Filling the niche

Internet opens world of criticism to anyone, but readers prefer distinct points of view

Film critics used to be a rarified group; they honed their craft for years before earning a print venue for their views. But as with most things, the Internet has changed all that. Now anyone with an opinion and a keyboard can post their views for the whole world to see.

Online film criticism has come a long way and can exceed the reach and audience of some of its print relatives. But despite their ubiquity, the most successful Net critics are those that have found a distinct niche or interest to give voice to, taking criticism to new places in the process.

Interestingly, this new wave of film criticism grew largely from the passions of two very different journalists: Chris Gore and Harry Knowles. Indie film guru Gore started his underground zine Film Threat straight out of high school in 1985. Larry Flynt took over as publisher from 1992-96, and just as the rights reverted to Gore, he launched FilmThreat.com. A year later, Gore shelved the print version. “Our motto is ‘Truth in Entertainment,’ ” Gore says, “and we dispense brutally honest movie reviews, which makes us the least popular among studio publicists.”

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Coincidentally, 1996 was the same year Austin, Texas, film enthusiast Harry Knowles launched his site, AintItCoolNews.com, after growing weary of waiting for mainstream publications to regularly update their Web sites. “Finding films and advocating for them before anyone in the world really knows about them is what we pride ourselves on,” Knowles says.

What sets Knowles’ site apart is its first-person, subjective point of view. “I know one of the key rules in journalism is that you don’t use the words ‘I’ and ‘me,’ ” Knowles says, “but I love Hunter S. Thompson, and he wrote using ‘I’ and ‘me’ all the time. I felt there was something missing in film criticism because film is such a subjective medium, so individual to one’s self, that there are no correct answers, but only a personal truth regarding how it affects one’s self and how you would anticipate it affecting others.”

The success of these sites opened the door for many others, but usually only those that cater to a niche audience succeed. Print outlets like the Onion and Creative Screenwriting magazine expanded their readership exponentially online, while a Web original like Salon.com attracts numbers that outdo most large newspapers.

The Onion A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps credits his site’s success to the Web’s freedom. “We can interview crusty old guys who don’t get interviewed that often, which works out really well for us,” he says. “The freedom from the media cycle is what sets us apart.”

Salon New York editorial director Kerry Lauerman has mastered the craft of expanding niche stories into grand works of film criticism. “One thing we offer that others don’t is a sort of obsessiveness that, say, a major newspaper can’t do,” Lauerman says. “We have a feature, for example, called ‘Everything You Were Afraid to Ask About,’ which seeks to explore the riddles of head-scratchers like ‘Mulholland Drive,’ ‘Memento,’ ‘Donnie Darko.’ ”

Creative Screenwriting editor Den Shewman also found success when he created CS Weekly, a free weekly opt-in email newsletter that promotes the mag’s screenplay-centrism. In nine months, CS Weekly amassed more than 33,000 readers, some of whom have never seen a copy of the print magazine. “Our readers range from Oscar winners to those yet to write their first script,” Shewman says, “and they’ve all come together online to continue to appreciate the script as the basic building block of a movie.”

Just as the independent film has found a broader audience via DVDs, online film criticism with a niche angle remains one of the fastest-growing areas of entertainment journalism.