The Death of the Film Critic?

Death of the film critic?The last couple of weeks has seen a rash of US film critics at established publications get fired, laid off or take early retirement.

The latest high profile casualty is David Ansen of Newsweek, who is stepping down from his full time role at the US weekly magazine and leaving at the end of the year.

He joins an ever expanding list of film writers who’ve recently retired or been let go. Amongst them are: Nathan Lee of the Village Voice, Jack Matthews and Jami Bernard of the NY Daily News, Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune, Terry Lawson of the Detroit Free Press, Jan Stuart and Gene Seymour of Newsday, and several more.

Three high profile producers and distributors are quoted in the New York Times by David Carr. Producer Scott Rudin has calls it “A dire situation”, Tom Bernard of Sony Pictures Classics says it is “a terrible loss” and Mark Urman of ThinkFilm says it “puts serious movies at risk”. All three, it must be noted, produce or distribute the kind of films that rely on good critical word of mouth.

But how big a crisis is this? Is the traditional film critic soon to be a thing of the past?

Anne Thompson at Variety recently asked some interesting questions about the role of the critic on her blog and although I initially wrote this up as an email, I thought it made sense to post my answers here:

Do we need film critics? Yes, but not just to say what’s good and bad.

What is their purpose? Like any good writer they should inform, enlighten and entertain. Providing context and perspective will increasingly become more important than dishing out 5 stars – but then for the best critics, this has always been the case.

Is it being served by something else? I guess one of the big changes is how criticism has been eroded by buzz. For example, a lot of people have formed opinions on blockbusters like Indy 4 and The Dark Knight from all the production and pre-release chatter, so they will go and see it. In a sense their opinion of the film is almost confirmed just by seeing it. Check out this ABC News report about the release of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom from May 1984. There was hype then about what was a huge release, but what’s changed is that the web has amplified buzz and chatter (some good, some bad) to the point where considered reviews by print critics are merely a footnote rather than a key aspect in the opening of a film.

With the case of lower grossing awards season movies like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, it gets a little more complex. There’s no doubt that a lot of online buzz and writing helped those films but key older outlets (e.g NY Times) still play a big role in framing these debates. In fact, the brilliant job Miramax did marketing NCFOM was in how they cleverly surfed this wave of chatter, to the point where possible negatives (e.g the violence, subtle ending) became reasons to actually see the film rather than avoid it.

As aging film critics retire and move on, who will replace them? Younger ones. Or perhaps film sections in papers and magazines will become more like forums, with established critics acting like moderators. The films sections of The Guardian and the New York Times would appear to be models of what may become the norm. But it could be a more gradual process than one might think.

Are there some younger leading lights? This is an interesting question as I can’t think of many ‘established’ critics under the age of 40. Is this because you need to build up many years of movie going in order for your opinions to carry weight? I’m not sure, but it seems to be the case. It also depends what you mean by ‘younger’, as I tend to judge on the quality of opinion rather than the age of a particular writer. What will replace print film criticism? The web. But I wouldn’t declare print dead just yet. Chunks of it will die but in free sheets and magazines it still has a future, albeit one that is tied with an online presence as that’s where the advertising bucks will be coming from.

Should every print critic with a job build a blog following ASAP? Sort of. But as long as its done right. I think the print outlet should help their journalists interact with their audience whether it is via a blog, a podcast or even just an email address (e.g. Roger Ebert’s letter page). It is the interaction that’s important, not necessarily the technology. One thing I think that people underestimate about blogs is that your opinions are spread more efficiently and effectively online and you have a useful archive that anyone can see at anytime. Some traditional outlets have got to seize the opportunity of the web rather than keep moaning about declining sales and standards.

If the younger generation doesn’t read newspapers and doesn’t seek out that one person who reflects their taste online, where will they get their information on what to see? Can one person truly reflect another’s taste? Did they ever? Viewers will still get coverage, as it is just human nature to find out more about something you like. I guess people will just gravitate to sites they like and find helpful. I also think review sites like RT and Metacritic help you get in touch with opinions you disagree with, which is actually healthy and also strangely addictive. Plus, despite what some sceptics might think, debates on blogs aren’t always Bourne vs Bond spats or arguments about the latest Iron Man trailer, they can also be in depth discussions of quality films. The beauty of the web is the breadth and depth. A single critic on a newspaper can’t even expect to compete with this. For myself, I use Netvibes or Google Reader to pull all the feeds of sites I’m interested in – which is a lot – and I just browse and rearrange from there. But I also use essential sites like Google, IMDb, Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr – and more recently Twitter – for any film related stuff.

What is the impact on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic on film criticism? Overwhelmingly positive as it gives viewers a wider range of opinion. It really is as simple as that. But I don’t get why Rotten Tomatoes is always quoted more – Metacritic is actually the more useful site. Maybe it is because RT has been around longer.

In case you missed it last October I wrote about a panel at the London Film Festival that covered similar issues. It was chaired by Variety’s Lesie Felperin and featured Peter Bradshaw from The Guardian, James Christopher from The (London) Times, Steve Hornby from BBC Movies and James Fabricant from MySpace.

What do you think about these issues? Leave any comments below or email me.

> Anne Thompson’s post at Variety
> David Poland reacts at The Hot Button
> David Carr (aka ‘The Bagger’) with a piece in the NY Times
> Jeff Jarvis with a prescient post from April 2006 about the death of traditional critics
> LFF Panel on ‘Is the Internet Killing the Film Critic?’ from last October