New York Times Changes Film Review Policy, Can’t Guarantee Coverage (Updated)

New York Times

The New York Times has changed its film review policies, and the paper is now telling film publicists that it can no longer guarantee its critics will weigh in on every film that screens in the city.

“Because of the increasing volume of new films released each year, the Times is no longer able to guarantee reviews of all New York theatrical releases,” A.O. Scott, the Times’ chief film critic, wrote in an email obtained by Variety.

Scott added that the paper would continue to review as many new films as it could, but noted decisions would be made on a “case by case basis.”

Reached by phone, Scott said that the policy was instituted earlier this year and that the paper did not reach a decision this week, as Variety initially reported.

The Times will almost certainly continue to critique major films, prominent specialty titles and Oscar contenders, but the paper’s decision is bad news for some smaller arthouse distributors and VOD companies who rely on a review in the paper of record to raise a film’s profile.

The decision will also affect the documentary feature category of the Oscars, which requires a review in either the New York Times or L.A. Times for consideration, as well as a theatrical release. A spokeswoman for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences noted that the New York Times’ decision “wouldn’t necessarily require a rule change,” because films that were reviewed by the L.A. Times would qualify for awards.

For his part, Scott noted that the Times never asked to be included in the vetting process.

“We didn’t tell the documentary branch to make us the standard and it’s tricky because a lot of those are in effect four-wall releases,” he said. “A lot of them come out on cable or on VOD. On the other hand, they tend to be interesting films and films that we’re interested in reviewing.”

Some indie distributors seemed relatively unperturbed by the change.

“I think it will mostly concern the vanity releases and films that are being released solely to fulfill contractual commitments, and frankly, the vast majority of those films are not going to be helped much by a New York Times review,” said Magnolia Pictures president Eamonn Bowles.

Scott said the paper has begun emailing publicists when it declines to review their film and that the number of films that have not been critiqued since the policy was instituted is relatively small.

“It’s not hard to spot a vanity booking,” he noted. “There are clues you can find. We are always erring on the side of reviewing. If there’s a chance that something will be worth our time and space, we want to take that chance.”

Scott said that the Times changed its review policy because the number of films that were released every year had grown exponentially

“It’s driven a lot by what might have been in the past straight to DVD or straight to video releases that will open for a week on a Manhattan screen,” he said. “They will get the slight publicity boost of a New York Times review and that’s driven the numbers up.”

“We have three staff critics and a good roster of freelancers, but it takes time and space and editorial labor and costs a lot of money to review that many movies,” he added.

The rise of on-demand platforms and streaming services such as Netflix have lowered the barrier to entry for aspiring filmmakers, and many of these pictures are very minor films that rely on a review in the Times to give them a patina of legitimacy.

This attempt to game the system was roundly condemned in a 2014 piece by Scott’s fellow critic Manohla Dargis.

“Dumping crummy movies that should go straight to on-demand into theaters just to get a review before rushing into the on-demand maw is no way to sustain, much less build, a healthy film culture,” Dargis wrote.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly included a portion of a forwarded email and attributed it to A.O. Scott. In addition, this piece incorrectly reported that the decision had been made this week.

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  1. stu freeman says:

    What a load of horsebleep! First off, who’s to say whether a movie is worth reviewing if a critic doesn’t bother to see it? It’s not likely that any movie with the word “Transformers” in the title is going to be worth reviewing but you know darned well that one of the Times critics is going to see and review it (in Mr. Scott’s case, he may even end up liking it). On the other hand, no less worthy a film than Nick Broomfield’s “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” had a theatrical release in NYC last year and was not given the courtesy of a Times review- at least not until it was subsequently shown on cable television in 2015. At which time it was reviewed by the paper’s TV critic! I wrote in about this at the time of the theatrical release and never received a response from the paper. Finally, why exactly does a paper that employs roughly two dozen reviewers (slight exaggeration…) lack the capacity to review every theatrical release? The three “chief critics” review at most nine movies a week between them. Are they being paid by the word? They can certainly scribble a paragraph or two about each and every film- especially given the support they receive from all the second-stringers. Just complete nonsense (or indolence).

  2. dbagnato says:

    What’s troubling here is that determinations are being made about films BEFORE they’re being seen. What research is being done to decide that a film is a “vanity release”?

    I was one of the first filmmakers to be affected by this in New York this February, and it was very unsettling to find out that the NY Times decided to ignore the film.

    In my case, the film was a first feature, got into a couple of festivals, was made mostly by Tisch alumni, had a six-figure budget, and received both positive and negative reviews from other sources. I wonder what aspects about it put it into this category.

    My hope is that the real determination doesn’t come down to marketing dollars because, if so, this will essentially create a class of filmmakers who can’t afford acknowledgement by the NY Times.

