Critic vs. Critic: The Changing Landscape of Movie Coverage

by Anne Thompson
August 31, 2010 1:40 AM
11 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood
Moviefone's Jack Mathews and I are squabbling again, this time in a new column we're calling Critic vs. Critic, in which we debate the latest trends and topics in movies. This week, Mathews and I take on the changing face of movie coverage, now dominated by the Internet.

In recent years there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of professional film critics in the U.S., but never have there been as many reviews of new movies available as there are today. Where people once got their moviegoing advice from familiar critics in newspapers and on television on opening day, they now get reviews days, weeks, even months in advance of a movie's scheduled release from fan sites on the Internet. The question is: Are today's moviegoers better served by new media ... or is the Internet diluting the quality of film criticism?

JM: Yes and no. As a critic who was as interested in the process of filmmaking as in the movies themselves, I envy the amount and immediacy of reporting on the Internet. Beats the hell out of studio press kits. On the downside, I would not read a review of a movie from someone whose background and tastes I don't know, and that includes nearly all of the citizen critics pumping reviews into cyberspace.

Thompson on Hollywood

AT: What's fascinating is how the Internet has evolved. Where there once were certain established news outlets with access to production set visits and filmmaker and star interviews, like Premiere, EW or Entertainment Tonight, now a host of online sites of varying size and flavors have grown and matured into flourishing media that do a decent job of servicing their readers with info as soon as they can get it: trailers, stills and one-sheets as well as interviews from festivals and junkets.

And they write reviews. At a recent online critics panel at SXSW, and as I bade a sad farewell to At the Movies I realized that I do bewail the loss of quality criticism of yore. The new batch aren't well-trained journalism professionals; in the main, they aren't as thoughtful and elegant as their predecessors. But they share their passions and have their ardent followers.

So I now am well-informed, if not enlightened. And I do know where to find the critics I respect, whether it's Time, NYTimes.com, Salon, Slate and Movieline or bloggers Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, Some Came Running and Dave Kehr. While Richard Schickel no longer pontificates from on high, there is now a critic for every taste. Let many flowers bloom.

Thompson on Hollywood

JM: I would guess that movie buffs getting all of their news online, like political buffs getting all their news from Fox, are misinformed as often as they are informed. When I was the movie editor of the Los Angeles Times in the late '80s, early '90s, we had freelance writers who were dying to post the latest rumors in the newspaper's Calendar section as soon as they heard them. I pushed back on those items until the reporting was solid, which it often never became. I don't think many of the rumors being published on the Internet today go through such editorial scrutiny.

The fact is that publishing negative, anonymous gossip about unfinished movies is very harmful to the film, its creators and its investors and, as often as not, that premature buzz proves false. How many of you who trust those early reviews would do so if they were being filed by someone with the tastes of Armond White? The thing is you can't un-ring a bell and once published, those rushed judgments gain traction in the blogosphere and ultimately find their way into mainstream media. Damage done.

AT: Very true. The negative of the current online movie beast is that the quality of the discourse has coarsened. While Jonathan Franzen can afford to cut off his computer and sit in a quiet room, the rest of us are reading, ingesting and posting faster, shorter and with more frequency, for less money, cutting corners, trying to beat the competition, and fashioning headlines with celeb names, "controversy" or "exclusive" to build traffic. There is little awareness, I find, of many of the rules of conflict of interest and journalism ethics that were pounded into journalists as they moved up the ranks.

I'd like to think that discerning readers will seek out sites with authority and cred and writers and critics more likely to steer them right. The danger is that seeking access to junkets leads to easy promo filler (and ad quotes) over meaningful independent scrutiny. On the other hand, critic site Pajiba, which prides itself on snarky reviews, seems to be thriving. In this fragmented universe, it's not about the many seeking truth from the one. Now, each person seeks multiple sources who they trust. You get what you want, if not what you need.

