For a generation of film lovers weaned on Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, imagining a world where moviegoers make their pic choices without the help of film critics is nearly unthinkable.
Fact is, that world is already here.
My USC film criticism students — who are film-obsessed and hardly representative of their non-cinephile peers — can’t name a working critic other than Ebert, and that’s thanks to his TV fame.
They scan Rolling Stone or Entertainment Weekly, but they don’t know critics Peter Travers or Owen Gleiberman. They check out film rankings at Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic and dip into some reviews, but they haven’t found a particular film critic they trust to steer them straight.
These young film lovers are just as likely to look up old (yes, even B&W) movies for their Netflix queue as new ones. On the Internet, the long tail prevails. (Snarky review site pajiba.com’s “underappreciated gem” “Trading Places” grabbed 310 comments in two days.)
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They admire the auteurs Anderson and Coen, can parse Hitchcock’s “Psycho” with the best of them, and have studied Truffaut and Godard. But they don’t read newspapers, and never will.
Many of them don’t even frequent like-minded blogs that share their cinephilia.
These students — and today’s youth auds in general — more often get their movie info straight from the studio marketing departments, who couldn’t be happier. These kids go to YouTube, Yahoo Movies and Apple to find trailers. As they surf the Web, bits of movie flotsam and visuals planted by the studios on MSN Movies or IGN or JoBlo eventually cross their eyeballs. But they also listen to their friends more than any authority figures, and distrust obvious studio hype.
It’s these kids’ boomer parents who still read movie critics (whose average age is 55 to 65) and follow their guidance — when there’s something for them to see.
Younger moviegoers are fickle; they’re just as likely to play Guitar Hero or download episodes of “The Office” from iTunes. And the studios, for the most part, continue to bank on short-term, wide-release youth movies vs. riskier, execution-dependent movies for adults.
Thus, as boomers age and their subscriptions expire, the increasingly desperate economics of newspaper publishing are forcing aging movie critics out the door. And younger ones too.
Over the past two years, newspapers have forced out or pushed into early retirement some 28 critics. Losing major reviewers are Detroit (the Free-Press never replaced Terry Lawson), Atlanta, Denver, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale. Tribune Company newspapers lost Michael Wilmington from the Chicago Tribune and Gene Seymour and Jan Stuart from New York Newsday, and the New York Daily News said farewell to Jami Bernard and Jack Mathews.
Among the alternative weeklies, Jonathan Rosenbaum left the Chicago Reader. And the Village Voice chain is abandoning local critics in favor of syndicating their stars on the two coasts, L.A. Weekly’s 29-year-old Scott Foundas (who occasionally reviews for Variety) and the Village Voice’s senior critic J. Hoberman; the chain let go younger Village Voice critics Dennis Lim and most recently, Nathan Lee.
“When all news divisions are pared down to the core, and it seems when you can’t fully cover a presidential campaign, a movie critic might seem like a luxury,” says Carrie Rickey, film critic of 22 years at the Philadelphia Inquirer, which plays up weekend film coverage on its website’s home page. “Papers are managing contraction right now.”
Newspapers with vision and resources, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, are investing in multifeatured online sites that combine text with videos, trailers and podcasts.
In the not-too-distant post-TMZ future, critics will be telegenic video or podcast performers adept at combining print and broadcast skills. And maybe they’ll reach younger auds in a way that stodgy content-oriented critics who don’t appreciate visual effects do not. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Christopher Kelly kept his film critic title and stayed employed by becoming the creative guru of the paper’s new entertainment website, where he will turn out web videos.
Ironically, critics who build online readerships via blogs that permit easy interactive communication can hold up their online traffic as evidence of their worth. Movie reviews can be solid online traffic builders. Rickey posts a blog, Flickgrrl, that she refreshes twice a week, encouraging reader comment. She also answers tons of email from readers of her four or so reviews a week, which are syndicated around the country; her defense of Kimberly Peirce’s “Stop-Loss” appeared in more than 50 papers.
Once lost, local critic fanbases will never be regained. This hurts indies and studio specialty divisions pushing Oscar contenders and lower-budget films for adults. Specialty fare needs local support and interpretation from the critic as explainer, interpreter and champion.
Over the years, critics helped audiences appreciate the likes of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris,” Brian De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill,” Robert Altman’s “The Player,” the Coens’ “No Country for Old Men” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” Where would we have been without them? It will soon be up to Pajiba or Cinematical Indie to influence readers to seek out small releases once heralded by critics.
There’s hope for critics at well-funded magazines: John Powers soldiers on at Vogue, Anthony Lane and David Denby compete for space at the New Yorker, Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum are well-read at EW, and David Edelstein writes and blogs at New York Magazine, which has invested heavily in an improved — and well-trafficked — website.
But Time and Newsweek are dealing with leaner times. One hundred eleven Newsweek staffers recently accepted buyouts, including 30-year vet David Ansen, who will continue to contribute under contract. Time’s Richard Corliss basically writes movie capsules, the occasional column and longer pieces about everything but movies.
“It is scary,” Ansen says. “It’s a lot like a return to the hard old days when I was growing up when anybody could be a movie critic and they’d take somebody off the sports desk. It’s a profound diss to the knowledge and expertise of a lot of good critics out there.”
Gone are the halcyon years when Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael inspired debate. Today, no critics dominate cultural discourse the way they did during the ’70s and ’80s. New York Times critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis have built passionate followings, and will likely become even more powerful as the NYT moves into the void left by newspapers that see no option but to cut back on their cultural coverage.
And while newspaper attrition continues, criticism both amateur and pro proliferates on the Web, aggregated by the inclusive Rotten Tomatoes and the choosier Metacritic.
“I used to think what I did ended up as fish wrap,” says Rickey. “But online movie reviews live in perpetuity.” Three months ago, she received a rush of mail about her 2005 review of “Brokeback Mountain.” A feature on the centenary of Jeanette MacDonald yielded more than 200 emails, including college students comparing Ernst Lubitsch and Nelson Eddy. “That piece was sent all over the Internet,” she explains, “all over the world. The Internet has made reviews not fish wrap anymore.”
But how many people click through to the reviews on those sites?
“We are living in a star-rating or thumb-rating world,” wrote one commenter at my ThompsononHollywood blog. “Tell us if it’s good or not, then don’t tell us any more.”
Ebert and his original cohort Gene Siskel’s “At the Movies” used to open with the two critics grabbing copies of the latest edition from stacks of their rival Chicago newspapers, the Sun-Times and the Tribune thrown from a delivery truck.