"It just shocked me that there wasn't a book called that," Legel told me. "I felt like it should exist, and who better than me to do it?"
So do it he did. The result, "Film Critic: A Decade Behind the Scenes in the Movie Industry," is a mix of how-to guide and tell-all memoir about life in the movie beat trenches: working with publicists, begging for access at film festivals, and struggling to eke out a meager living while your audience berates you and powerful directors scapegoat you when their movies are terrible. Legel doesn't shy away from the less positive sides of the gig, and he tackles controversial issues head-on. "Film Critic" is an interesting read, so I was excited to talk to Legel about it and some of his provocative views. Here is our conversation.
Do you think it's a good time or a bad time to be a film critic?
I think it's a good time. Now, there are certain caveats to that, clearly. It's a bad time to be a newspaper critic; I don't think that's a surprise to anyone. A lot of my friends are newspaper film critics and I know it's a tough gig right now with newspapers losing profits every year. But it's a great time to be an online film critic as far as I'm concerned.
It's great that we have so many voices. It's way more of a meritocracy. When someone gets a film criticism job at a newspaper, for better or worse they tend to keep it forty or fifty years. There's not a spot there for another film critic to come up in ten or twenty years. Whereas now, you can work really hard, get better at your craft, and be influenced by a lot of different critics and voices. You can start tomorrow and have your voice "heard." In that sense it's the golden age of film criticism. Of course, it's very difficult to monetize being a film critic at this point; that's the one magic trick that everyone would like to pull off.
You write in the book about the abuse film critics get online. Why do people hate film critics so much?
There are myriad reasons. What I get into in the book is the disconnect between how film critics communicate and what critics like and don't like. Once you've seen so many movies, you tend to lose your everyman status and you tend not to give a pass to things you don't feel are innovative and ambitious. Most of the general public gives a pass to things that aren't innovative or ambitious because they're generally just looking to have an entertaining Friday night. You see something like "A Good Day to Die Hard" get a B+ CinemaScore, and that's just confirmation bias. They're saying "I spent money and time, I must be pretty smart, thus this movie is okay." But as the years pass, that movie will become less and less okay just like "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." And that's where film critics have a lot of value: to remind people that that movie was not okay, and we need to do better than that movie.
The other reason is it's so easy to be negative online without any consequences, repercussions, or responsibility. If someone writes a 1,000 or 2,000 word review that's nuanced and thoughtful it's still pretty easy to say "You don't like Ryan Gosling, you're an idiot!" It's like a drive-by.
I think Kevin Smith did a really good job of making people hate film critics for a little bit as well. And as I point out, it's such an insane view to criticize someone who at the most is making enough to buy a Honda Civic and rent an apartment when you're the millionaire director from on high with millions of fans and yet you still find time to really wreck a little guy for nothing. He doesn't affect your life at all. So it's kind of a ridiculous premise that the film critic has this godlike omniscient power, and that's what people ascribe to them even though it's clear in this industry that we don't.
Getting back to your first reason: shouldn't critics have standards? Why does that upset people? Who wants a film critic who thinks everything's great? Aren't high standards part of the job?
Absolutely. If everything is good, then nothing is good. One of the other problems is the way critics are used by studios for marketing, which really dilutes film criticism as a whole. You see pull quotes on every single movie. I saw a quote on the DVD box of "Ted" -- and I enjoyed "Ted." The quote was "One of the funniest movies of all time!" And that's insane! "All time" is so long and there have been so many comedies! So I really wish the hyperbole machine would tone down.
The problem is a lot of the hyperbolic comments come from people who are not... I don't want to say the word, but "legit" film critics. They're not in the world of criticism to have a voice in terms of plus and minuses, they're there to see their name on a trailer. And that's a much different thing than what I'm about, or the peers who I respect are about.
This brings us to an interesting part of your book, where you describe the people you call "smart critics," who you distinguish from what you call "average people." And there's a part where you say "If you think you've seen 'The Dark Knight' before a dozen times, in Japanese anime, the reaction will be profound, and possibly deep, but generally will be out of step with society and not at all indicative of the average person's journey with 'The Dark Knight.'" My question is: is that a bad thing?
