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Why BuzzFeed Hired Its First Critic

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire March 20, 2014 at 10:59AM

The viral site's entertainment editor explains why criticism can be as "shareable" as a GIF or a quiz.
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BuzzFeed
Jakob N. Layman

Although I'll miss reading Alison Willmore's TV criticism in Indiewire's virtual pages, I'm delighted she's been named BuzzFeed's first film critic, and not just because I've missed running into her at screenings. The fact that a site whose core mission is to "create things people will want to share" thinks there's a place for criticism amid its signature lists and GIFs is an encouraging sign for anyone who cares about the art form -- especially since it's safe to assume BuzzFeed wouldn't make that move if they didn't have the data to back it up.

As it turns out, Willmore is not just BuzzFeed's first film critic but the site's first critic, period, or at least the first employee with "critic" in her title. Given that dedicated critic positions are largely being phased out in favor of all-purpose "film writer" slots, that seemed like a significant enough milestone to warrant further, so I asked Willmore what she has planned for the new gig, and I asked her boss, entertainment editorial director Jace Lacob, why the traffic-monster site isn't scared of the word "criticism."

This seems to be the first time the word "critic" has actually been part of a BuzzFeed staffer's title. What went into that decision?

Jace Lacob
Jace Lacob

Jace Lacob: This is the first time that BuzzFeed has used "critic" in a staff member's title and I'm glad that we invoked it for this film position. We had an internal discussion about whether or not to use the word critic in the title, and ultimately we felt that it's an important signifier that ought not to be lost. By giving Alison the title of film critic, I wanted to signify that she is empowered in a critical sense and is approaching the material -- both the experience of viewing and interacting with cinema as well speaking with the people who make it -- from a broader cultural perspective as someone entrenched in the art form rather than from a reporter's vantage point. Criticism is a powerful tool and it's not the only one in the critic's toolbox, but it's often the one that can carry the most weight. 

How will BuzzFeed's take on film criticism be different from (or similar to) the way other publications approach it?

Lacob: We're looking to transform the notion of traditional film criticism and get away from certain tropes of modern film criticism, like assigning letter grades to films. And, yes, Alison will be writing reviews that may or may not look like traditional reviews; part of her remit is to experiment with formats and models of criticism and to push that into new directions. That might mean a list. Or an 8,000-word story. Or merging criticism with reportage. Or revisiting a film several times over. Her job is to both precipitate conversation and advance it; the critic's job shouldn't end the moment that review is published.

How does the necessary ruthlessness of a good critic square with BuzzFeed's "no haters" mantra?

Lacob: "No haters" doesn't mean "no negative criticism." What it means, however, is that we're not going to approach criticism from a place of knee-jerk snarkiness. There's a place for looking at problematic issues or indeed problematic films themselves: exploring why they didn't work. But the stakes need to be there: we're not going to say something is terrible just for the sake of it, we're not going to immolate some low-budget film just because we have the power to do so. A critic has an obligation to offer criticism, but that criticism ought to be intelligent, measured, and both thought-provoking and thoughtful.

Alison Willmore
Alison Willmore

Alison Willmore: I will be definitely be writing both positive and negative reviews. My approach will be what my approach has always been to criticism, which is that it's the start of and hopefully a spark for a conversation, not a definitive ruling in which everyone needs to agree with me or get out. I don't intend, to use the term of choice in this ongoing discussion, to indulge in empty snark, but I am going to be honest about my thoughts on how a film succeeds or doesn't. What's important to me is that what I write be informed by an underlying love of the medium in general, whether that's in addressing what a film does well or in how I think it fails. 

Though the site does many other things, when people think BuzzFeed, they think lists and GIFs. Are you thinking of ways to turn those tools to more critical ends?

Willmore: List-making has been a part of every editorial job I've ever had, and that isn't going to change, though I don't see that as being central to my role at BuzzFeed. Lists are fun and can be smart, funny, insightful and/or provocative, which is what I'm aiming for in all of my writing.

Lacob: We'll certainly look at how to utilize visually-driven formats with criticism-based stories, but simply adding GIFs to a review is not a goal here. BuzzFeed is known for its lists and GIFs, yes, but we're also the home of longform stories, breaking news, and social news. There was a time when people thought BuzzFeed was just GIFs; they might say that it is all about quizzes right now. But that's a reductive perspective of a site that charges its writers with following their passions and writing towards those interests within and outside of their assigned content areas. A review does not just need to be 500 words with a publicity still. Alison is tasked with pushing the limits of what we consider to be a "review." And I'm excited to see what she's able to create at BuzzFeed that is innovative and different… and ultimately shareable.

Alison: Any parting thoughts on your time at Indiewire?


Willmore: I've had a great time building the TV section at Indiewire, and I'm grateful to have gotten the chance to work alongside the talented, tireless writers and editors that make up Indiewire's staff. It was a terrific learning experience and an opportunity to do a deep dive into television at a really interesting time. I hope to still keep a toe in the world of TV in my new role at BuzzFeed -- with so much crossover happening in terms of directors, writers and actors, it only seems appropriate to keep tabs on both.

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