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Are Critics Losing Their Jobs Because Reviews Are "Money-Losers"?

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by Sam Adams
June 4, 2014 4:37 PM
10 Comments
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Using a picture of Justin Bieber is a good way to increase the value of an article about the economics of film criticism.

In an essay called "The Economics of Movie Reviews, or Why So Many Film Critics Continue to Lose Their Jobs," Pajiba's Dustin Rowles surveys the industry's ever-shifting landscape from two perspectives: That of a writer who wants to be paid for his work, and that of a publisher who has to keep the business the writer writes for afloat:

As much as the writer in me loathes the sentiment, the publisher in me also understands that a bottom line is a bottom line. I am paid to write for Uproxx, for instance, and though I aim to produce quality content geared toward a particular demographic, I also understand that most of my value as a contributor over there is tied up into my ability to generate traffic and therefore revenue, and thus justify what they pay me. They’re very good at what they do over there (and they have a much better business sense than I’ve got), they’re respectful of our abilities, and they give us the freedom to write what and how we please (within reason). It’s a good gig. Still, though no one on Uproxx has ever told me that my value is tied up in my ability to generate traffic, I have enough common sense to understand that if I cost more money to the company than I can create, my job would not necessarily be safe.

Film reviews, Rowles explains, are "a money loser," especially for "those smaller, independent and art films that no one watches." Of the more than 200 Pajiba ran in the past year, he says, only 21 generated enough to pay for themselves. (He seems to be talking specifically about paying the writers what amounts to minimum wage for the three- to five-hour process of producing a review, and not the myriad other costs associated with running a website.) What pays the bills, he says, is writers who "recap shows, and they cover the trailer beat, and they write pieces on the evolution of superhero movies or rant about Zack Snyder or bitch about Jonah Hill's homophobic slur. In other words, they earn their value in other ways, while most of the other feature and celebrity writers make up the difference."

This won't surprise anyone who's kept an eye on the world of film criticism -- and if you're reading this, that's probably you. (Thanks. Come back any time.) Criticism is, as far as I'm concerned, a vital and important art form, but I don't think anyone operates under the delusion that it's a cash cow. ("Sorry, no room for that piece about whether Justin Bieber's a racist; we've got reviews to run.") There are exceptions, of course, mostly when it comes to studio blockbusters: It may be true that, as Rowles puts it, "The days of turning to your favorite critic to find out whether you should see 'Transformers: Age of Extinction' are long over," but readers still click through in droves to read those reviews, and often stick around to call the critic a hater or worse. (Advertisers pay more for readers who linger on a page, so by all means, keep it up.)

But Rowles edges onto a slippery slope when he gets into case of Owen Gleiberman, who was laid off by by Entertainment Weekly in April after nearly 25 years at the magazine. "The reason they laid him off," Rowles speculates, "was probably the same reason smaller sites such as Film.com, Cinematical, or bigger outlets such as AOL, MSN Movies and others have laid off critics over the years. It wasn’t to save money, and it wasn’t because they were bad film critics. It was so they could stop losing money."

I have no idea whether Owen Gleiberman was losing Entertainment Weekly money. (For that matter, neither does Rowles, which makes spitballing about why it happened kind of a bad idea.) But I do know this: Whether or not the pages containing his reviews generated sufficient pageviews to pay his salary is only part of the equation, and not just because EW also exists in print. Gleiberman was, for lack of a more human term, a brand, one who, along with his former colleague Lisa Schwarzbaum, was practically synonymous with the magazine itself. I know who reviews movies for Entertainment Weekly now because it's part of my job, but who else does? That's not a slur against those writers, some of whom are great, but an illustration of how circumscribed their roles have become. When you don't give a critic enough space to make an impression, or enough time to write something worth sharing, then you are, among other things, depriving them of the opportunity to make you money.

As a practical matter, Rowles is right that it's not enough to be a critic anymore; as in any profession, the smart play is to figure out how to make yourself useful. But there's a difference between canny career management and professional responsibility, and the idea that it's a critic's job to write whatever gets the most web traffic is a profound, even ruinously, bad one. That's a publisher's job, or a social media editor's. (It's also part, though thankfully not all, of my job.) It's not a critic's job to balance the budget, any more than it's an accountant's job to recap "Game of Thrones." 

Perhaps there are movie critics who are losing their jobs because they're stubbornly stuck in their ways, but more often, they do their best to adapt amid contradictory directives and muddled priorities and then they get fired anyway. No one is entitled to a job, and good people lose theirs all the time. Publications run out of money, and just like any other business, they cut staff. But when a factory lays off workers, we don't rush to blame the workers for not building the right car.

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10 Comments

  • Nayan | June 5, 2014 11:50 AMReply

    Rotten Tomatoes drives the traffic away from the publisher websites that pay those reviewers in the first place because people mostly want to see a numerical score and read a 2 line blurb - for indies - oh that got an 60, I'll wait for Redbox, oh that got a 70, maybe I'll go. For "blockbusters" it makes no difference. This isn't that complicated folks.