  3. Jim says:

    “I don’t need “trained critical analysis” when it comes to 90% of movies where things blow up and superheroes battle monsters”…

    That’s not the scenario for 90% of movies.

  4. Gary says:

    Let’s do away with the reviews for the blockbusters that are not read by the masses and make certain every independent, foreign and documentary release is reviewed since the audiences for those movies are regular readers who often seek more than one review and have discussions after seeing the movies.
    The reviews for small bad movie with a vanity release provide some of the most creative and funny writing around.

  5. filmsharks says:

    I guarantee one indie and one major studio film per week on my blog. Step it up New York Times!

  6. Ross Cameron says:

    Interesting, they can’t guarantee it.

  7. Bill says:

    “Some indie distributors seemed relatively nonplussed by the news.” Chalk up another misuse of the word “nonplussed.” It means the OPPOSITE of what you’ve intended. The meaning of “nonplussed” is bewildered or shaken up, not “unfazed,” as you’ve implied.

  8. gooma2 says:

    I love the way that someone who’s job it is is to review films (whether good or bad) is coming across as whining saying that they shouldn’t have to do the hard part of the job. We’ve all to sit through bad films along with good films and that’s just part of the job. There are actually less big studio movies than ever before and with many publications downsizing their staff, this is the excuse they give.

    Once again blame the filmmakers and if there are so many bad movies being pumped out, wouldn’t it also be there job to help people know which ones are worth their time and which ones aren’t. That usually been the job of reviewers in all facets.

  9. J says:

    Can’t help but to wonder how much time was spent on an article — in one of the industry’s premier publications no less — about declining film coverage (in another one of the nation’s premier publications) that includes a BLATANT TYPO that could have instead been used to highlight the work of an indie filmmaker who’s been fighting with blood, sweat, and tears for years to get her/his work seen/talked about by ANYONE. Embarrassing.

  10. gus says:

    Movie reviews are useless anyway. An extremely tiny percentage of the population pays any attention to them. People go to see what they want to see. Why do we need somebody giving his or her opinion about a movie when all they do for a living is watch movies all day? That person’s perspective will be totally different from the average moviegoer who is paying to see a movie once in awhile.

    • Lfc says:

      Wow Gus. you seem quite angry about reviewers. Contrary to the notion that reviewers are just wannabe filmmakers, I believe that they are simply folks who enjoy watching movies and talking about movies so much, they found a way to make it a career. If anything tells us not everybody should be a filmmaker, just take a look at all of the VOD offerings in subscription services. Lots of it is horrible. In fact I wish some of the filmmakers had figured out they were better off NOT making a film, and save their money, and mine, on something more fruitful. Anyway, reviewers have a role, just like th people who post their comments about a film on Flixster. Together you get the professional and the popular opinions to help make your decision to devote 2 or more hours of your time to a film. You can argue that professional reviewers cater to only a select few, but frankly I would much prefer to have both, because if left only to popular opinion, I might end up wasting my time on a Kardashian pic!

    • Reader says:

      “Why do we need somebody giving his or her opinion…?” Because occasionally a good film critic will highlight an under-the-radar gem that might otherwise go completely unnoticed, or, conversely, might warn the public to save their hard-earned money. If you want to live in a completely opinion-free world, that’s your privilege. Call me old fashioned, but criticism (of film…and all the arts) makes for a healthy, thoughtful, dynamic culture.

    • dee says:

      Well, Gus, then I’m one of the “extremely tiny percentage of the population” who pays any attention to reviews. My friends are also in that tiny percentage as well. When a movie comes to any of the 6 multiplexes that are within driving distance, we read the reviews, then discuss which to see first. I’m not saying if the NYT gives the best review to a particular movie then that’s the first one we see but we do weigh their review higher than most of the other reviews.

    • solid says:

      Yeah, why should we pay attention to people who can put a movie into the context of film culture and the trajectory of the main creatives’ careers as opposed to just spout their opinion? For that matter, why should we go to lawyers who spend all day thinking about legal stuff when we’ve got a dispute with someone. They don’t know how people operate in the real world. My gut instinct is a better judge of whether I’m in the right or not. What do I need their ivory-tower opinion for? Trained critical analysis is bunk!

      • pdxgmr says:

        “Trained critical analysis is bunk!”
        Yep, pretty much.

      • gus says:

        The legal system is (unfortunately at times) set up to include lawyers as a required part of the process. That’s why there is such a thing as appointed counsel. But nobody needs to check with a critic before deciding to see a movie. Many critics are wannabe filmmakers/artists themselves, people who would trade in their reviewer status in a second if they could sell a script or make a movie themselves. If you want to read what reviewers have to say about “film culture” have yourself a blast. I don’t need “trained critical analysis” when it comes to 90% of movies where things blow up and superheroes battle monsters. Reviewers are for a tiny circle of cocktail party douchebags who think their opinions matter because they are “trained” to know better. Ha. Nice try.

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