Rotten Tomatoes was launched on August 12, 1998, as a spare-time project by Senh Duong. His objective in creating Rotten Tomatoes was "to create a site where people can get access to reviews from a variety of critics in the U.S." As a fan of Jackie Chan, Duong was inspired to create the website after collecting all the reviews of Chan's Hong Kong action movies as they were being released in the United States. The primary catalyst for the creation of the website was Rush Hour (1998), Chan's first major Hollywood crossover, which was originally planned to release in August 1998. Duong coded the website in two weeks and the site went live the same month, but Rush Hour itself ended up being pushed back to September 1998. Besides Jackie Chan films, he began including other films on Rotten Tomatoes, extending it beyond Chan's fandom. The first non-Chan Hollywood movie whose reviews were featured on Rotten Tomatoes was Your Friends & Neighbors (1998). The website was an immediate success, receiving mentions by Netscape, Yahoo!, and USA Today within the first week of its launch; it attracted "600–1000 daily unique visitors" as a result.
Duong teamed up with University of California, Berkeley classmates Patrick Y. Lee and Stephen Wang, his former partners at the Berkeley, California-based web design firm Design Reactor, to pursue Rotten Tomatoes on a full-time basis. They officially launched it on April 1, 2000.
In June 2004, IGN Entertainment acquired Rotten Tomatoes for an undisclosed sum. In September 2005, IGN was bought by News Corp's Fox Interactive Media. In January 2010, IGN sold the website to Flixster. The combined reach of both companies is 30 million unique visitors a month across all different platforms, according to the companies. In 2011, Warner Bros. acquired Rotten Tomatoes. In February 2016, Flixster, including Rotten Tomatoes, was acquired by Fandango, a company of which Warner Bros. has a minority share.
In early 2009, Current Television launched the televised version of the web review site, The Rotten Tomatoes Show. It was hosted by Brett Erlich and Ellen Fox and written by Mark Ganek. The show aired every Thursday at 10:30 EST on the Current TV network. The last episode aired on September 16, 2010. It returned as a much shorter segment of InfoMania, a satirical news show that ended in 2011.
By late 2009, the website was designed to enable Rotten Tomatoes users to create and join groups to discuss various aspects of film. One group, "The Golden Oyster Awards", accepted votes of members for various awards, spoofing the better-known Academy Awards or Golden Globes. When Flixster bought the company, they disbanded the groups, announcing: "The Groups area has been discontinued to pave the way for new community features coming soon. In the meantime, please use the Forums to continue your conversations about your favorite movie topics".
As of February 2011, new community features have been added and others removed. For example, users can no longer sort films by Fresh Ratings from Rotten Ratings, and vice versa.
On September 17, 2013, a section devoted to scripted television series, called "TV Zone", was created as a subsection of the website.
In February 2016, Rotten Tomatoes and its parent site Flixster were sold to Comcast's Fandango. Warner Bros retained a minority stake in the merged entities, including Fandango.
In July 2017, the website's editor-in-chief since 2007, Matt Atchity, left to join The Young Turks. On November 1, 2017, the site launched a new web series on Facebook, See It/Skip It, hosted by Jacqueline Coley and Segun Oduolowu.
In March 2018, the site announced its new design, icons and logo for the first time in 19 years at SXSW.