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Memo to the New York Times: Quit Reviewing Every Movie

by Sam Adams
May 7, 2014 5:07 PM
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In Sunday's Arts & Leisure section, New York Times critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis offered their "Memos to Hollywood," a series of suggestions both incontestable -- hire more female directors; stop furnishing critics with subpar e-screeners -- and quixotic. (Dargis suggests that critics "just write about, you know, movies," a suggestion she evidently feels no need to follow herself.) So it's only fair that we offer our own suggestions to their place of employ, or rather, just one: Stop reviewing every movie that opens in New York.

As box-office columnist Donald Wilson argues in thnew Film Comment, and as I have in this space more than once, the Times' policy of reviewing every movie that opens in the five boroughs, including four-walled releases that buy out a theater for the sole purpose of garnering a Times review, has become the subject of frequent and unavoidable abuse. In an infamous article, Dargis complained that distributors were flooding the market with sub-par movies, but Wilson points out that's not actually the case: Indie stalwarts like Magnolia and IFC released roughly as many movies in 2013 as they did in 2011. Instead, the flood seems to originate elsewhere, not from independent distributors but from films whose only claim to theatrical release is an $11,000 check.

Instead of attempting to achieve some impossible platonic ideal of fairness (the Times, though it reviews every release, certainly prioritizes films in a number of subtle ways: review placement, photo inclusion, length, additional feature coverage), shouldn’t the cultural gatekeepers live up to their responsibilities? Instead of covering every film released, they should make smart decisions about what films are worth covering (and on what platforms they’re being released -- should great films released only on streaming be penalized for how they reach viewers?). I imagine that the arts editors, in conjunction with the lead reviewers -- who, one assumes, talk to other critics, hear about interesting films, and see other interesting films while attending film festivals --could do a decent job of putting together an editorial calendar that makes sense. Films would fall through the cracks, sure. But instead of being a clearinghouse, Arts & Leisure’s weekly review coverage could be a curated space for the best writing about the best films. Does the front page of the Times cover all the news? Or just what’s fit to print?

Wilson admits movies might fall through the cracks, but then they already do; a token review by what Wilson calls "the faceless Genzlingers and Hales of the world" scarcely generates more buzz than no review at all, even if it does allow the filmmakers to slap a quote on their site credited to "the New York Times."

Virtually every other publication does this already, out of financial necessity if for no other reason. And while it's possible that some babies will get thrown out with the bathwater, exercising a greater degree of editorial oversight -- the word "curate" has taken enough abuse already, thanks -- would allow the Times to lavish more attention on the films they've determined really deserve it. My only requirement would be that the Times apply the same standard to studio releases as to microbudget indies. If it turns out the latest Adam Sandler comedy isn't worth the attention, throw it right onto the junkheap next to the movie that was made for less than Sandler paid his on-set stylist. Those movies don't need the attention anyway, and the critics probably have better things to do with their time.

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  • Unthinkable | May 10, 2014 7:53 AMReply

    Sam appears to be complaining about filmmakers who open their indie films at Quad Cinema, paying a premium for the opportunity to be reviewed by The New York Times (and others). But Sam doesn't have the guts to mention any of the recent Quad openings which seem to have rattled his cage. My film, "Unthinkable: An Airline Captain's Story" is a perfect example, and perhaps the motivation for his ill-considered rant. But what Sam fails to mention is that the Quad isn't afraid to run interesting low or no-budget films which stray outside the boundaries of "safe" political content. However, industry folks generally agree that Elliott Kanbar's film sensibilities can be depended on to provide interesting films. Thank you Elliott and the New York Times for standing up for what remains of Free Speech in America today. Heck, even if one of these "interesting films" didn't cost many millions to produce it may have something more pithy to say than yet another amazing Spidey saving the world for all us unthinking knuckle-draggers.

