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As papers consolidate, readers receive less-varied opinions

Urge to merge quiets voices

In some quarters of the film community, the belief exists that 17 negative reviews of a film aren’t nearly as bad as one negative review of a film.

How can that be? In the realm of criticism, a variety of voices is generally regarded as being preferable to a lone perspective. The aforementioned 17 negative reviews is simply an example of a worst-case scenario for filmmakers; the real issue is the possibility that a film might not be exposed to a wide variety of opinions.

If only one person submits a review for a wide readership instead of 17 critics, then that film — especially if it’s an indie with limited resources for marketing and advertising — conceivably could suffer.

The topic has emerged with the changing landscape of film criticism. Earlier this year, New Times merged with Village Voice Media, creating a chain of 17 alternative newspapers in some of the biggest markets in the U.S. As a result, often one critic will review a film for all of the papers in the chain rather than a scribe from each paper having a crack at it. And because of budget cutbacks and shrinking readership, many of the nation’s larger publications are gravitating toward the same approach.

“It’s definitely affected us,” says Scott Foundas, movie editor at L.A. Weekly and former Variety critic. “It had always been the practice of the New Times to syndicate reviews. Before the merger, they had two staff critics — one in Denver and one in Dallas — and scattered freelancers for their other papers. They inherited a lot of critics when they merged.”

But Foundas is quick to point out that while the consolidation of critics appears to be a trend in the business, he is still free to file his own review of a film, which he often does.

“I used to divide up most of the reviews between (L.A. Weekly staffer) Ella Taylor and myself, and then the rest would be given to freelancers exclusive to the Weekly,” he explains. “Now Ella and I still split the reviews because we don’t have the freelance budget anymore.”

Foundas says his situation is not unique.

“What I tell people is that the New Times certainly did not start this fire,” he says. “In the L.A. Times on a given Friday, half the reviews are reprinted from Newsday and the Chicago Tribune. The reviews in the Orange County Register are done by a guy in Mesa, Ariz. (Craig Outhier, critic for the Mesa-based East Valley Tribune and the Colorado Springs’ Gazette as well as the Register, all of which are owned by Freedom Newspapers); all of these decisions are budgetary decisions.

“What I see is an overall shift in the function or dissemination of film criticism. People are getting movie news in different ways.”

Net result

One of the more obvious ones is the Internet, where established critics and neophyte bloggers hammer away at a task once reserved for the likes of Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris.

“One of the reasons people who are interested in doing film criticism go to the Internet is because there’s a lack of availability of jobs in print,” notes James Berardinelli, one of the pioneers of film criticism on the Internet who started in 1992 and has been reviewing films on ReelViews.net since ’96.

“It’s hard to get in the door at daily newspapers because circulation is dropping. You have to have a real stroke of luck or know someone to get in there now. That opens up the Internet. When I started in ’92, film criticism on the Internet was unheard of. There were maybe four or five regulars. Now there are hundreds, thousands.”

Berardinelli says the problem now is separating the serious and qualified critic from the sundry amateur bloggers.

“Some of the organizations, like MetaCritic.com and RottenTomatoes.com, have certain criteria for their critics to meet in order to appear there,” he explains. “So you get a great variety of voices, but they’re also voices of people who are serious.”

Jim Ridley, film critic for the Nashville Scene, one of the 17 publications in the New Times chain, compares the realm of online critics and the blogosphere to the wild, wild West. “Bring on Dodge City,” he declares.

He feels the sea change in film criticism created by consolidation and the proliferation of Internet writers has its good points and bad.

“I could not stand ‘Little Miss Sunshine,’ but it’s a movie a lot of people absolutely love,” he says, “and the idea that it gets hammered in 17 different markets with my review I’m very ambivalent about. I much prefer the model of 17 different people in 17 different cities reviewing it, but I think that’s disappearing, at least in chains. That’s why bloggers and the Internet take up so much of the slack.”

But there are benefits, he says.

“What was so exciting about the ’60s is we had a livelier culture of film criticism. I think the closest thing to that now is going on the Internet and seeing all these wild, contentious voices slug it out. That’s where you see depth now. That’s where Pauline Kael would publish 5,000 words on ‘Last Tango in Paris’ now. I don’t know if she’d even be able to write that in the New Yorker.

“Also, yahoos like me would get exposed to (critics) like J. Hoberman or Scott Foundas, Ella Taylor, Nathan Lee. That wouldn’t have been the case before.”

And Berardinelli suggests the crossover from the changing print world to the Internet has a positive aspect.

“I like to read print critics, but I usually read them when their work appears online,” he says. “In a way, it saddens me what’s happening in print, but Jami Bernard, for instance, got fired (by the New York Daily News) and then got an online gig (MovieCityNews.com). I hope more and more you’ll see that. I hope a lot of really good print critics won’t pack it in but make the transition to the new medium.”