but also to each other, working on this shared mission and developing a small, unique Asian-American community in this dingy Bay Area office.
Patrick’s hunch to keep your friends close after graduating was right. That was the uniqueness I felt when I first arrived – a lingering philosophy of kindness and generosity. I asked if anyone considered leaving.
“No, not really,” Stephen says. “I just really enjoyed working on the project during those years. I enjoyed working with Senh and Pat and Paul. Despite all of the business challenges, the site continued to grow, the user base continued to grow. It was a steady path upwards.”
There was a sense of family at Rotten Tomatoes, and for some it would become literal: Senh ended up marrying Binh’s cousin, while Susan married Patrick’s brother, Bryan.
2003 was the turnaround year, when the site’s financials finally stabilized and the brand could set course towards where it is today. After a few bumpy post-9/11 years, studios returned to advertise. Google AdSense was introduced to the world: 38 million websites use it today, and Rotten Tomatoes had been chosen as one of original 50 to kickstart it. More people were brought on to the staff, and the team found a way to give back to the Asian-American community.
Taiwanese-American director Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow – a stylish crime drama about overachieving Asian-American high school students who turn to vice, violence, and hedonism – was gearing up for release. There had never been anything like in terms of on-screen representation for Asian-Americans, and there was electric hype, especially after the film, produced by MTV Films, made its legendary Sundance debut.
There, Ebert had vociferously defended the movie from a gatekeeping grouch in the crowd. During the Q&A segment, the audience member angrily expressed shock and dismay that a movie had the gall to present Asian-American characters in a less-than-stellar light. Ebert stood up and declared, “What I find very offensive and condescending about your statement is that nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, ‘How could you do this to your people?’ Asian-American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be!”
“MTV reached out to us because they felt like Rotten Tomatoes was the website for independent films,” Paul says. “Essentially, we gave them a lot of free advertising, including a front page takeover. We wanted to do it because we, those seven people, were all Asian.”
Better Luck Tomorrow was big enough to fuel the career launches of stars John Cho and Sung Kang, and of director Lin, who has now directed five Fast & Furious films, including the upcoming F9, and will reportedly direct the following two Fast films, which will close out the series. MTV Films sent a signed Better Luck Tomorrow DVD to Rotten Tomatoes as thanks. Years later, Paul was in Los Angeles covering a film festival press line, with Lin in attendance. When Paul introduced himself as originally part of RT, he recalls Lin saying, “Thank you so much because you guys made such a big difference for our movie back then!”
2003 would also be the last year of everyone working under the same roof. Rotten Tomatoes was not the first company Patrick and Stephen had founded together, and it would not be their last. Patrick had never been to China and was especially interested in exploring business opportunities within the fast-growing economy. Into the Badlands’ star Daniel Wu had become a lead movie star in the country, so there were possible creative collaborations there, as well. Meanwhile, others were approaching their thirties and looking to start families. The feeling was that maybe it was time to move on. And that meant taking outside offers of purchasing Rotten Tomatoes seriously.
After chatter and negotiations with other entertainment sites (most of them gone now) and tech giants, the decision was to go with IGN. The three co-founders accepted their offer and the deal was signed in June 2004. The independent startup days of Rotten Tomatoes had ended.
Patrick followed through on his plans and moved to China shortly after the sale, working on several more startups and founding the Gold House Collective, a non-profit collective of Asian and Pacific Islander creatives and visionaries. Stephen stayed with RT, facilitating its integration with IGN until its own sale to Fox in late 2005, where after he joined Patrick in China for more ventures. Senh was with RT until 2007 when the company began its move to Los Angeles, opting to stay and raise a family in Sacramento, where he’s now a developer contracted with the state of California. Since landing in Los Angeles the brand has had several owners, before being acquired by Fandango in early 2016.
Growing up Vietnamese-American, I had bought in to the model minority myth early on.
