Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Reports of the Death of Film Criticism Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

The venerable Hollywood trade paper, Variety, is in trouble. After suffering substantial losses in ad revenue over the last Oscar season, last week it fired several staff members, including film critic Todd McCarthy. This is just the latest result of several media trends we've seen over the past few years - the decline of newpaper circulation, the shrinking influence of professional film reviewers, and the shift in power to the online bloggers and commentators. There's been a huge paradigm shift in the way entertainment reporting and film criticism are consumed by the public, and the bottom line may be that there's no longer money in either - at least, not through traditional outlets.

The transition has been met with understandable doom and gloom from those critics and reporters who have made their livelihood from print media. As content providers struggle with distribution woes and increasingly turn to cheaper freelancers, job stability has evaporated. A recent documentary, "For the Love of Movies," makes the argument that we stand to lose immeasurably by letting old-school print-based professional film criticism die at the hands of an unruly internet mob that seeks to supplant it. But I have to wonder how much we would really lose.

Let's think about the basic functions of film critique: a critic evaluates a film for artistic merit, promotes films he or she deems worthy of attention, and facilitates the discussion of films in a broader artistic context. However your gardern-variety print critic writes for a broad mainstream audience and hardly has the column inches to fulfill one of these functions, let alone all three at once. There are only a handful of writers at the major papers who are readily identifiable as distinctive voices, and any real discourse among them is limited to a few prestige pieces during Oscar season or off the page completely in ancillary forums.

In-depth, critical discussions of film, of the much romanticized Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael variety, are a rarity outside of academia and the pages of "The New Yorker." Moreover, they haven't had much clout with the mainstream public in ages. The closest thing we've had to star critics in the blockbuster age have been Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, whose invigorating weekly spats on their self-titled review program attracted mass audiences and provided a regular platform for the promotion of smaller independent and foreign films.

But even when "Siskel & Ebert" were at the height of their popularity, they could never have matched the Internet as a source for information or as a marketing tool for films. Entertainment news sites and cinema fan sites like Aint it Cool News and Dark Horizons emerged in the mid-90s to feed voracious demand for information on upcoming films and industry gossip. Trade publications like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter which had once been the exclusive sources this kind of media content would see their influence and readership wither as websites and blogs grew in prominence and started scooping them.

Because what the internet does best is provide access. Access to news, access to opinions, and most importantly different models to convey this information. What really distinguishes the new breed of online film critics and entertainment reporters is a refreshing degree of innovation and creativity. In addition to websites and blogs, many reviewers have created podcasts, videos, and interactive features to attract readers and audiences. And they've also found ways to make their content pay, though only modestly in most cases.

And those who bemoan the amateurish quality of online reviewers tend to be myopic. On the one hand you have the popular Ain't it Cool News and the Spill Crew, which feature reviews aimed at the teenage male population and contain a level of discourse on par with what you'd expect in a comic book convention. But on the other hand, you have Senses of Cinema, Slate, and other E-zines that regularly turn out quality reviews and articles. And you have academics like David Bordwell and Henry Jenkins keeping blogs and adding to the conversation.

More notably, the old school print critics like Roger Ebert have found new audiences for their work on the internet. Unconstrained by the limitations of physical media, many are flourishing and branching out. Online, there's infinitely more space for discussion to take place, such as the webzine Slate's eighteen-part year-end Movie Club feature, consisting of six critics simply posting back and forth free-form exchanges of their impressions of various notable films of the year.

Professional film critics are still important voices in the media landscape, as they provide insights and experiences that enrich the filmgoing experience for the rest of us. But while the old publishing models seem to be inevitably in decline, I don't think this is the end of film critics or film criticism as we know it. It'll take a while for new media to figure out how to monetize itself, but the critics will survive in one form or another.

Because if the internet has taught us anything, it's that everyone has an opinion on films, and nobody can keep it to themselves.

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