Throughout the ongoing Tribeca Film Festival, technology website The Verge has hosted The Future of Film Live series with panel talks exploring every aspect of the film industry. On Wednesday, The Verge's Joshua Topolsky sat down with film critics A.O. Scott of The New York Times and David Denby of The New Yorker to discuss the big question looming over 2013: Is film dead?
In the panel "The Death of Film: Answers and Arguments," Scott and Denby shared their insightful and sometimes opposing thoughts on digital distribution, the importance of the theatrical experience, and the fate of criticism today. While Denby's opinion on the increase of digital platforms was more skeptical, Scott remained hopeful about the future of both film and criticism.
The two discussed the benefits and shortcomings of Rotten Tomatoes and the democratization of criticism, but Denby advocated for a new kind of internet film critic website that should be "combative and have debates." (Hey, Denby, have you heard of this thing called Criticwire?) Highlights from their conversation, which is full of wise insights on all these issues, can be found here.
Topolsky: Do either of you think film is dead?
Denby: The big studio model seems to be mainly obsessed with franchise movies and genre movies, like thrillers and debauched comedies -- which of course can be very well done and can be very fun, but have pretty much assured audiences. They’re not much interested in anything else except for that bizarre period of every year, that 10 or 12 week season that begins in October and ends Christmas Day, when suddenly they're aware of the adult audience, which has been pushed out of the theaters, and then you get a good fall season. But then we hit December 26, and since then, we've gone back to a kind of dreary, cyclical rhythm for the year with a lot of action movies and thrillers. And we’re heading now into a summer season of digital spectacle. That yearly cycle is wearisome and silly and I think grown ups in particular seem to have been pushed out a lot of the year and they’re not going to theaters. This is something that has to do with the nature of the theatrical experience.
Scott: I wouldn’t put quite as dire a construction upon it. Yes, it is a frustrating calendar, but it's not as if the studios have gotten out of the business of making more ambitious work or interesting work suitable for grown-ups. They’ve just moved that business to a certain part of the year. It seems that in April it’s the death of cinema and in November it’s the golden age of cinema, and that happens every year. Let’s look at the recently completed Oscar season, which I don’t think actually is an anomaly. You had nine Best Picture nominees. Most of them had been released by major studios. Six out of the nine ended up grossing more than $150 million domestically. "Lincoln," "Django Unchained," "Zero Dark Thirty" -- whatever you think of those individual movies on their merits or lack of merits, there’s a great deal of ambition, of creative storytelling and of interest in the concerns of a non-teenage, male audience.
Denby: I’ve been very happy with things like "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "Margin Call," "The Squid and the Whale," those movies were all made for two, three, four, five million dollars. Each one is a struggle, each one needs us [critics] for support, it certainly helps. We've never been more irrelevant than now or never more necessary than now. That’s the bizarre thing about being a critic. I’m very grateful for those movies, but I have to point out that the people who make them go something like five or six years before they make one. Alexander Payne went six years. The fact is, the system supported two movies a year from Howard Hawks to John Ford and Raoul Walsh. It’s a completely different environment. People like Alexander Payne have to struggle for years to get financing.
Next: Is it easier or harder to make good movies these days?