  • K | May 8, 2014 4:25 PMReply

    The hate here is a little astounding, as the majority of the independent film crowd is a group of people who pride themselves on their ability to distinguish the cultural wheat from the chaff. Is it wrong to ask a publication with as much clout as the NYT to do the same? Yes, they may miss out something great, but not every worthwhile film even makes it to a screen in NYC.
    I think what Sam is getting at here is this: film critics and their published criticism are a resource, and reviewing every single film released in NYC just might be an unnecessary allocation of that resource. I think it's sad that critics are watering down their profession (or professional ambition) to being somebody who should just writes about movies, as movies should and often do serve as a reflection of a much wider spectrum of issues. Never in my life have I been interested in someone or something that has slight, underdeveloped opinions on absolutely everything under the sun. Taking care into what you analyze or focus on is, in apparently every other arena except this one, seen as a higher form of critical thinking. Oy vey.

  • FP | May 8, 2014 6:13 PM

    All due respect, who gets to designate what's wheat, and what's chaff? How does one know it's wheat or chaff if not viewed? Psychic Friends Network? Or do we just assume certain theaters are only booking chaff, therefore instituting institutional bias?

    It's called "All the news that's fit to print," not "we cherry pick based on hipster preferences of what played at Film Forum." Deal with it.

  • Lawrence Chadbourne | May 8, 2014 12:53 PMReply

    We have a mediocre newspaper here in San Francisco that doesn't bother to review a number of interesting art and indie movies that open at places like the 4 Star or the Roxie. And you're encouraging a flawed but much better big city paper to dumb itself down and provide LESS
    coverage? Shame on you!

  • Fairfight | May 8, 2014 12:49 PMReply

    I agree with the surprise that this article comes from Indiewire. It is great that they review all films. We all know the hardest bridge to cross for indies is competing with studios and even large independents ability to pay for publicity and press attention. Why on earth would you want to take away this chance for the playing field to stay a little more equal? Makes no sense to me.

  • M | May 8, 2014 9:55 AMReply

    Sure, the New York Times should be more like IndieWire and write only about Palo Alto. Yeah, let's go with that (please do read sarcasm between the lines).

  • Film Critic | May 8, 2014 8:34 AMReply

    Yes, by all means, let's have even LESS paid gigs for film critics!

  • BRTman | May 8, 2014 3:25 AMReply

    Sam Adams again... never in tune with what the audience (or industry) is thinking

  • Ryan Scafuro | May 8, 2014 12:53 AMReply

    This article would have been much more productive if it were framed as a call for the NYT to start reviewing worthy VOD releases instead of reviewing less theatrical releases.

  • BEACH PILLOWS | May 8, 2014 7:13 AM

    I guess that's where my head's at. I've done some research on the Quad, appreciate what they're doing, and have even had friends run good films there. But you all could ease up on Sam a bit. He's just trying to rattle the cages to create discussion about the status quo, which is a large part of the critics job. I'm sure it's all considered fair play--ding the critic!--but I believe he comes from a good place and know he supports independents. And I know that's what you all are doing. Wait, what' someone playing the Full House music? (This was way funnier with the link, but they wouldn't let me include it.)

  • Film Criticism Police | May 7, 2014 11:45 PMReply

    Sorry, I'm not with you on this one. I'm more inclined to sympathize with a critic tasked with reviewing a gargantuan amount of films that with a critic who mostly criticizes his peers.

    I'll gladly sign my name to Dargis's letter encouraging critics to "just write about, you know, movies." (Maybe more people could challenge the Times if they spent less time wagging their fingers at critics for not following their arbitrary Golden Rules of Film Criticism.)

  • FP | May 7, 2014 11:28 PMReply

    No character assassination of Elliot Kanbar this time? Shocking. Are you just mad that the Times screwed you over somehow? Your obsession with them is sad.

  • Sujewa Ekanayake | May 7, 2014 11:15 PMReply

    :) Sam Adams has a serious deficiency in understanding the film industry. SOMEONE ALWAYS PAYS FOR EVRY MOVIE THAT SCREENS ON ANY SCREEN. Please, read that to yourself slowly & think about it Sam. When Spider Man 15 screens at a movie theater, millions of $s have been spent to make that happen. In comparison, an indie filmmaker spending $5K or $11K or $20K or whatever to screen a movie to the public, get reviews etc is NOTHING ($s wise). Also, this is NYC, not a small town without any new movies being made or released, and, as such, this is a place where filmmakers will create and release interesting work, launch interesting careers, where new discoveries will be made, where there is an audience for new work. In such a space, the major newspaper in town should review new movies that come out. Whether the cost for releasing that movie was $11K or $25 million. To argue that filmmakers/small distributors should not spend $11K or whatever to release a movie in NYC is to argue that indie filmmakers should not spend any money to make their movies. Or that indie film should not exist at all. What a bizarre position for an Indiewire writer to take :) The cluelessness and 'in favor of the rich/wealthy studios' perspective that supports the 'don't review self distributed movies' argument is staggering and sad. By the way, that indie in Indiewire stands for independent films - a genre created and sustained by small distributors, including self-distribution. Times or any other media outlet that needs more people to review movies that are playing in NYC have plenty of talented out-of-work critics & film writers to choose from by the way.

