THE FACT that upwards of 30 film critics are known to have been put out to pasture so far this year, in many cases by publications that may soon be headed for the barn door themselves, makes this an opportune moment to put to the test the age-old question of how much critics matter. If asked during the summer, the answer is always “not much” or “not at all.” But if posed now, at the end of the biggest annual cycle of film festivals and the official launch of awards season, the answer is a bit different.
The most pointed way to judge the issue, perhaps, is to look at which films benefited and lost out at the recent round of festivals, most notably at Venice, Telluride and Toronto. Filmmakers, distributors, publicists and sales agents make the investment in, and take the risk of, exposing films to audiences and critics who are often seeing four films per day or more, so it takes something special to jump out of the pack. When it does, as happened most conspicuously this year with Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” and Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” a film most people have never even heard of suddenly vaults to public consciousness. But flop at a festival and you’ve got to figure out how to dig your way out of a deep hole.
The most informative talk I’ve had with anyone on this subject in a long time was in Telluride with Sony Pictures Classics co-boss Tom Bernard, who said he’s been studying the influence of critics for at least a decade and now has convincing evidence that changes of critics in markets big and small have a huge impact on the box office performance of specialized films. Over the years, readers come to know the critics’ tastes and learn how to use them to guide their viewing choices. Champions of certain kinds of cinema can obviously be useful, but even more important, per Bernard, is to have a critic in your community whose voice you know and value.
Bernard said that he’s been able to chart notable declines in attendance in major markets such as Boston, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Seattle tied directly to the departures of certain critics there. Many financially strapped newspapers in towns much smaller than these have replaced local critics with wire service writers or big names from big-city publications, further depersonalizing the connection with readers. Critical identification has been confused and reduced as well by the way the L.A. Weekly/Village Voice consortium of alternative papers now publishes the same critic’s review of a picture in all the chain’s papers, no matter where he or she lives. According to Bernard, all this makes many potential patrons for a specialized film on a Friday night just shrug their shoulders and decide to do something else.
IT’S NICE to hear from someone that critics still matter, and they clearly made the future rosier for a number of films that splashed down at the big festivals over the past two weeks. In addition to “The Wrestler” and “Slumdog,” neither of which was on Fox Searchlight’s release schedule before the fest season began but are now, two of the new films most helped by critics and the festivals were Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” and Jan Troell’s “Everlasting Moments,” both of which were picked up for U.S. distributions this week.
Given that “The Hurt Locker” is set in Iraq and Bigelow has been a bit off the radar of late, journos and industryites mostly had a “show me” attitude about it. For the majority, Bigelow delivered, with a strong charge of visceral, stops-out action cinema. I’m apparently not the only one to have noticed this, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that the film is a very cleverly disguised real-world remake of Bigelow’s ex-husband James Cameron’s “Aliens.” “The Hurt Locker” is about a bomb difusing squad of U.S. soldiers; as in “Aliens,” death can strike you from anywhere, anytime, and Jeremy Renner’s risk junkie is Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, right down to the outer space outfit he sometimes has to wear.
Troell’s film, about a Swedish mother a hundred years ago who discovers a gift for photography, could not be more different. But with Bergman gone, Troell is now the reigning Swedish master, so his new work could not come at a more propitious time. Cinephiles who haven’t seen his work or thought about him since “The Emigrants” and “The New Land” more than 35 years ago, have rediscovered him, and now the way is paved for his work to be seen by a new generation.
Among other directors who got a boost by the critical reactions at the recent fests: Jonathan Demme, whose “Rachel Getting Married” was more liked than not; Stephan Elliott, away from filmmaking for nine years (initially with disillusionment about the business, then due to a horrendous skiing accident), but whose comic touch remains intact in “Easy Virtue;” Olivier Assayas, who in “L’heure d’ete” (Summer Hours) actually merits comparisons to the great Jean Renoir; Richard Linklater, who succeeded to a surprising degree in putting Orson Welles and his “Caesar” production convincingly onscreen in “Me and Orson Welles,” and even Kevin Smith, who in “Zack and Miri Make A Porno” made a better Judd Apatow film than Apatow himself has made of late.
DUE TO THE mixed or indifferent reactions they inspired, there are some films for which festival participation probably made no difference to their ultimate box office fates; red carpet photos of the stars’ arrivals were arguably all that mattered for the Coen brothers’ “Burn After Reading,” the Ed Harris-Viggo Mortensen starrer “Appaloosa,” “The Duchess” with Keira Knightley, “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist” with Michael Cera, Guy Ritchie’s “RocknRolla,” Guillermo Arriaga’s “The Burning Plain” with Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger and “The Secret Life of Bees” with Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, et al.
Then there were the films that had no profile before the fests and have even less now, based on the underwhelming reactions: Spike Lee’s “Miracle at St. Anna,” Richard Eyre’s “The Other Man,” Marc Abraham’s “Flash of Genius,” Rian Johnson’s “The Brothers Bloom,” Neil Burger’s “The Lucky Ones” and Paul Gross’ “Passchendaele,” which in Toronto furthered the reputation of opening night films as ones you can skip.