Thompson on Hollywood

JM: I wonder what Pauline Kael would have thought of all this. The late New Yorker magazine critic was the Gertrude Stein of movie culture, the go-to guru for up-and-coming critics who craved her approbation and -- for those whose work she liked -- her friendship and freely given advice. Her eyes would glaze over if she were around to sample the work of unknown critics now rising like so many dandelions on the Internet landscape. I'm not saying there isn't talent out there -- as Roger Ebert has had time to verify, there is -- but she'd balk at the amount of chaff she'd have to brush aside to get to the wheat.

AT: Safe to say, in sum: Nobody writes like Kael, or commands the attention that she once did, or has the impact on the culture that she once had. The two critics at the New York Times and The New Yorker respectively hold some sway, but finally the most powerful critic in America is a populist who established his fame on television's 'At the Movies' -- Roger Ebert. Because he lost his balcony perch when he lost his voice to cancer, he now communicates with more film fans than ever before, not only via the Chicago Sun-Times but online, on his blog and on Twitter, where he has 220,000 followers and counting. It's the new order.

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11 Comments

  • DavidC | October 7, 2010 8:44 AMReply

    @ ben

    On what basis will you "decide for yourself" in advance of a movie's opening? Ads and talk show appearances illustrated with clips? IOW, PR? One of the most fundamental things critics give you, the real ones, is an independent assessment.

  • Jesse | October 7, 2010 8:26 AMReply

    The Internet Devil promises total freedom and equality, but offers dilution of all thoughtful criticism, values, history, compassion, and positive influence. This abuse of technology and web idealism is the final victory of the few powerful international financial overlords over everyone else. By allowing total "freedom of expression" without wisdom or consequences, the ones who really control the planet have deliberately pitted us all against each other, while they greedily stride forward in their determined blind obsession/addiction to be gods, at least while they are alive. Total (easy) access to useful and useless information - true, untrue, and confused - equals not human liberation and fairness, but intellectual and cultural paralysis....As we all instinctively sense, it is the nearing the end of America, the human species and our Earth, and, of course, Art.

  • M | September 2, 2010 6:26 AMReply

    First of all, it seems pretty clear that people don't fully understand the role of a film critic anymore.

    A film critic's job is not to tell you what to see. Or what to think. A film critic doesn't even really see it as their job to decide what films are "good" and which are "bad." At least, no film critic who's worth a damn.

    A film critic presents, through the filter of their (hopefully) high level of cinematic knowledge, their subjective experience of a film, infused by their passion for the art form, and expressed through their skill with the written word, for the purpose of a) generating discussion, b) providing a cipher of sorts for those interested in a film's ideas but unfamiliar with its strategies, and c) offering an informed opinion as to the film's artistic value, entertainment value and possibly it's historical/political/sociological significance.

    In other words, it's a big job. And it's hard work.

    The problem with many of the critics writing on the web today is that they lack some of the qualifications to do the job properly. There can be no question that the hordes of internet critics out there possess the requisite passion in spades. But too often, they lack a formal understanding of the medium, or a talent for literary composition and written expression, or both.

    Many of them also lack editors who impose a second level of quality control on their work. Or they lack the discipline to self-impose such standards. Or they're just lazy narcissists who want to shout out their opinions and shout down everyone else's.

    But the internet did not cause the degradation of film criticism (it began years, if not decades, before) and the amateur critics that have flooded it are not solely to blame.

    The bell tolls for thee, ye readers.

    True, when the landscape is so supersaturated, it's hard for any cream to rise to the top because it is often too deeply buried to ever be discovered. But there's also not much interest in seeking out those rare critics who speak from a place of informed knowledge and/or with literary flair. Mostly people who read film reviews do so either to have their own opinions "vindicated" by an "authority" or because they mistakenly think a film critic's job is to use psychic powers to tell them what movies they will like and which movies they won't. (See my first point.)

    Worse yet, most people feel that the "freedom of information" offered by the internet is not freedom to obtain information, but freedom to provide it. There are more people interested in being critics than reading them because no one can understand why anyone else's opinion should matter more than their own. But just because we all want to be heard doesn't mean we all deserve to be.