Clearly, I'm of a more populist perspective. For a review, if you're providing value, whether it's education or entertainment or whatever, I think that's great. The problem is you can get so esoteric with this stuff that a) no one reads it and b) it has no impact on the culture. And if your goal is to make the culture smarter and better, then you're going to have to make some allowances and compromises to bring people along with you. I understand aspirationally we wish that everyone could be Pauline Kael, but that doesn't seem to be where the culture's going unfortunately.
The real problem is on the other side of this argument. The incentives are all messed up. The people who are loudest and least nuanced get the most publicity, clicks, jobs, money -- and you see that in everything from politics to sports as well. The people who are thoughtful are not rewarded for being thoughtful. And that's indicative of the Internet still being relatively young. The Internet still has to hit its teenage years and finally mature into adulthood, but we're still twenty years away from that. So New York Times writers, and writers of erudite persuasion are certainly needed and certainly valuable to the community, if only to be aspirational for other critics. My point was I don't know how they survive in this current marketplace given where the average person is at. And I'm not happy about that, I'm just saying that seems to be the case right now.
I was particularly interested in the portion of your book that compares film criticism to an annual performance review at an office job.
Yeah. I understand where it comes from, but directors and writers are very sensitive to criticism. I mean everyone is sensitive to criticism. If someone tells you, "You're not doing a good job," you have a couple of possible natural reactions: one, to get mad at them; two, to rationalize why they're wrong; three, to ignore them; and the fourth step, which is relatively hard, is to try to grow from that experience. Every artist is different within that spectrum. Some never grow; some are never going to say "That's a valid criticism," and they're always going to rationalize it away.
I heard an interview with the writer of "Identity Thief," and he was genuinely hurt that critics reviewed his movie so negatively and really couldn't understand why critics didn't like it. It sort of blew my mind that you could be that unaware -- that you could think you've created art even when the smartest people who watch so many movies don't consider it well-done. That sort of strikes me as oddly disconnected from reality. That's Hollywood as a whole sometimes -- oddly disconnected from reality.
Their incentives indicate "We were paid money for X, thus X is good. And we'll just keep making X." But that's a law of diminishing returns. The stat I recently read was 30% of the general public bought one ticket to a movie each month ten years ago. That numbers down to 10% ten years later. They're slowly strangling everything that's good and right about this industry because they keep doing the same thing over and over. So criticism as performance review -- yeah, directors and writers should take that in and say "How can I get better?" I think that's the same for every job. As a critic, you should say "How can I get better?" As a dog walker you should say, "How can I get better?" And I don't understand why we consider the motion picture industry immune from that charge. Why don't they have to get better when everyone else in the world does? Like, if you're a postman, you need to get better at your job or you're going to get fired. That's always really blown my mind, that we give the biggest pass to the people we're also giving the most money to.
What critics do you read now?
I try not to read too many critics because I worry about their voices bleeding in to mine. But certainly there are a lot of Internet critics I respect and admire. I love Eric D. Snider. He wrote for me for a long time at Film.com; he has an amazing perspective and voice that I could never attain because he's just so clever. And even podcasters: David Chen [of The /Filmcast], Katey Rich [of Operation Kino]. There are great things happening in all different kinds of film criticism mediums that we didn't even have 20 years ago. While I do tend to avoid print and online critics I do tend to listen to a lot of podcasts.
This idea of critics listening to each other and starting a sort of groupthink is something you talk about in the book. Do you think that's affecting the way critics review movies?
I do, because the Internet is the epitome of fear-based training. You put something out there, you feel like you've done great work, and the first three comments tell you how wrong you are, how you got your facts incorrect, and you should get a new job. And the natural reaction to that is to write more vanilla prose the next time; to use a bunch of equivocations to try to get through. I think young writers fall into that trap a lot because they're really worried about how their work is taken. That's not something unique to criticism; that's every job in the world. 65-70% of people are just trying to fit in, get a paycheck, and get on to the next weekend.
Rotten Tomatoes is a great metric for some things, but it's a bad metric for others. I wish it didn't exist during the first weekend a film was out. It would allow for a more realistic take on what the film is. But here we are. A lot of critics are trying to fit in, and I understand why. I just wish more people had the Hunter S. Thompson, don't-give-an-eff worldview.
How would getting rid of Rotten Tomatoes for a movie's opening weekend work?
On IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes, the thing that's out now is the most important thing for the next 48 hours, and after that it will fall into the ether and never be heard from again. But because of that, on Friday night people are using Rotten Tomatoes to say "I should see X or Y or Z based on this percentage metric." That opening weekend box office number is really important, and that's to the detriment of the film industry. It's going to sound like old man 1935 wisdom to say "Gone With the Wind" toured the U.S. for three years and made a billion dollars. But there was something about those movies that weren't throwaway products. They influenced the culture in a big way; in certain ways, that's what television is now. But this idea that this percentage is the quality of the film, and this is the final verdict on good or bad, is clearly not the case. Things are revisited ten years later with perspective and context and ruled anew. All of us get it wrong in that sense in that we're instantly evaluating everything in front our faces and then discarding it forevermore.
Matt [Atchity, Rotten Tomatoes' editor-in-chief] is a good dude but Rotten Tomatoes ascribing a number to a movie right off the bat isn't great.
Maybe they should add a second "Hindsight Rating" where movies get a second look after the first wave of excitement or hatred dies down.
Or maybe you put all the reviews up, but you don't do the math until Monday. If people want to go through and read every review, that's great. That would also encourage people to look at individual critics as opposed to this "76% of critics" thing that really doesn't highlight any particular voice. And when people criticize critics, that's what they're talking about, that 76%. They're not talking about you, me, or Dave Chen. They're talking about that number and this idea that we're all lockstep hand-in-hand saying "'Battleship' is terrible!" Which is certainly not the case, and if you looked into each review you'd see that.
At one point in your book you write about this divide between different kinds of film websites. You write, "There are certain outlets that appeal to a smarter crowd that simply can't give a good review to a mainstream film, just as there are websites that must run effusively positive takes about a genre film, because that's the genre they cover in a big way, plus it's the type of film their audience loves?" Do you really think that's true? Sites give marching orders to their critics to like or dislike certain films?
No, no, no. It's not that overt. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy sort of thing, in that once you run your first review of, let's say, "Iron Man," and you put seven exclamation points on it, I don't know how you put less than three on your "Iron Man 2" review. It's just not going to happen, and the sites that are smarter, which I frequent and enjoy, they can't say "'G.I. Joe' made me feel like a ten year old boy. It was amazing!" That just doesn't happen, because again, the people who are reading it wouldn't accept that.
I don't know if I agree with that. Why wouldn't someone say that? It seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to say -- if it was true, of course. I haven't seen the new "G.I. Joe" movie yet, but if I feel that way about it, I wouldn't have a problem saying so.
It's a perfectly reasonable thing to say, but don't we tend to group with people of our political persuasion or social persuasion? Don't you tend to hang out with people who like the same things that you do? And aren't websites a further manifestation of that? I don't think there's any nefarious, underhanded thing to it. But over time each of these little enclave of sites tend to bring in like-minded people. That's how the Internet works, for better or worse. I'm not indicting people for this, I'm simply saying it exists, based on how I've seen website growth over the last decade.
If you look at the original sites that younger critics grew up with -- Ain't It Cool, Dark Horizons, CHUD -- they tended to have a population that was self-affirming. There's room for argument within those standards, but they were never going to come out and say "Don't see Spider-Man." It wasn't going to happen.
In some senses, I think you're absolutely right. On the other hand, if "Spider-Man" was awful, Ain't It Cool News wouldn't write that? Last summer, one of the most negative reviews I read of "The Dark Knight Rises" came from Harry Knowles.
It might have. On your one-off, outliers things you bring up a lot of anecdotal evidence like that. Pajiba might post a positive review of the latest Jennifer Aniston rom-com. You can find that. But overall, maybe 95% of the time, the writer is like you and of your persuasion, otherwise you don't really read them.
Moving forward, is this the biggest issue facing film critics in the future? The audience's confirmation bias?
No, I actually think it's the decentralization of the studio system over the next decade. As more and more films comes out, how does the average critic see it all and stay informed in such a fluid landscape. Are we going to have to become niche critics at some point?
You can see so much these days. You can go to Cannes, you can go to Toronto, you can go to Sundance, and you can see 20 films in a weekend. You put out 15 reviews and maybe 10 of those movies are never seen again. It's a disposable marketplace, and with more and more stuff coming out and things getting quicker and quicker, does anything we do matter if everything takes eight seconds to disappear?
That's the biggest hurdle for critics: how do you affect the culture and how do you have any sense of legitimacy if everything is so fluid and we're all headed down the river at 100 miles an hour?
"Film Critic: A Decade Behind the Scenes in the Movie Industry" is available now.