David Oyelowo, Angelina Jolie Film 'Come Away' Targeted by "Review Bombing"

IMDb has taken down user ratings for the upcoming film, meant as a prequel to 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Peter Pan.'

As it pertains to Hollywood, “vote brigading” — which can also be referred to as “vote stuffing,” “dislike mobs” and “review bombing” among other monikers — is the practice of augmenting user-generated ratings and reviews to influence the perception of a film, television series or other content. For the better part of the past decade, the practice has impacted Hollywood projects, including Marvel movies, Oscar winners and indie features alike. 

“The thing you fear most as a filmmaker is for any kind of stink to build up around your film,” explains David Oyelowo, who stars in and produced Come Away, an upcoming feature that has been subjected to such efforts online. “In an era when there is so much content to take in all it takes is looking at the rating on IMDb or on a trailer to subconsciously make a decision as to whether you are going to engage with that content or not.”

User-generated ratings on sites such as YouTube, IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes have long been weaponized as a means of driving down possible perceptions and interest in upcoming features. The 2016 female-fronted remake of Ghostbusters was targeted in a campaign that, at the time, made it the most “disliked” in the site’s history. Many films, including James Baldwin doc I Am Not Your Negro and the female-lead Marvel feature Captain Marvel, have been the focus of targeted online campaigns. Many of the movies that have been targeted in the past touch on themes of race or gender, or were fronted by women or non-white casts.

For Oyelowo, Come Away is not the first one of his films that has experienced this harassment. He saw a similar online reaction to his 2016 feature A United Kingdom, where he plays Prince Seretse Khama, who falls in love and marries a British white woman, Ruth Williams, played by Rosamund Pike. “We had such a tirade and influx of racial negative comments that Fox Searchlight had to take down our Facebook page,” remembers Oyelowo.

“This has been something I have experienced in my career, regularly,” he says, “being a Black person who tends to gravitate towards aspirational content. It seems like these folks find that the most deplorable.”

Traditionally, the IMDb rating system, which is measured by one to ten stars, becomes available to users after a title has been shown, publicly, at least once. While Come Away is due out on premium video-on-demand and limited theatrical locations on Nov. 13 via Relativity Media, the ratings were made available earlier because the title debuted at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in January. While the user ratings had been available for months, filmmakers noticed a change to the IMDb score following the October 9 release of the trailer. (The new relaunched Relativity Media picked up U.S. rights to the film this month.)

“For a film that hasn’t been released yet — the ratings are supposed to be based on the people watching the films — it was clear there was something about the tone and nature of the film that was bumping certain people,” says Oyelowo. “One of the first things I did was to make IMDb aware if this because I know it had an effect on A United Kingdom five years ago.” The user ratings for the movie have since been taken down. 

Come Away, directed by Brenda Chapman, is meant as a prequel to fantasy classics Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. Oyelowo and Angelina Jolie play parents to Alice (Keira Chansa) and Peter (Jordan A. Nash), who use their imaginations to overcome a difficult family tragedy.

Many of the user comments on the trailer focused on the fact that the characters of Alice and Peter were being portrayed by non-white child actors. “The film is not rooted in race, at all. It so happens to be a family the likes of which would and could have historically existed in that time in British history, yet not the norm of what you are used to seeing,” notes Oyelowo. “We realized we had a situation on our hands, much like the folks at Disney realized it in the wake of John Boyega’s casting as a Stormtrooper in Star Wars or Halle Bailey for The Little Mermaid.”

At the time of its announcement in July 2019, the casting of Bailey as the lead of the live-action adaptation of the 1989 Disney animation incurred a racist online reaction with individuals arguing that the mermaid at the center of the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale and the animation was white. As for Boyega, individuals online argued that Stormtroopers could not be Black, and started a hashtag calling for a boycott of the 2015 J.J. Abrams-directed installment.

In February 2019, review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes announced that it would remove its "Want to See" score — a user-generated percentage meant to gauge audience interest in a title — which had been targeted in the past during movie’s pre-release periods. Also in February 2019, YouTube’s director of project management Tom Leung in a corporate video series noted that the product development team had begun discussions on how to combat “dislike mobs,” noting that one option would be to do away with the function all together. (In the video, Leung was addressing the issue as it pertains to the site’s own content creators, as opposed to film trailers.)

In the comments section on the YouTube pages hosting on Come Away trailer (there are several), users complain about “dislikes” disappearing or not being counted. It is unclear if this is the case or if YouTube and its algorithm are weeding out the possible votes from a targeted campaign. YouTube did not respond to THR’s request for comment.

For its part, the Amazon-owned IMDb, which boasts more than 250 million monthly unique visitors worldwide, maintains that the its user review is not an aggregate of the average of all reviews but a “weighted average” that uses, according the the site’s Frequently Asked Questions section, “various filters” applied to reduce instances like vote stuffing and possible brigades. IMDb does not reveal the filters or how the algorithm identifies and combats possibly malignant ratings, so the system cannot be influenced. IMDb did not respond to THR’s request for comment.

“Everyone watching a movie or show brings their own personal history and tastes, which factor into how a user votes on a title. Just because many critics or other IMDb users enjoyed a particular title, does not mean everyone felt the same way,” reads the FAQ section addressing concerns about possible fake review ratings. Outside of the ratings system, in 2017, the company did disable its message boards, on the grounds that that the function no longer provided “a positive, useful experience,” according to a statement of the company’s website. “They can’t say, ‘It is freedom of speech. People should be allowed to say what they want to say,’ Their platforms are being used insidiously, whether it is to affect elections or the reception of cultural content,” says Oyelowo, who hopes that studios become more proactive in their response to online, racist attacks that can have a “false sense of scope and scale.” 

He implores: “It’s a small group of people. You have got to get a head of it. We are cultural curators and we can build a world that we want to see by making content of this nature.” He also hopes to see action from the tech companies whose site functions are actively continuing to affect the pre-release and promotion of titles.

“We just had a summer where all of these companies in the wake of the murder of George Floyd felt the need, quite rightly, to issue statements about their companies and how they feel about racial injustice, what they are going to do about it,” Oyelowo says. “This is really one of the main areas these tech companies can step up.”


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