Friday, June 02, 2006

Everyone's a critic.

June 02, 2006

Criticism's status quo getting thumbs down

By Anne Thompson

The media world and cyberspace are abuzz with lengthy debates about the state of film criticism. What should its role be as the rules of the game keep evolving? Several different forces are putting pressure on film critics. Technology is wreaking havoc not only on Hollywood but also on publishing.

As a generation of top critics move into their 50s and 60s, newspapers are chasing the same young demographic as advertisers and studios. Just as film distribution and marketing are adapting to the rise of digital delivery, the Internet is altering the face of film criticism.

That doesn't mean that film critics are going away. Even though "The Da Vinci Code" already has earned $148 million in North America despite its paltry 23% positive rating on Rottentomatoes.com, film critics are still a given. It goes without saying that such global commercial juggernauts as "Da Vinci" and "X-Men: The Last Stand" are critic-proof by definition. That has been true for decades.

From January-April, 11 films opened without being screened for the press, amid repeated assertions that print critics are going the way of the dinosaur.

The Wall Street Journal's Pulitzer Prize winner Joe Morgenstern was moved to respond: "I'm not surprised that the studios are skipping critics screenings when some of these atrocities hit the screen. (And then, it should be said, sometimes hit the top of the boxoffice charts; today's movies and moviegoers often deserve each other.) What is there for critics to say, except variations on the theme of Arrrrgh? The mystery is why they didn't start doing this several years ago."

Studio publicists know, Morgenstern says, "that many of their superiors would rather not show films to critics at all. Especially to print critics, who offer more potential loss than gain."

But critics do have a huge impact on independent movies, Morgenstern adds. Tentpole movies with gargantuan ad campaigns don't need critics to brand their titles. But most other movies need reviews, which are crucial to their long-term life, from their theatrical run through television and DVD. That is why filmmakers kill to get a theatrical platform even in just a few key cities. Films like the 2005 mock-docu "My Date With Drew" could easily have gone directly to DVD -- but the filmmakers insisted on the legitimization of a theatrical review.

Long gone are the days when the New York Times' Vincent Canby or the Washington Post's Gary Arnold could make or break a movie. But according to Tom Bernard, co-president of specialty distributor Sony Pictures Classics, critics still have a major impact on how well art films play.

"In the smart movie world, critics have an effect in big movie markets," he says.

Critics can anoint worthy movies at film festivals. And especially in Los Angeles and New York, top critics also have the power to push certain films into Golden Globe and Oscar consideration. Equally influential is the Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert, who not only is a major force in his hometown but -- thanks to national syndication, Rogerebert.com and his nationally syndicated TV show with Richard Roeper -- is America's most powerful celebrity critic. It took Ebert decades to connect first with a local, then a national audience. He understands intuitively who his followers are and what they want from him; his job is secure.

Not so for most of his peers. That is because daily newspapers are losing circulation, Hollywood advertising and their influence over moviegoers. As publishers struggle to hang on to their readers via online content, blogs and podcasts, some are replacing experienced critics -- many of whom, like Ebert, have built loyal local followings -- with younger, less expensive models. Newspaper editors seem to believe hiring a younger critic will help them build a wider demo. Although they might deny it, veteran critics Kevin Thomas and Janet Maslin were pressured to give up their daily posts at the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, respectively. John Anderson accepted a buyout at Newsday and is now freelancing. Most recently, the
Chicago Tribune's Mike Wilmington and the New York Daily News' Jami Bernard were forced out of their long-held gigs.

But when established critics stop reviewing, they often leave behind a gaping hole.

"When audiences lose faith in a paper," says SPC's Bernard, "they end up doing something else." He contends that theater attendance has dropped in such specialty film markets as Boston, Seattle and Miami that have lost popular critics.

To date, the New York Times has resisted such pressures. Its lead critics, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis, have yet to establish the kind of bulkhead that Canby and Maslin had during their tenure at the Times, but that is partly because neither Scott nor Dargis has a particularly mainstream sensibility. Both are canny careerists, though, as well as elegant writers who often seem more interested in crafting arcane intellectual arguments than reaching out to their readers. Thus when Scott or Dargis champions a small movie such as "Gunner Palace" or "The Notorious Bettie Page," it has little impact.

At least Scott and Dargis are encouraged to discourse intelligently about movies. Some of their peers are pushed into being entertainers, promoters and interviewers instead of objective reviewers. Perhaps expressing some sour grapes of his own, respected former Daily News critic Dave Kehr -- who now writes a weekly New York Times DVD column -- blogged at Davekehr.com about his and Bernard's former employer: "During my tenure at the News, Jami and I suffered unbelievable interference from editorial higher-ups, all of whom seemed to believe that they were vastly more capable of registering the 'populist' perspective on a given film than the people they'd somehow (and clearly mistakenly) hired as experts on the subject."

Kehr goes on to point out that these days, many younger writers are being hired by the likes of the Village Voice: "Oldsters in the field -- which at this point means anyone over 30 -- may want to start looking for a new gig."

But newspapers might be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Aiming at a youthful readership is a fool's errand. Any parent of a teenager knows where young people go for information about anything: the Internet. Which is where Kehr and many less established critics are now expounding on movies. Such aggregate sites as Rottentomatoes.com and Metacritic.com collect and rate film reviews, so that it is possible to check any movie's average score. But they also make it easy to find the critics you like, no matter where they are writing. Punch in "Da Vinci" at Moviereviewqueryengine.com and 155 reviews pop up, from Scott at the top and 13 Ecritic.com entries in the middle to the last citation from Cuttingedge.be -- in Dutch.

One rising cyber-star is FilmFreakCentral.net's Walter Chaw, who writes with a refreshing candor that you would never find in the print world. In his recent review of "X3," for example, Chaw calls director Brett Ratner "a homophobic, misogynistic, misanthropic moron."

But in a "The House Next Door" blog interview, Colorado native Chaw admits that he struggles to gain entry to screenings, even though his site has three times the traffic of both Denver dailies combined. "I don't know if I'd be as moral," he says, "if I were banking Roger Ebert's or even a living wage."

Eliminating the critical middleman altogether are Netflix.com and Criticker.com, which use smart software to measure a visitor's taste by letting them rank movies they have seen. They make uncannily accurate recommendations of movies to see in theaters, rent or buy with a quick click. Criticker also matches its members up with fellow amateur critics with similar taste. It can be intensely pleasurable to wander cyberspace, luxuriating in the company of kindred spirits and revisiting favorite haunts. Such bloggers as Michael Blowhard (2Blowhards.com), Edward Copeland (Eddieonfilm.blogspot.com), A.J. Schnack (Edendale.typepad.com) and Andrew Horbal (Andyhorbal.blogspot.com) have day jobs and blog for fun, happy to communicate with like-minded souls. Commerce, promotion and careerism has nothing to do with it.

The critic of the future is still being forged. Big-city newspapers are in the midst of making the inevitable transition to the Internet. Small newspapers will probably lose their local voices. But now there are many cyber critics, amateur and professional, more than happy to fill the gap.

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