At the recent Seattle Film Festival, Eric Kohn of Indiewire (@erickohn) moderated a panel discussion of the current state of film criticism and coverage today. I joined Seattle critics Robert Horton (@citizenhorton), Sean Axmaker (@seanaxmaker), Keith Simanton of IMDb (@IMDbKeith) and Lindy West of Jezebel (@thelindywest). We dig into long vs. shortform criticism, print vs. online, the social media conversation and how to communicate with audiences, what our role should be in promoting films, and where things are going.
Eric Kohn: The conversation about movies is evolving and changing based on the ways the media landscape is shifting. Use your sensibilities as a critic to tell us about a movie that you think didn't get the attention it deserved.
Robert Horton: A small movie that just came to Seattle that I loved was "Something in the Air," the new film by Oliver Assayas. It played for a week. It didn't have the right kind of local support. A film that was big that I thought could be more appreciated is "Jack Reacher," a kind of really clean, very smart movie that got lost because it was a Tom Cruise movie and we're not going to spend more than 20 seconds talking about that anyway.
Lindy West: I'm the odd one out because I was a full-time film critic for seven years. I haven't done it for a couple years and I never set out to do it. I was a person who cares about art and culture and my writing happened to catch someone's eye. Now I write for Jezebel, a feminist blog, and review films once in a while, if something comes out that is a big story or if it's feminist-related. I really liked "Django Unchained" and I felt like the backlash was interesting and valuable but maybe not as nuanced as it could have been because I thought that movie was fucking awesome. Watching it I thought, 'this is what I want a movie to do... do something and not just be there.' A lot of people were mad about it and that's fine because I think that discussion is important.
Sean Axmaker: I wrote for the Seattle Press Intelligencer for years. I wrote for Lindy for a bit [at the Stranger]. I do a little bit for Seattle Weekly but now I write about DVDs, Blu-Ray and streaming video for MSN. I'm watching older films rather than new films. A film that was overlooked is revival "Pont de Nord" by Jacques Rivette. Years ago that kind of thing would have gotten attention with the press. We had room in the papers and those kind of things got a shout-out and I felt that when it came through this year, it was overlooked. Most people didn't know it played in town. People didn't have a background on who Rivette was. Film culture is going from locally based film critics talking about what's happening over time to things getting spread out over the internet. I really loved "Cloud Atlas" and most people did not like that film. I got carried away in that movie. I got caught up in the sheer visual momentum in that movie, the way great storytelling can do that.
Anne Thompson: I've gone from working at a monthly to a weekly to a daily and now I work 24/7. I'm a hybrid. Sometimes it's criticism, sometimes it's editing other people's criticism. It's evolving and I can dig into the past or the present, I can do business reporting, whatever I want. I loved "Ginger and Rosa" and I also loved David Siegel and Scott McGehee's "What Maisie Knew," they're smart, independent filmmakers. They deal with the kind of relationship dramas that are the least popular in cinema today.
Keith Simanton: I'm the managing editor of IMDb for 13 years now. I started writing for Movieline back in the day, a stringer for the Seattle Times and helped co-found Film.com in 1995. I've been more in the internet space, straddling both worlds. A smaller film I felt was overlooked was "The Deep Blue Sea." It sticks with you over a long period of time. It's an incredibly insightful yet mysterious film, well worth watching, with great performances. I'd stick with "Cloud Atlas" because it reminded me of Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose. It was ungainly and gigantic but when it got off the water it was pretty magnificent. We evaluate these things critically and financially at the same time, and that one didn't do so well.
EK: Hollywood relies on critics or tries to work around critics to get the results they want. Are critics the biggest headache for Hollywood, or an asset?
AT: When the big studios send out big popcorn movies, they don't care about critics and use the fanboy movie sites as their promotional vehicles. The critic was once defined as the serious, educated, knowledgeable, experienced person who explained movies to you in a newspaper context. That person still exists but is harder to come by: the studios see them as mainly useful for art films and the Oscar race. The studios are interested in promotion. I got a call from Paramount saying that they want me to see "World War Z"--ostensibly because they want me to improve the credibility of that film. They're worried about it being taken seriously. [Regarding "Man of Steel"] Warner Bros. could care less what I think about that. IMDb would have a different function for them. That online universe is very different from what film critics used to be.
RH: Are critics a foe or an asset? Neither – they are a tool. There's an onslaught of stuff around the Oscars. How much was being spent? The shocking amount of self-flattery.. There is still a possibility to tweak people to go see a small film, such as "Something in the Air."
EK: Sean you write about home entertainment options, how does that affect you?
SA: There are certain times of the year when people are starting to push: 'hey we've got this actor in this movie.' Sometimes it's Morgan Freeman and that's cool. Sometimes it's the guy who played the best friend's girl and she's a rising star and no one's heard of her, and it's a B-movie and we give her a push. At MSN we tend to do Morgan Freeman and avoid something else. Most actors will not do promotions for home video. If it was a big film, that's over and done with. Every once in a while they want to push a smaller film. Joss Whedon did a series of phone interviews a couple years ago when the "Angel" box set came out.
EK: Lindy when you left The Stranger was it a breath of fresh air?
LW: It was a breath of fresh air. There's a reason I haven't seen as many movies as I used to. I have a weird relationship with all publicists. They liked me as a person but they didn't want me to see their movies because I wasn't nice. Like you said, for the big Blockbuster movies, they didn't need me. It was always uncomfortable. They hated me when interviews came up because I never want to interview anyone. You can't get anyone to say anything interesting. I don't want to go sit in a room with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and have him say the same canned thing he said to 800 other people in a row. I did interview him, but it was, even one-on-one, they don't want to be there.
EK: If you go to an IMDb page and you see a star rating with comments, these aren't people who are going to consider themselves voices of authority but by participating in that system they influence the perception of movies. When that started to take hold, were there conversations at IMDb about that?
KS: We have passionate users and submitters and our own staff. A lot of people work on IMDb. With the ratings, we don't allow you to vote on a movie until it comes out. We also have external reviews and we have Metacritic as well. We have not only ratings and user comments and reviews-- and many of those folks work diligently because they feel their opinion is as authoritative as anyone's. I like that we present all of those various voices. I remember my boss hated "Unforgiven" with a passion, and I went, "well you're insane, it's one of the best westerns ever made." In some ways he was right and I was right. Part of that dialogue is either convincing the other party how they're so woefully inaccurate or just listening to the ideas of why. "Only God Forgives" – people didn't boo outright at the end of the screening but people were [unhappy]. The conversation around that film is where literate people on both sides can spar and talk about ideas, and that's one of the things we like to try and engender.
EK: Illiterate people can push their opinions too. I was mixed on Whedon's film ["Much Ado About Nothing"] and people did not let up. Is there a danger in the sense that audiences are started to feeling superior to critics, they're challenging more, has this been a valuable shift?