From the Wire: Does The New York Times Review Too Many Movies?

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by Matt Singer
November 13, 2012 2:51 PM
9 Comments
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"Ratatouille."
I'm of the opinion that there can never be too many movie reviews -- but then again I run a blog called Criticwire, so my opinion on such things may not be precisely objective. Brian Newman, a former CEO of the Tribeca Film Institute, disagrees, and has penned a piece on his website, Sub-Genre, about the overabundance of reviews, specifically in the pages of The New York Times.

Since time immemorial, the paper's policy has been to review every single movie that receives a weeklong run in New York City. With the proliferation of digital moviemaking technology, that formerly Herculean task has become a Sisyphean one. Newman notes that last week, the Times ran seventeen film reviews in just two days -- and that was down from the recent average of more than twenty-five reviews per week. This practice, Newman argues, is hurting the film world. At first blush that sounds like blaming the messenger for the quality (and quantity) of the message, but Newman says that there's no way to cut back on the quantity of movies. Instead, change has to happen elsewhere. And that elsewhere, in his view, is at the Times:

"Now, as I’ve argued before, bemoaning this increase in films won’t make any difference. When it comes to stopping the tide of creative content on offer, well, wish in one hand, shit in the other, see what comes first... as they say. But let’s face the facts. Fact: This ain’t working anymore. Fact: Audiences aren’t increasing, and they aren’t being served. Fact: you can make a good living as a theater owner by filling your theater with four-walled crap, but it’s a losing game long term when people realize there’s nothing worth seeing at your theater. Fact: Filmmakers are doing this for one of two bad reasons – vanity or to game the system. Fact: If the NYT is supposed to be an arbiter of taste, a trusted source for quality, curated information, then this system is undermining the little value it has left. No one is winning here."

In Newman's eyes, instead of being an "arbiter of taste," the Times' policy is actually dictating a good deal of the independent cinema that makes its way to New York City movie theaters. Smaller movies want that valuable Times review, so they rent out a theater for a week to get it; if the Times stopped reviewing every movie, fewer movies would open. "Smart filmmakers and their distributors need to face facts," Newman says, because:

"In a world of superabundance, it becomes increasingly difficult to get reviewed, much less get seen (and both have always been hard). I always say that digital technology’s greatest impact lies in how it demolishes many canards that have held sway over the business. Perhaps the one saying that a NYT review is gold becomes less true when said reviews are less precious. Perhaps we need to envision a world, which perhaps already exists, where the NYT review isn’t even necessary."

Without question, we live in The Golden Age of Movies (That Probably Didn't Need to Be Made). But as Newman himself admits, our cinematic surplus isn't going away. In my eyes, that means we need more criticism, not less. The Times' comprehensiveness is a valuable public service -- if they didn't sift through all these new releases, who else would? A stingier policy on reviews might cut down on four-wall releases, but it might also cut down on the very worthwhile indies that rightfully benefit from the attention of a Times review -- reviews which most certainly do hold value for a certain segment of the population who use the phrase "It's getting good reviews" interchangeably with "It got a good review from The New York Times."

There's another issue with eliminating the Times' policy: If the paper began cherrypicking titles, who decides what gets covered and how? Screening and debating the relative value of each review could ultimately require more work than simply covering everything. Twenty films a week is a lot -- but that's still only about 1,000 films a year. Newman says 40,000 films are made every year -- which means that even in this age of superabundance, the percentage actually covered in the Times is still very small.

Already a few independent filmmakers have weighed in with comments on Newman's piece -- "As someone whose film, which was largely bypassed by the larger festivals only to have a sterling NYTimes review save the film's long term viability after its weeklong opening at a Brooklyn microcinema, I strongly disagree with your premise," wrote one such director -- and I'd be curious to hear from more of them. How important is that New York Times review? And if the Times did change their policy, would that benefit or harm film culture at large?

Read more of "The Old Gray Lady."

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9 Comments

  • I seriously hope you guys ross douthat | November 15, 2012 4:36 AMReply

    I read "four-wall release" as a synonym for "four-quadrant release", until I looked up "four-wall release", but for a minute there I was like, yup, most of these "four-quadrant" movies are terrible and the NYT shouldn't give them the space.

    Anyhoo, this four-walling thing doesn't really happen in London much.

  • Brian Newman | November 14, 2012 12:41 PMReply

    Matt - I think what Indiewire is doing with Criticwire is great, and more reviews works because they are put together in a smart manner here. Some more thoughts on it:
    http://www.sub-genre.com/post/35712381642/less-is-more-or-the-old-gray-lady-post-continued

  • Chris L. | November 14, 2012 2:28 AMReply

    I'm hazarding a guess that Patrick Wang was the director quoted here, and if so, he's absolutely right. Because thanks to the Times notice, "In the Family" found its way to my local arthouse many, many miles from NYC. And, as Paul Doro indicated below, savoring a cornucopia of criticism is a reward itself. So Mr. Singer wins this argument hands down.

  • Z | November 13, 2012 8:27 PMReply

    What? No!

    Review quality is consistently excellent. The more, the merrier.

  • Rania | November 13, 2012 4:59 PMReply

    Does the Times review every book? Every TV program? Every off-off-Broadway play? There should be a minimum quality to pass muster. Four-walling is not a good determining factor. Not sure what the answer is.

  • Paul Doro | November 13, 2012 3:42 PMReply

    I can't imagine feeling like the New York Times was reviewing too many movies. I love the Friday Arts section of the paper and typically save it for Saturday morning, when I have more time to read it. I read almost every review every week and relish the chance to read reviews of so many films, be they blockbusters or indie fare I've never heard of before. It's a true joy.

  • Jordan Hoffman | November 13, 2012 3:31 PMReply

    They could/should be more selective of four-walled films. That's buying a review/credibility. 1 week runs at a micro cinema when it has been curated by someone who surveys the field (eg ReRun under the Hillis regime) is fine, but someone cutting a check directly (as I once considered doing for a project) does not automatically warrant getting a review.

  • Brando | November 13, 2012 3:57 PM

    I'm inclined to agree with your line of thinking, but at the same time, that shuts out films that legitimately deserve a shot at being seen that have trouble landing a solid distribution deal and need to four wall. And it still comes down to the quality of the review. If the film merits a positive review, then it deserves to get some love. If the film gets panned, nobody will likely see it and you threw a few thousand bucks down the toilet.

  • Brando | November 13, 2012 3:15 PMReply

    Oh, I don't like this idea at all, and I'm not just saying this as a publicist who would come under fire by indie filmmakers for NYT passing on their reviews. NYT is the only paper that has a comprehensive look at all of the films opening in NYC each week. There are sure to be a lot of indie gems that open in these that, as the filmmaker quoted in the article indicated, would never get the exposure for their films if not for this policy. It's the only way to get a view on the full spectrum of the landscape of NY film.

    Plus, I don't see how reviewing every film compromises the Times. If a movie stinks, it's still going to get a bad review. And the tiny releases are still going to be buried as far as placement goes - major releases and notable critics picks are going to get the nice photo to run regardless.

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