Whose movie is it, anyway?

In a world of blogs and word of mouth, crix influence slips with the under 25ers

This time of year, critics inevitably wax nostalgic for the good old days, when movies were better. (Read A.O. Scott, David Ansen, etc.) But for some observers, it’s the critics, not the movies that have lost touch with auds.

“I don’t think the critics really have any impact on the younger audience,” says Russell Schwartz, who heads up domestic marketing for New Line. “They barely have an impact on the older audience.”

While New Line had a runaway hit with “Wedding Crashers” last summer, the film turned out to be a harder sell to the under-25 guy crowd than the studio expected. TV spots played better to females, and the movie opened stronger with the over-25 crowd, Schwartz says. Eventually, audiences came on recommendations from their peers. “It all comes down to word of mouth — who you’re listening to is people that you trust.”

Critics merely provide more white noise on college auds’ overcrowded radar, says Sean Horvath, entertainment sales VP at Alloy Media + Marketing, the largest nontraditional media company to target the 12-to-24-year-old demo.

“There’s so much media in their life, and they’re so scattered in their daily activities — from listening to their iPods to being on their computers to watching TV or hanging out with their friends,” Horvath says. “They’ll read a review if it happens to fall in their lap, but they’re not seeking out reviews the way an older demo might.”

With bodacious cover girls and a sharp, sarcastic voice, lad mag Maxim has no trouble getting the attention of college-aged males. “The younger generation is savvier than the marketers who are marketing to them,” says Maxim entertainment editor Eric Gillin. “I’m not going to be so presumptuous to think that kids listen to critics. I think kids really listen to their friends.”

Though the magazine runs its share of sassy reviews (of “40-Year-Old Virgin,” Maxim critic Pete Hammond writes, “This outrageously hilarious raunch-fest gets horsedick-sized laughs”), Gillin looks to what young people are talking about — on subways, at malls and in food courts — to decide which films to cover. But even Gillin is quick to admit, “The way that these things really break is the Web: It’s blogs and people talking to each other online.”

With the Web, word of mouth now spreads instantly among virtual peers, agrees MTV executive VP David Gale. “In the past, if you courted a select number of critics and got their support, you were off to a really good start,” Gale says. “Now, you don’t have control over that because everybody and their brother has a blog or a site about movies, and you don’t know in six months which one of those sites is going to be ‘the one.’ ”

Critics still find a voice online, albeit as a collective, at sites like RottenTomatoes.com, where editors aggregate “fresh” or “rotten” blurbs from hundreds of critics on every release. “Before the Web, you’d open the newspaper and look at a movie ad. No matter how bad a movie is, there’s always a bunch of critics praising it as one of the best movies ever,” says Senh Duong, who founded RottenTomatoes.com in 1998. “Instead of letting the studios pick and choose which critics they wanted to promote their movies, RottenTomatoes gives people an unbiased idea of how critics actually react to a movie.”

Another similar site, Metacritic.com, pulls quotes from 40 publications, and factors them into a weighted Metascore (89 for “Capote,” 9 for “Dirty Love”). “We just wanted to say, ‘Here’s the critics you should be paying attention to, and as a group, they gave it a combined score that’s pretty reliable,” explains Metacritic co-founder Marc Doyle.

Such sites allow visitors to quickly assess the overall critical reaction to a film, although they sometimes have the adverse effect of merging outlying opinions into the fold. On Metacritic, contrarian voices can be found in alt weeklies like the Austin Chronicle, while quotable critics like Roger Ebert and Kevin Thomas consistently have more positive reviews than their peers.

Despite the service Metacritic provides, Doyle says that of those polled in a 2004 survey, 56% said the site had no effect on their moviegoing decisions. “If they want to see some movie, they’re going to see it no matter what,” says Duong, “but after reading a review, they might go in with lower or higher expectations.” When “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” opened to rave reviews last summer, RottenTomatoes issued a press release proclaiming it “the best reviewed film of the year,” effectively working its name into Universal’s ad copy.

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