Anne Thompson, in last week’s Daily Variety, has a column about the recent spate of firings of newspaper and magazine film critics. She makes some valuable points about how her students at USC can’t name any film critics besides Roger Ebert (thanks to his television show). Contrast that with the era when names like Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris were known for their reviews and their theories.
While I don’t disagree with her facts (and, as a former film reviewer, I have a certain sympathy for those people who have to sit through five or six horrible films a week and then write about them) I find her conclusions both obvious and unregrettable.
Younger moviegoers are fickle; they’re just as likely to play Guitar Hero or download episodes of “The Office” from iTunes. And the studios, for the most part, continue to bank on short-term, wide-release youth movies vs. riskier, execution-dependent movies for adults.
Thus, as boomers age and their subscriptions expire, the increasingly desperate economics of newspaper publishing are forcing aging movie critics out the door. And younger ones too.
We hear the same lament from studio heads and a plethora of old media types. The democratization of the media also applies to critics as well.
These students — and today’s youth auds in general — more often get their movie info straight from the studio marketing departments, who couldn’t be happier. These kids go to YouTube, Yahoo Movies and Apple to find trailers. As they surf the Web, bits of movie flotsam and visuals planted by the studios on MSN Movies or IGN or JoBlo eventually cross their eyeballs. But they also listen to their friends more than any authority figures, and distrust obvious studio hype.
I don’t know about you, but I find that holding up Sarris and Kael as examples of all film critics is like pointing to Hank Aaron and Mikey Mantle as examples of all baseball players — both major and minor leagues. In fact, I’ve only once found a daily film critic who could tell me anything about a film that was illuminating — and Art Murphy is no longer with us. I also find Elvis Mitchell’s interviews/critiques of films on his KCRW show “The Treatment” to be amazingly insightful and educational. Most film critics are really no more than reviewers, rehashers of basic plot and opiners on whether they liked performances, cinematography or direction.
I’m not saying that I don’t like reading newspaper and magazine critiques of films. In rare cases, I can also use them for viewing decisions. But, in general, I have never used reviews (printed or otherwise) as a guide to help me decide whether I should see a film or not. I didn’t when I was 18 and I don’t now that I’m 108.
So, how do we decide what we want to see?
If you’re like me, it’s a combination a number of factors — subject matter, my mood at the time, the proximity of the theater, the creative factors behind the film (I’ll go see most any movie that Scott Rudin, Sam Mendes or Robert DeNiro is involved in), and how well the film’s and my schedule overlap. And, perhaps most importantly, what my friends and colleagues are saying about it.
I will sometimes see a movie before any of my friends, and then the other factors become prominent. But the so-called water cooler effect (in which a group of office buddies grouped around the water cooler creates buzz about any particular subject) is biggest in my mind. For years, publicity departments at the studios, have spent millions of dollars trying to create that water cooler buzz, to greater or lesser impact. I remember that buzz boosting BORAT but look what it did to THE POSTMAN.
The obvious point here is that the Internet, in general, and social networking, in particular, has become this decade’s water cooler. Reviews of films that I used to get from my neighbor, have now moved onto Facebook and Rotten Tomatoes. That’s no different than it used to be, it’s just larger and more ubilquitous.
Thompson makes two very cogent, and somewhat depressing points, later in the article.
Over the years, critics helped audiences appreciate the likes of Orson Welles‘ “Citizen Kane,” Alfred Hitchcock‘s “Psycho,” Stanley Kubrick‘s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Arthur Penn‘s “Bonnie and Clyde,” Bernardo Bertolucci‘s “Last Tango in Paris,” Brian De Palma‘s “Dressed to Kill,” Robert Altman‘s “The Player,” the Coens’ “No Country for Old Men” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” Where would we have been without them? It will soon be up to Pajiba or Cinematical Indie to influence readers to seek out small releases once heralded by critics.
There’s hope for critics at well-funded magazines: John Powers soldiers on at Vogue, Anthony Lane and David Denby compete for space at the New Yorker, Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum are well-read at EW, and David Edelstein writes and blogs at New York Magazine, which has invested heavily in an improved — and well-trafficked — website.
So, the issue of the problems of distribution of independent films, off-the-beaten track films, small niche films, continues to raise its ugly head. Now that we’ve got YouTube, how do those films get noticed? And, now that we’ve got the “thumbs-up, thumbs-down” philosophy, how do those films get reliably reviewed?
Of course, it’s all well and good to note that Thompson talks about mainstream films. Virtually no larger circulation newspapers reviewed Stan Brakhage films that I’m aware of.
But, in my mind, what Thompson is talking about, fits squarely in the middle of the same argument that we’ve all been having — how are the Internet and socialized media changing the world of old media, and what can old media do to keep relevant in this new world.