Just a few years ago, as film critic for a monthly magazine that had to go to press well in advance of its publication date, Vogue’s John Powers was restricted to writing about movies that studios made available for long-lead screenings. Typically, these were indies or foreign films, with the occasional, Oscar-aspiring studio drama thrown in for good measure.
But now that Vogue’s website has its own culture page featuring reviews of movies, television, books and other arts, Powers has the opportunity to weigh in on any movie he pleases.
“Strangely enough, I actually feel more part of the conversation than I used to, because now I get to have a public opinion on ‘Black Swan’ or ‘The Social Network,’ ” Powers says. “And because of this, I have even better relations with PR people. I now write about a heck of a lot more movies. In the quid pro quo of things, I now have a bigger quid to offer them.”
In a world of Twitter immediacy, the notion of a long-lead film critic seems almost archaic. As publications like Vogue, Elle, Playboy and Vanity Fair have tailored their websites to allow for more timely filing, critics like Powers, Elle’s Karen Durbin and the ever-quotable Peter Travers of Rolling Stone have seen their jobs change and adapt to the times.
And since most of these magazines cater to more sophisticated readers, critics can still champion worthwhile movies while avoiding wasting 500 words on, say, whether the artist formerly known as The Rock still rolls in “Faster.” (Travers remains the exception, reviewing just about everything.)
That leaves the long-lead critics’ function the same as it has been for decades — championing quality film for an audience seeking meaningful art or, at the very least, a movie worth the cost of hiring a babysitter.
“There is a whole generation of educated, sophisticated, slightly older filmgoers — traditionally the audience for foreign-language films — who still read print publications,” says Sophie Gluck, a New York publicist specializing in indie and foreign films.
Gluck, who has worked on titles like “Lebanon,” “Mesrine” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” trilogy, says opinions of long-lead critics matter, influencing readers to seek out hard-to-find films.
Adds Amanda Lundberg, a principal at publicity firm 42West: “Critical comments from long-lead critics help sway audiences to see films they might have not planned to or … might not have even known about.”
Gluck points out that many of these critics’ readers don’t spend much time online, much less on Twitter. “We may have Blackberries and other hand-held devices, but we still like holding newspapers and magazines in our hands,” she says.
With long-lead critics maintaining their place in the hierarchy and influential bloggers receiving preferential treatment, particularly around awards season, where does that leave daily and weekly critics? In the past few years, studios have limited screenings of many of their wide-release films and, in some cases, have eliminated critics screenings altogether.
“There’s more and more movies like ‘The Tourist,’ which aren’t screened until Wednesday of opening week,” says Associated Press film critic Christy Lemire, who, by the way, ended up kind of liking that movie, giving it 2 1/2 stars out of four.
“The whole point of those late screenings is to keep newspapers from making their deadlines. It’s interesting they adhere to that strategy even though everything is so immediate now,” Lemire adds, noting her reviews are posted on Yahoo! right after she files.
Powers agrees that these days studios are hesitant to show their movies to critics of any stripe. “Bad word quickly goes viral,” he says.
But, he adds, he occasionally receives calls from publicists looking to show him movies strictly for an advanced opinion.
“When PR people think they have something good, they’re eager to show it to me to get praise from a respectable source — Vogue, not me — although I’d like to think I’m respectable,” Powers says, laughing. “They’ll also invite me when they’re not sure whether something is good or bad. Often when studio execs really hate a film, they start thinking, ‘What if it’s art? Maybe this is a critics’ film.’ ”
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