  • Chris | May 7, 2014 10:56 PMReply

    This is a solution in search of a problem (as it was when Dargis wrote that earlier article). Are people really struggling to get through the NYT film pages because there are too many reviews? If you don't want to read b-list reviews, is it difficult to read the byline and see that, given the assigned reviewer, a film is probably B-list material? Dargis and Scott are free to put whatever smart writing they want into the paper - I'd love to see more back-and-forth debate between the critics as part of a genuine conversation about movies - but their recent efforts at non-review writing haven't exactly been inspiring. It can't be that all their time is taken up with reviews; Scott and Dargis only review 2-3 films per week. So the stars at the paper already do the pre-review curation.

    I get the frustration about the VOD placement scamming that is going on, but when there are so many movies out there, it makes the critic's job in screening material more important. Trying to apply some subjective criteria to whether a film *looks* reviewable in order to decide whether to screen and review it is a recipe for missing out on hidden gems, which subverts the critic's role rather than fulfills it. I'm glad that there's still a place out there that tries to catch everything and to help film-goers make picks in a crowded marketplace.

  • LL | May 7, 2014 10:55 PMReply

    As much as I rolled my eyes at Manohla's Dargis' "infamous" article, I think you are not understanding the critics' role in recording and assessing history in the making.

  • Beach Pillows | May 7, 2014 7:26 PMReply

    "Should great films released only on streaming be penalized for how they reach viewers?"

    F**K NO!

    Thanks, Sam.

  • BEACH PILLOWS | May 7, 2014 8:33 PM

    To clarify, I do applaud NYT for supporting films, but I agree with Sam's take on the arbitrariness of the theatrical threshold. I'd love for our film to screen in theaters and am certainly pursuing opportunities, but I don't have 11k for a four-wall, and I'm sure most independent filmmakers don't either. Usually, most of these screenings are empty and you take a massive hit. If the only reason to put it in theaters is to solicit reviews, we might as well cut out the middle man and pay critics directly (that's a joke).

  • More Good Films | May 7, 2014 6:25 PMReply

    Solution: Stop reviewing crap like Captain America, Iron Man, Spiderman, Thor Man, etc. Nobody who goes to see those movies cares about the difference between two and three stars.

  • So true. | May 8, 2014 12:11 AM

    Exactly^! Nor do they even read the NYT.

  • SupportFilm | May 7, 2014 5:31 PMReply

    I think reviewing films is good for filmmakers, audiences, and everyone interested in the culture. To call for less reviews of films is good for no one. People who do not have an interest in the reviews don't have to read them or attend the films. Encouraging less coverage of films
    is an embrace of the laziness which characterizes so much of "journalism" these days. Thank god the NY Times still resists the easy way out.

  • Joe (or Dave, either one's cool by me) | May 7, 2014 5:31 PMReply

    Hey, Sam! Here for my daily critic-ribbing! (Would that be "cribbing"?) These are a few I made up that're getting pretty good feedback around the office today. Anyway, like to hear em? Here they go (and please imagine a comedic drumbeat stinger after each):

    "Critics demanding responses from studios are like birthers demanding responses from Obama!"

    "I mean really, critics who think they're part of showbiz are like Tea Partyers who think they're politicians!"

    "Seriously, 'Occupy Wall Street' has more purpose and power than critics right now."

    Thank you and good night!

  • PMD | May 7, 2014 5:14 PMReply

    Speaking as a movie lover and fan of the NY Times, I love that they review every movie. I love getting my coffee and sitting down with Friday's Arts section, and reading all of the reviews. It's a great joy and something I look forward to every week.

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