I immediately excelled at whatever was being taught as school, sparkling report cards in tow. My friends talked about my aptitude as though it were as foretold and inevitable as the shape of my eyes. Yet after getting to high school, I realized I could no longer absorb the curriculum on first pass. A childhood of exemplary coasting had built zero drive in me to make an effort to learn. I resented the sheer idea of it. Being “Asian” – an amorphous, supposedly intellectual gift – was setting me up for a huge fall. On top of an escalating movie habit that involved watching stories where I would always be absent (or played for embarrassment) on-screen, I became convinced my identity was now a liability. Like a refugee from the real world, I decided I would invent myself anew on this novel thing called the Internet.
Right around the time Rotten Tomatoes was launching, I started posting video game criticism online. (I’ve always played games, having sparked on English and reading through playing Ninja Gaiden and, scarily enough, the infamously-translated Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest.) By college I had wedged myself into IGN’s freelancer Rolodex, which probably helped elevate me as a candidate for the RT position in 2006. The company was still Asian-American then, even though most of that original team had already left, and up to that point I had never really been in a room like that. It felt like coming home.
Jen Yamato, who you’ll recall interviewed me for my internship, echoed the sentiment when we recently spoke. “I didn’t realize what a privilege it was to work in a place with so many other Asian-Americans,” she says of her five-year stint with Rotten Tomatoes. “What a privilege it was to just be able to totally be comfortable in my own skin. Never actually have to think about, or be prompted to think about my identity. It was such a Bay Area place, made by and reflecting that diversity.”
There have been others at Rotten Tomatoes who, like me, have punched in for more than a decade: Tim Ryan, another Bay Area transplant hired post-IGN and now the lead on the archive team, and Senior Editor Ryan Fujitani, who started a year later than me directly in Los Angeles after the company established itself there. Together, along with anyone else convinced this movie review-aggregating business was worth joining, we’ve tried to keep alive that trenched-in camaraderie of those early days, across multiple corporate owners and even more office relocations. Rotten Tomatoes has marched from the Bay Area to Los Angeles, and settled into places like ‘Nakatomi Plaza’ (a.k.a. the high-rise where large parts of Die Hard were filmed), the Warner Bros. lot where you can shoot hoops in the shadow of the iconic water tower, and now in the heart of Beverly Hills.
Still, the character of the original team resonates in fascinating ways. Consider when Senh was kicked out of screenings in those early days, only to further resolve that more online critics should be included as Tomatometer-approved to strengthen the voice of the collective. That mission of diversifying those whose criticism is valued continues today, taking form in the revamp of our critics’ criteria in 2018, designed to make Tomatometer-approval more accessible to freelancers, self-publishers, YouTubers, and podcasters, and to bring in underrepresented voices. Or in our more recent update to our Top Critics criteria, too.
So even as the site grew in scope and reach, and as the demographics of the team changed over time, the mission has always remained the same: Elevating quality movies – and now TV and streaming – into the social consciousness; helping fans find the right entertainment for them; and fostering conversation and debate over our favorite art forms. Rotten Tomatoes may have caught on with readers quickly after its 1998 inception, but as a business the challenges came fast and thick. To shepherd the brand through six initial years of economic instability, a period during which it could’ve vanished along with so many others, it took the dogged, devoted work of Senh Duong, Patrick Lee, Stephen Wang, and all the members of Rotten Tomatoes’ tight-knit Asian-American community to keep the dream alive.
“I like Rotten Tomatoes making the Tomatometer part of every feature the site launches, its growing diversity of critics, and the expanding coverage of older films,” Senh told me, reflecting on what his idea has become, 23 years after it came into his mind. “We’ve always envisioned it to be one of the tools that people use to help them decide what movies and shows to watch. It’s where we were hoping it to be.”
“What Rotten Tomatoes has grown into is hugely influential,” Jen told me as we talked about the site’s early days and its founders. “But the story at its core is of these friends and entrepreneurs who had a really good idea and had faith in themselves to make it real. That is very special.”