    And so a market for arrogant, misinformed, loudmouth populists has been created resulting in a dwindling respect and readership for those critics who are actually qualified to do the job.

    The "crisis" in criticism is the same as it has been in art, in politics, in journalism, etc. for some time now: democratization without proper education results in a disdain for intellectualism.

    The idiots are taking over. Arm yourself.

  • Ben | September 2, 2010 5:39 AMReply

    Well I find I never listen to reviews or critics in the first place. I don't need other people telling me if I'll like a movie because I like to decide for myself. I think it's a shame how much people follow critics. I think it's an individual thing and you need to choose for yourself. If you are going to listen to a critic find one that has similar taste to you. Thats why I like the fact that anyone can critic a movie it leads to more diversity.

  • Brian | September 2, 2010 5:04 AMReply

    Once upon a time, newspaper film reviewers were generally reporters in other departments who got shifted over to cover film when someone was needed. They weren't trained film critics with any particular love for the medium. The New York Times' first-string reviewer for decades was a curmudgeon named Bosley Crowther who set back the cause of serious film criticism by some 30 years, if you ask me. When I recall the likes of Wanda Hale, Judith Crist, Kathleen Carroll and some others I grew up reading, I cringe. Archer Winsten at the New York Post was pretty good, but he'd been doing it since the 1930s and he seemed to enjoy his work, so he'd gotten pretty good at it. When I was in college, thank God I had the Village Voice to turn to, with Andrew Sarris and J. Hoberman. Granted, there were other good reviewers in those days, such as Joseph Gelmis (I forget what paper he wrote for) and, of course legendary critics like Pauline Kael and Manny Farber at different magazines, but most regular movie and magazine film reviewers didn't necessarily have a film background. As a kid who liked the edgier, mid-range genre films that sometimes made it into theaters, I didn't find many voices championing those films. (People like Manny Farber didn't write for the Herald Tribune.) Renata Adler at the Times regularly tore apart some of my favorites, e.g. PLANET OF THE APES and Sergio Leone's Italian westerns. (I liked her anyway, though, and later took two courses she taught at Hunter College, where I needled her about Leone.) Still, I was lucky that I lived in a household where Variety came in, so I got to read those reviews, including by a fellow named Stuart Byron who later wrote for Film Comment.

    It wasn't till relatively recently that newspapers began hiring younger critics who'd actually studied film and had a background in it. To me, when A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis became the main critics at the NY Times, that was a dream come true. Finally, real film lovers who also happened to be good writers were in those jobs. (Not that I always agree with them.) Years ago, Carrie Rickey went from the Village Voice to a Philadelphia paper--Philadelphia's gain was our (Voice readers') loss.

    I still prefer good newspaper or magazine reviewers for my info on new films and whether to see them or not. I subscribe to Entertainment Weekly chiefly to read Owen Gleiberman's and Lisa Schwarzbaum's reviews. I don't find too many film reviewing websites that are of much use to me. I'm a member of two film discussion web forums, but I can't always rely on the opinions of the members of those sites to guide me. I'm often the sole voice supporting something or criticizing something. (Try complaining about AVATAR or INCEPTION or SCOTT PILGRIM on these sites.)

  • Duder NME | September 2, 2010 1:33 AMReply

    This proliferation of amateur expression isn't endemic to just film criticism, but to all manner of arts as a whole. The information age has produced a ceaseless deluge of fame whores and unique talent alike, but its audience is still trying to sift through it all with the same antiquated stick in the mud technique that served them in the past. Perhaps all will settle into more recognizable venues, even to the egotistic detriment of exclusionary preference, and a new paradigm of appreciation will be born. Otherwise, chaos reigns and all that can be hoped is that someone out there is also listening while participating.