  • kdringg | June 5, 2014 8:34 AMReply

    Outside the street's on fire, in a real death waltz
    Between what's flesh and what's fantasy
    And then the poets down here, don't write nothing at all
    They just stand back and let it all be

    Bruce Springsteen 'Jungleland'

  • Scott Beggs | June 5, 2014 5:51 AMReply

    Film critic, editor, site co-owner, de factor minimum wage worker here.

    It's not about blaming the workers for building the car, it's about recognizing that we're all building one type of unpopular car when hundreds of makes are available to the consumer. And that sites like Rotten Tomatoes are giving away joy rides for free without paying the manufacturer. Something something bumpy road.

    I also view criticism as vital and necessary, but the idea that a salaried writer's output not sustaining his/her salary is only part of the equation doesn't compute. Of course that's the entire equation. Especially when you're playing at that level. I can't ever see us scrapping reviews altogether, but I recognize it would probably be the smart business decision to make. I also recognize that we'll most likely never be able to pay much for reviews even though that's what every applicant seems to want to write.

    On the bright side, I see film criticism as blossoming beyond reviews and into analysis. That's the stuff that gets more viewers for us. Essays, lists (not listicles) and quirky explorations that typically come with a hook-based headline but deliver the goods. It's often criticism (film or cultural) that pulls in readers, not the straightforward examination of whether a movie is good or bad and why/why not. For those who solely want to do that kind of writing, you're not going to make your rent. And I don't know if people ever really did. Not in large numbers at least. Even my local newspaper critic wrote a lot of other stories back in the day. Now, as proven over and over again, people don't read bylines. A single reviewer building a consistent fanbase is unbelievably difficult (as evidenced by the tiny amount who rise above the pack).

    Sidenote: The environment has been made more toxic by large numbers crying "linkbait" for absolutely everything that looks remotely interesting. It's like people who read a book about marketing psychology and claim they aren't susceptible to advertising anymore. Right. Like yelling "linkbait" at something achieves anything at all. I'm on board for hating stuff like, "A Man and Woman Walked in a Park and You'll Lose Your Brain At What Happened Next" that leads to stories about two people finding a dog and bottle feeding it -- specifically because the marketing (headline) is FAR overselling the product (the article/writing). But if an article is well-written and really interesting, I don't care if the headline worked specifically because it played off of curiosity and mystery. That's what they are there for.

    This got really long. Sorry about that.

    Tl;dr - Let's all support longform, in-depth analyses.

  • T. A. Wardrope | June 5, 2014 11:07 AM

    I was going to leave a comment about how much of the "pro" critical writing on major sites is rather shallow, but I think this post sums everything up well enough. I write "considerations" of films and I am impressed with the kind of traffic I get. Total opposite of the mindless masses you would think drive the interwebs.

  • Dave (or Bill) | June 5, 2014 1:37 AMReply

    Come on, Sammy-Boy! Critics are losing their jobs because it's a pointless profession. EVERYONE has an "opinion" about a film or a tv show, so a "professional critic" is better WHY? Because they approach each film without an agenda and with a distanced level of professionalism and objectivity? I don't think so. Because they have a film theory degree from NYU? It's film criticism, who cares?

    In this day of social media, it easier (and cost-effective) to let the "people" do the dirty work.

  • Nathan Duke | June 5, 2014 9:50 AM

    Let's take 2007 as an example. The year's biggest box office successes were Transformers, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, 300, Alvin and the Chipmunks. These were the most popular, based on the monetary vote by "the people."

    The critics top choices that year were There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, Zodiac, I'm Not There, Assassination of Jesse James by the Robert Ford, etc.

    Fifty years from now, which movies from that year do you think will still be talked about - those popular with the masses or those praised by the critics?

  • David | June 4, 2014 6:01 PMReply

    Critics are not valued by our "reading public" anymore as a source of enlightenment or perspective, unfortunately. Which sucks, along with everything else.

  • wendycass | June 4, 2014 5:15 PMReply

    Well Indiewire is safe because lately you guys are into gossip and celeb culture as well, trying desperately to boost teen idols and their latest movies to generate hits on your website. It used to be a great source of information about films, even if in a biased way. Not anymore unfortunately. If you consider people like Anne Thompson a 'critic' you know how far your credibility goes at this point.

  • August | June 4, 2014 8:42 PM

    @Wendycass, You sound like a misinformed fool. Some of those "teen idols" you whine about have had their last three films premiere at Cannes. They're working with some of the most respected auteurs in the world.

    Maybe it's time you grew up and recognized that they are doing quality work in potentially award winning films. They aren't teens anymore and neither is their audience. Are you stuck in 2008?

  • msicism | June 4, 2014 5:14 PMReply

    Yes, the implication (whether intended or not) is that if you haven't caught on to the new "content-generation generation," and are churning out listicles instead of worrying over Farhadi's The Past, then you brought the ax down on yourself. And really, that's kind of asking critics to turn into pre-emptive douchebags. Can we at least wait for someone to "restructure" us first?

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