Critics in U.S., Europe take the craft seriously

To pan and praise: Universal truths

They may be a continent away, and their respective cultures can be at odds with one another, but critics from Europe and the States are often in sync when assessing films that play both in the U.S. and abroad.

“Critics in different territories may respond to different subtle triggers, but overall we feel that critics everywhere tend to judge films based on their inherent quality,” says Sue Kroll, Warner Bros. president of international marketing.

“There are both highbrow critics in every European market and more populist ones,” adds Hilary Clark, senior VP of publicity at 20th Century Fox Intl. Particularly in France, she says, they tend to “take film very seriously” and probably “have the fewest number of frivolous reviewers.”

French critics have been labeled in the past as sometimes being too kind to homegrown filmmakers and pics that have little box office potential but are deserving of special treatment because of their local lineage.

A spokesperson for United Intl. Pictures in Paris confirms: “As a whole, critics try to review films without prejudice” even if “some magazines will definitely be more inclined to defend art rather than commercial films.”

But for those small films without any big stars, good reviews can indeed help propel attention. Critics, no matter where they’re from, universally like to champion a pic they see as worthy of a big audience.

In Spain, another UIP insider admits, where reviewers like to favor European films and are “usually indulgent” with homegrown product, they “scarcely give positive opinions to commercial American films.”

Critics in Euro territories often react to films differently. German critics, says the UIP spokesperson, tend to impart that “their ego is more important than the film,” and almost always “have to find a story behind the story. It’s never a simple ‘I like the film because …’ ”

If a high-profile director is attached, however, Hollywood films “have an easier time winning over the critics.” Still, in certain German papers, “the classy art film, which will fail at the box office, gets more space than your average U.S. film.”

U.K. cineastes get little respect

Derek Malcolm of the Evening Standard finds the opposite to be the case in the United Kingdom. For a film critic there — where theater, music and art reviews are treated much more reverently — it is impossible “to stop the rot, as it were. A lot of Hollywood films are awful now.”

With “90% of what is shown in the cinemas coming from Hollywood, it is really very difficult to talk about anything else seriously,” he says. Given the perception that the public only wants to see the latest blockbuster, Malcolm attests that editors go “big on Hollywood” and say “to hell with everything else.” That happens “right through the entire spectrum, serious papers and all, but particularly, of course, in the tabloids.”

As of late, Malcolm has even seen major critics “rushing off to interview some star about a film that they didn’t even like, because that is what editors want.”

This sort of objective is verified by freelance journalists as well. Hans J. Spurkel provides publications in German-speaking countries with the latest from Hollywood, though he must up the celebrity quotient, and not so much film analysis.

“Not to include personal questions about someone’s life,” he cautions, “will make it very difficult to place the piece.”

No room for flexibility

Alessandra Venezia, his fellow colleague at the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. who contributes to L’Uomo/Vogue Italia and SkyTV, differentiates the dailies of her country. The influential newspapers in Italy have “very traditional film critics who are not always open to trends and new directors,” she explains. There are groups with certain political affiliations and “you already know in advance whether a critic will like this or that director.”

As for her own favorites, Venezia admires Roberto Silvestri, head critic of Il Manifesto.

“He is one of the rare critics with the luxury to be totally free in what he writes about,” she says. “It is always a provocation and makes me think.”

Hamburg, Germany-based journalist Birgit Heidsiek, whose weekly film reviews and interviews are syndicated by Deutsche Presse Agentur, has found that “in order for reviews and criticism to be picked up, I am required to have a strong position vis-a-vis the film. Positive or negative doesn’t matter, but it has to be distinct and lively written.”

And, indeed, 77-year-old professional critics’ organization Fipresci (Federation Internationale de la Presse Cinematographique) has made its stated mission “to promote and expand the idea of the cinema as a means of artistic expression and of cultural education.”

Or in the words of one editor who shall better remain unnamed, “Just keep it short.”