Fall 2010

Critical Revision

Why the recent decline in film critics isn’t necessarily a good thing for directors.


Claudia Puig
The role of the movie critic is in the midst of a drastic rewrite. Way too much ink has been spent on hand-wringing about the future of film criticism, no doubt because journalism as a whole finds itself on shaky ground (okay, quicksand). In the world of print journalism, critics have been losing their jobs or have been re-assigned at an astonishing rate, while entertainment in general is receiving less coverage as space shrinks. Thoughtful pieces are being replaced by bland, cheerleading stories. Too much film criticism is being dumbed-down to tweet-level observations.

Filmmakers, understandably, have mixed feelings—at best—about those paid to publicly criticize their work. Nobody likes a critic, sometimes not even other critics. But what does this dumbing-down portend for filmmaking? In the very short term, it might be a good thing, as marginal films get critical passes from undiscerning audiences. In the long term, however, the news might not be so good.

As the death-of-criticism trend progresses (or regresses, depending upon your point of view), the question hovers ominously: Are critics still relevant? The simple answer would seem to be: Not really. The more nuanced response is: Yes, and perhaps more than ever.

Consider this: If Pauline Kael, perhaps the most informed and influential critic in the medium's history, were working today, she'd no doubt be toiling for a middling blog somewhere. Her reviews would be considered too ruminative and steeped in cinema history to appeal to today's mass audience. Without the pulpit of a major publication, she'd be in no position to champion deserving films and filmmakers. And elsewhere, would movies like Bonnie and Clyde, Blade Runner, Brazil, and dozens of others be saved from an untimely death by good words from powerful critics?

Not convinced? Then consider how Roger Ebert, who won the first Pulitzer Prize for film criticism, is treated today on the film review-aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes. Whenever he pans a movie highly anticipated by fanboys (most of whom haven't even seen the film in question), he's dismissed as old and out of touch. When, in fact, Ebert is clearly one of the critics most in touch with the fabric of film history.

Meanwhile, the explosion of bloggers has created a plethora of critical content, ranging from thoughtful reviews such as Slant magazine's The House Next Door (initially created by Matt Zoller Seitz, a former Pulitzer finalist for criticism) to, yes, Fat Guys at the Movies. So if you want to make a smart—or stupid—decision regarding your weekend movie choice, you're completely covered.

Look up the words "film critic" online—not that one necessarily should—and a Wikipedia definition is the first to pop up. The description is decidedly, and oddly, old school:

"Film critics analyze and evaluate film," states the site. That much is true. But there's more: "They can be divided into journalistic critics who write for newspapers and other popular, mass-media outlets, and academic critics who are informed by film theory and publish in journals."

Sounds neat and precise, but it's inac-curate and outdated. In fact, academics and theorists writing in scholarly journals are in the minority and newspaper critics are a dying breed. Ironically, for a Web encyclopedia, a third category of Web critics—bloggers—is not mentioned, even though their ranks are growing daily.

Movie criticism is not disappearing, as some postulate, but it is certainly shifting platforms. With this shift, the format is changing. Criticism is becoming less formal and more populist. Informed in-depth analysis, let alone film history or theory, is rare. In the future, film criticism will increasingly be found online, as every major print outlet has a Web version and even newsy websites like The Huffington Post now feature reviews. The bigger question is whether the essence, the content of criticism, will be diluted, with an emphasis on revealing spoilers as opposed to serious discussion of film technique.

Still, despite their sharp drop in numbers, the aggregate influence of traditional critics may, in fact, be more potent than ever. For proof, look no further than last year's best picture winner. It's rare that a low-budget, indie action film like The Hurt Locker trounces the mighty studio offerings with their lavish Oscar campaigns and costly advertising budgets. The impassioned critical support for The Hurt Locker kicked off the momentum that culminated in Kathryn Bigelow winning the DGA Award and the film picking up six Oscars, including best director. Sure, The Hurt Locker was a superb movie. But we all know that great, low-budget movies have often been overlooked by the Academy in favor of good or even mediocre mainstream pictures. A flurry of awards from 16 major critics' groups across the country hurled The Hurt Locker onto the radar of even the stodgiest Academy voter.

What all this should make clear to filmmakers is that the cumulative opinion of critics does matter, not only in awards and prestige, but in raising audience awareness and getting people into theaters, and by extension, helping to get better films made in the first place. Critical opinion obviously means the most in support of low-budget films that lack the luxury of extensive studio promotion; critical accolades for these films are essential. But critical support can also cement the status and boost the box office of more mainstream movies. For this phenomenon, you need look no further than Inception this past summer.

But, on an individual level, the picture is not as bright. Last year, The New Yorker (Kael's old stomping ground) published a story about a film promoter whose job it was to polish cinematic duds into something people might want to see. The guy wasn't demonized, really, just portrayed as a pragmatist with a sense of humor who had to do his job and persuade the easily influenced to see some pretty bad movies.

Buried in the story, however, were these salient facts: Women over 30 were considered the most "review-sensitive." The article explained that "a chorus of critical praise for a movie aimed at older women can increase the opening weekend's gross by $5 million." It added, in its inimically dry tone, "In other words, older women are discriminating, which is why so few films are made for them."

So here's what the current, critically adrift climate means for directors: You might be able to make a killing at the box office with a hyperkinetically edited feature, but, on the other hand, if you're still looking to make films for the ages, you'll want established film critics to champion you—as long as they exist.

Claudia Puig is a film critic for USA Today.

Critic's Corner

An open letter from prominent critics to Guild members about the craft of directing from their point of view.

More from this issue