Critics Academy Highlights New Opportunties

Variety's chief film critic Scott Foundas reflects on how film criticism is evolving

The Locarno Film Festival is hosting its second annual Critics Academy. A member of Locarno’s Best First Feature jury this year, Scott Foundas, Variety’s chief film critic, reflects on the initiative and evolving opportunities for film criticism.

LOCARNO — “Did they regard you as some sort of museum object?” a colleague asked upon learning that I had been invited to speak to the young film critics gathered in Locarno for the festival’s Critics Academy, a mix of workshops and practical writing experience now in its second edition. Well, no, though there is a certain cased-in-glass feel to being one of the ever-dwindling number of folks who write about movies, full-time, for a living—and not just anywhere, but for a publication that’s been around since the earliest days of the film “industry,” and which helped to define the very idea of film reviews in the first place.

Indeed, an “academy” devoted to film criticism might today sound more like a hobbyist group than preparation for an actual career. Yet this in no way seems to have deterred the next generation of cinephiles from wanting their voices to be heard, or festivals like Locarno from doing their part to facilitate that.

This is not entirely a new thing: a little over a decade ago, I myself participated in a similar lab program for young critics organized by the Rotterdam Film Festival, one that also counts Locarno programming director Mark Peranson and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Dennis Lim among its alumni. I was, at the time, just starting out as a freelancer for this publication and the nascent Indiewire (on that then-exotic object known as the World Wide Web) and had never before attended an international film festival. Actually, I’d never even crossed the Atlantic. Many friendships and professional relationships formed that year continue to play an important role in my life to this day.

In addition to Rotterdam and Locarno, there are now similar programs for young critics at festivals major and minor all over the world, including Berlin and New York (which works in partnership with Locarno). Some are part of larger “talent campuses” that also include workshops for aspiring actors, producers and filmmakers.

For the nine eager young minds currently assembled in Locarno under the stewardship of Indiewire’s chief critic, Eric Kohn, the world of movies and writing about them looks very different than it did even a decade ago—and not all for the worst. For one thing, these writers no longer need anyone’s invitation to write, arriving here in Locarno with their own blogs and Twitter feeds already in tow. For another, they have easier access to more films than has been possible at any time in our moviegoing history, thanks to the thousands of titles available through legitimate and clandestine online viewing platforms. And though they hail from all corners of the world (Canada, France, India, Serbia), they write confidently in English about the movies that—in this age of saturation global release dates and digital distribution—are being watched simultaneously by audiences from San Francisco to Shanghai.

For most of the past decade, it’s scarcely been possible to attend a film festival without being subjected to some kind of panel or symposium about the “death” or film criticism, frequently discussed alongside the similar rigor mortis of 35mm, commercial cinemas and the international DVD market. So it’s heartening to discover that, nearly to a one, the members of the Locarno Critics Academy have moved past these tiresome debates and on to more interesting and important questions of how moving-image culture is changing right before our eyes, and how criticism may evolve to grapple with it.

They worry less about where they can write than about how to make their voices heard above the internet’s steady din, and about having opinions that stand out from the crowd in an age when everyone really is a critic—or at least fancies themselves to be. In the hour I spent with the group (together with Kohn, Peranson and Lincoln Center’s Eugene Hernandez), I found their enthusiasm contagious, their questions refreshingly practical, and their tastes excitingly varied.

In her bio on the Indiewire website, one of these young writers, the American Katelyn Trott, notes her fascination with what the academic Henry Jenkins has termed “convergence culture”—the intersection of movies with other strains of narrative and experiential media. Another, the British Michael Pattison, states unequivocally, “I like to know at least something about everything, and don’t like it when this isn’t the case.” Still another, Ingrid Raison from Paris, is engaged in analyzing the different representations of the “femme fatale” character in classic film noirs.

Fifteen or 20 years down the road, we may not still be reading what all nine of these critics have to say—surely, there is at least one future doctor or lawyer in the bunch. But there are just as surely those who will make significant contributions as critics and curators, of whatever form movies by then come to take, lighting our way through the flickering dark.

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