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Should the New York Times Review Every New York Film Booking?

by Anne Thompson
January 27, 2014 1:57 PM
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Before this year's Sundance Film Festival got started, The New York Times' Manohla Dargis raised a red flag about the issue of too many small indie films flooding the marketplace. (Our response here.) While her proposal that fewer distributors should acquire films may not be the best answer to the problem, the indie distribution question was the hot topic of the festival, as folks on all sides grappled with possible solutions. She wrote:

“I have a little favor to ask of the people cutting the checks. Stop buying so many movies. Or at least take a moment and consider whether flooding theaters with titles is good for movies and moviegoers alike.… It’s hard to see how American independent cinema can sustain itself if it continues to focus on consumption rather than curation.”

Unfortunately, the NYT does not permit comments on Dargis's stories, as she prefers not to engage directly with her readers. I would have loved to see the response to this provocative piece. Others responded elsewhere: 

Filmmaker Magazine here and here. 

The New Yorker's Richard Brody here. 

Tech guru Chris Dorr here. 

Criticwire's Sam Adams here.

Indiewire here.

Should the New York Times review over 900 movies a year, as the paper of record? That review confers identity and status on the films that crowd into that market, as long as someone has the money to fund a week-long theater booking. Many folks use that New York berth to gain access to VOD distribution and Oscar eligibility. 

Maybe it's time for the New York Times to reconsider its role and change it up, acting as a curator, reviewing movies on different platforms at different times and refusing to review films it deems unworthy of its time and attention. It would still require a back-breaking amount of work from the NYT reviewing staff, but the films they wound up reviewing would carry more impact. How many of us read all those New York Times reviews? Not many, I wager. 


  • Joseph Angier | January 28, 2014 5:57 PMReply

    This debate reminds me of a similar sea-change that occurred in the TV documentary world. From the '60s through the '70s and into the very early '80s, each network had a documentary unit that churned out about a doc a month. You couldn't count on a big audience, but you could count on a print review for each and every one of these docs in almost every newspaper. In the absence of high ratings, these reviews became the measure of success or failure when the programs were broadcast (along with whatever awards were accrued). Then, without any kind of warning, that all just stopped. Even The New York Times decided they could get by with just an occasional documentary review. That one shift completely transformed TV documentaries - for good and for bad ... but how and why is the basis for a whole other discussion.

  • Sharon J. Kahn | January 27, 2014 7:32 PMReply

    Anne, who should curate, then? If film festivals and distributors were reliable as the sole arbiters, for example, then (a) every film in a festival (more conservatively, maybe just award winners) or with distribution should theoretically already get a good review, and (b) we wouldn't need critics. Furthermore, with changes in the technologies of film production and communication, as well as in the economics of the film industry, there are reasonable financial and other incentives for the producers of very good smaller films to self-distribute.

    As for The New York Times, it has used its deep film coverage to market itself nationally and internationally, and in so doing has become the most powerful single news outlet in the world when it comes to reviews in the domain of indie/international cinema. Now that they have that power, they have the responsibility to maintain it.

  • FR | January 27, 2014 2:58 PMReply


    You bring up a very important point about Academy eligibilty being dependent on NY Times reviews. It's a problem for filmmakers to be beholden to one organization's review for their eligibility. Time for a well-thought overhaul of both the reviewing and of Academy's requirments in this age of alternative distibution and viewing.

  • Chris Dorr | January 27, 2014 2:43 PMReply

    Anne, thanks for the link to my piece. Your idea is right, they should become more an active curator than a passive reviewer of every movie that plays in a NYC theater--or perhaps just do both and get people to see the wide variety of films that are really out there.

  • Armak | January 27, 2014 2:20 PMReply

    What is it with the NYT trying to kick the legs out from under indie filmmakers lately? Those reviews are precious to smaller films that barely eked out a 1-week run and can change the fate of a film single-handedly. I know several smaller films (including my first, BURNING ANNIE) who scored distribution deals after a positive NYT review raised and gilded their profile.

  • Brian | January 27, 2014 2:08 PMReply

    I used to read every film review in The New York Times. Hell, I used to clip them! (At some point I asked myself, "Why am I doing this?" and stopped. And threw out several file boxes of reviews.)

    Today, I read only reviews of a) films I've heard of; b) films with personnel I've heard of and have some interest in (a pool of people that gets smaller and smaller all the time); and c) Asian films. Most of the indie reviews seem to describe the same film being made over and over again. If you've read one, you've read them all.

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