Friday, July 10, 2015

The Dissolve Fades Out

This has become an entirely too common occurrence.  The Dissolve, a film website devoted to in-depth reviews and discussion of film, has folded after a brief two years of existence.  It was home to critics Tasha Robinson, Scott Tobias, Matt Singer, Genevieve Koski, Nathan Rabin, and Noel Murray - most of them alumni of the A.V. Club.  The A.V. Club was never the same without them.  I frequented the site only occasionally, but it was impressive how quickly the Dissolve made a name for itself and became the home of major voices in the critical community.  And how quickly it attracted a community of eager film fans.
The basic economics of running this kind of site are daunting, and this is a stark reminder that no matter how strong the writing or how good a site's reputation, it doesn't matter unless the content attracts the necessary amount of traffic and advertisers.  I've seen so many media sites and blogs close shop over the years.  Some, like Cinematical and Spill, were acquired by bigger companies who couldn't figure out how to turn the profit they wanted from them.  Some that stayed in private hands, fell apart after they owners simply couldn't afford the operational costs anymore.  Talented critics migrate from one site to the next, some never recovering from a particularly bad termination.  I'm not worried about anyone over at the Dissolve, but it does make me nervous about other film sites I follow, and the precarious state of film journalism, criticism, and commentary in general.  
It seems like we can't go a month without some major upheaval in the community.  The old guard that had its stronghold in print is inexorably being dismantled, column by column, review by review.  Cost-cutting lead to rounds of firings over the past few years, and it often feels like everyone who hasn't retired or been squeezed out is teetering on the brink.  Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide ceased publication in 2015 after a 45-year run.  Meanwhile, the new, online-based critical community is still wildly unstable, and steady gigs are a rarity.  I'm not convinced that we're looking at the death of meaningful film criticism, as some have claimed, but we're definitely in the middle of a major transitional period, and it's been a very bumpy one.  It's still very uncertain what the landscape will look like for professional film writers in the future - or if it will be tenable as a profession at all.  Certainly no one will be quick to launch a possible replacement.
This also underlines for me how difficult it is to find online film communities and platforms that will support good discussions about film.  Theoretically, in the big, wide, open internet, there should be plenty of places where these communities should exist.  And yet, finding spaces that attract film fans with a decent baseline of maturity, where there are the necessary moderation tools in place, and that encourages lively discussion, seems to be fewer and farther apart every day.  As highly as they're touted, commentary on the big social media platforms is often chaotic and participation can be difficult.  I've found that they just don't do the job as well as good, old fashioned message boards and site forums.  However, the old standbys are quickly fading away.
So where should the Dissolve community go?  Letterboxd seems to have drawn a good crowd.  The Red Letter Media folks are fun.  Some might go back to the AV Club, though it won't ever be the same.  Never head of Solute, which was mentioned in the Dissolve's goodbye announcement.  I can't recommend my old stomping grounds, the Rotten Tomatoes forum, which currently appears to be in its death throes (again), or the Usenet movie groups, which are long dead and buried beneath an avalanche of bots.  Reddit has the tools in place, but the user base just hasn't been up to snuff.  Other promising movie sites have turned commenting off completely, not having the resources to handle moderation.  
I feel guilty now that I hadn't spent as much time at the Dissolve as I wanted.  I was linked to its various articles and essays often, and I was always impressed by the level of discourse I found there.   I loved how they revisited the classics in particular.   About a month ago I spent about an hour trying to figure out how to get the site's podcast on my iPod without having to download it.  I gave up eventually and vowed to go back another day.  I thought I had more time. 

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