  • Andy Dougan | September 1, 2010 12:42 PMReply

    I was a film reviewer in the UK for a large and respected newspaper for almost thirty years and gave up only recently ( three years ago).
    Having said all this I was becoming increasingly depressed by the way the industry was changing before I made the leap. The whole tabloidization of our culture – worse in the UK media than on your side of the ocean – leads to a degradation of the role of the reviewer. I started reviewing films in 1973 and one of the joys of the job then was that there were films that lent themselves to critical examination. I also had to demonstrate a zeal for movies and a breadth of knowledge about cinema before I got the gig. Now it is almost self-evident that the geeks have inherited the earth. There is no style to their criticism, there is no context beyond ‘OMG!’ or ‘epic fail’ and worse there is no journalistic rigour or practice in what they do. As a consequence we have critics with no authority who are bought and sold by distributors. No one is sufficiently naïve to believe that the review is not part of the overall marketing process but there was a time when it could at least be regarded as a critical friend. Reviewers had what I often used to refer to as a ‘critical signature’ in that they had sufficient weight for their readers to become acquainted with their personal tastes and parse the review accordingly. This sadly has gone by the board.

    I have no idea how well critics are served in the US but the tragedy in the UK is that the zeal and biddability of much of the online gaggle has seriously undermined those few remaining reviewers who still care about their craft. As recently as five years ago the accepted practice was that a major release would have a screening for local press in major cities in the week before release with a London screening on the Monday or Tuesday of opening week. Similarly junkets would also take place in good time with reasonable access.

    In Glasgow - the city in the UK with highest cinema attendance - in the month just ended there were 36 new releases only five of which were screened for the press and of those two were screened on the day before release making it impossible for my former print colleagues to do their job. Some major distributors now have a policy of not holding press screenings outside London and there are other distributors for whom advance screenings occur with the same frequency as Halley’s Comet.

    The same situation prevails with junkets. Frequently the talent comes in the day before release making them useful only to online journalists or TV crews, none of whom is going to produce anything useful in their allotted four minute slot or thirty minute news conference.

    That said I fear the situation will only get worse. The more prolific and compliant this category of online journalist is the more it will be controlled by distributors and exhibitors. In the end they serve as nothing more than a conduit for the publicist’s pablum.

  • Sascha | September 1, 2010 6:15 AMReply

    So, instead of the opinion of an individual, right or wrong, you have the opinion of an anonymous crowd, against wich you can't argue, a crowd which, by definition, is always right so you have only one option: to agree or look like a loser...
    Because if you consider the individual opinions, like on Imdb, you'll always find the unprofessional movie reviewer who thinks that something you liked was actually s*** and probably much more arshly and without reasons than a professional...

  • Ben | September 1, 2010 6:06 AMReply

    I for one think that more reviews by average people can be good. It gives everyone a voice and really makes the movie industry more personal. I find I rarely agree with the movie reviewers on tv or in the paper. Some of the most critically alclaimed movies of all time are ones that I havn't enjoyed and my second favorite film of all time was bashed by critics. The average movie goer dosn't look at the same things as a professional movie reviewer. They aren't always looking for class art direction or messages. Most people are just looking for entertainment value which is what movies are about. More reviews by the average viewer causes a more general public opinion.

  • Sascha | September 1, 2010 3:35 AMReply

    A film blogger can be of course be as knowledgeable, passionate, literate and expressive as a traditional critic. But the landscape is different and he/she will never be as important or influential as a Pauline Kael because the public will have to chose between thousand and thousand of wannabe critic and there'll never be enough time: the 'epic' and 'fail' will always win.
    To have value you need scarcity; when there's a glut of opinions they became worthless.

  • Will | September 1, 2010 3:05 AMReply

    Maybe you're right. That being said, I think there's nothing to gain from decrying the current state of film criticism and journalism in general. As with all things, adaptation is necessary. Not all critics are created equal, but I think it's wrong to assume a film blogger can't be any more knowledgeable, passionate, film literate, or expressive about film than a traditional critic. Reflection is good, but if we spend too much time gazing back at what was, it's easy for us to get left behind.

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