Save the Critics!
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times recently announced his return to regular film reviewing after a long absence while fighting cancer. The illness robbed him of his voice and, by extension, his TV show, but his written reviews will resume. I cheered this news because I would again be able to read his reviews every Friday. But Ebertís comeback was also a refreshing break from the marked decline in print film critics. The Salt Lake Tribune estimated that 27 film reviewers were either laid off, bought out, or otherwise removed from their positions in the past year. Many of these critics wrote for major media outlets such as the Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News, Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, and the Detroit Free Press. Even David Ansen of Newsweek recently accepted a buyout.
This drop has little to do with the reviewers themselves or with film criticism in general. Itís mostly due to comprehensive cross-cutting throughout media companies. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution (which also bought out their critic) article speculated that critics were easy to eliminate because readers could find reviews from so many other sources. While a sportswriter can stick to the local teams, the same movies often play everywhere. So why pay someone in your city when people can read reviews from anywhere with the click of a mouse?
Thatís a fair question, and in the interest of full disclosure I read most of my reviews online. But Iím concerned where this trend is heading. In five, ten, or 20 years you might see only a handful of reviewers with legitimate media outlets. Of course, that leads to the next question: Does this matter? This question is hardly new. It seems that critics matter less and less as big blockbusters thrive on marketing and merchandising tie-ins. Major filmsí success seems to have little to do with critical response. Many cheapo horror flicks make tons of money without even being screened for critics.
Film critics still matter, despite the trends. Maybe not for Iron Man or the new Indiana Jones film. But for smaller movies, particularly on the arthouse circuit, critical word can still attract audiences, and get people to discover a film they might otherwise ignore. In the DC area many arthouse films go in and out of theaters so fast that a gem could be overlooked without a criticís praise. Critics also cover film festivals, an opportunity that most people donít have. Their response can sometimes influence which films from those festivals are distributed. Without critics, film coverage would be even more hype driven than it is now. We have already seen films being judged more on their box office than on their content. That trend may always continue, but without critics who can look a little deeper, the problem will only grow worse.
Now the final question: Do the critics need to be professional? With all of the movie web sites and bloggers out there, film discussion has exploded. This is likely another reason that newspapers and magazines have bailed out. Anyone can be a critic. So, as the saying goes, why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? (Yes, I know the saying comes from a far different context, but it still applies.)
In many ways, the Internet plays an invaluable role in film discussion. Itís provided a voice for people who would otherwise have none, including me. It offers a vehicle for debate, analysis, and instant data for film. I cannot imagine doing without it. Many film web sites are informative, a few are enlightening and some are a hell of a lotta fun. And, of course, the Internet is open to anyone.
This openness is a strength, but itís also a weakness. Since anyone can post, itís hard to know the source of what you are reading. What sort of biases and prejudices does the writer have? True, professional critics can have their own preconceived notions, but there is at least some standard of objectivity. You can certainly find thoughtful analysis online, but much of the writing is extended word-of-mouth. As the great Seinfeld would say ďNot that thereís anything wrong with that.Ē But sometimes I want something more. The media already tends to over-quantify film criticism through stars, thumbs, and grades. Entertainment Weeklyís ďCritical MassĒ offers averages of film critics grades. The Rotten Tomatoes Web site takes this a step further by grouping all reviews together and classifying films as ďfreshĒ or ďrotten.Ē All nuance is removed.
There should always be a place for nuance. A toddler can say that he did or did not like a film. The trick is to say why. A good critic can help you understand what causes a film to succeed or fail. A critic can spotlight aspects of a film you or I may have missed. A good critic is also a strong writer who can express ideas well. There is a craft in writing film reviews. The best critics write in a way that respects their readersís intelligence while also not going over their heads. Itís of some comfort to me to know that I am reading the words of someone who was hired to write reviews, who had to have some qualifications. I can grill a steak, but not as well as someone who does it for a living.
So what can be done? The cost-cutting moves will only continue. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer suggested that critics focus more on locally made films, nearby film festivals, or some other local angle. I would add that critics also need to be a part of the communities they serve. Donít go to the 2 p.m. screenings that are only for critics. Go to the evening screenings in full theaters. Donít sit in the press section, but sit with us common folk. Two DC area critics, Joe Barber and Bill Henry, lead a film discussion once a month at a local Borders bookstore. Film critics should be doing more of that.
Serving communities does not mean critics should merely reflect popular opinion. But with more accessibility and more dialogue, local professional film critics would offer something readers could not find online. Letís hope there is room for both print and online film criticism, for both pros and amateurs. Professional film critics should never go the way of the dinosaur or, even worse, the VCR.
May 1, 2008