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New York Times Changes Film Review Policy, Can’t Guarantee Coverage (Updated)

The New York Times has changed its film review policies, and the paper is now telling film publicists that it can no longer guarantee its critics will weigh in on every film that screens in the city.

“Because of the increasing volume of new films released each year, the Times is no longer able to guarantee reviews of all New York theatrical releases,” A.O. Scott, the Times’ chief film critic, wrote in an email obtained by Variety.

Scott added that the paper would continue to review as many new films as it could, but noted decisions would be made on a “case by case basis.”

Reached by phone, Scott said that the policy was instituted earlier this year and that the paper did not reach a decision this week, as Variety initially reported.

The Times will almost certainly continue to critique major films, prominent specialty titles and Oscar contenders, but the paper’s decision is bad news for some smaller arthouse distributors and VOD companies who rely on a review in the paper of record to raise a film’s profile.

The decision will also affect the documentary feature category of the Oscars, which requires a review in either the New York Times or L.A. Times for consideration, as well as a theatrical release. A spokeswoman for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences noted that the New York Times’ decision “wouldn’t necessarily require a rule change,” because films that were reviewed by the L.A. Times would qualify for awards.

For his part, Scott noted that the Times never asked to be included in the vetting process.

“We didn’t tell the documentary branch to make us the standard and it’s tricky because a lot of those are in effect four-wall releases,” he said. “A lot of them come out on cable or on VOD. On the other hand, they tend to be interesting films and films that we’re interested in reviewing.”

Some indie distributors seemed relatively unperturbed by the change.

“I think it will mostly concern the vanity releases and films that are being released solely to fulfill contractual commitments, and frankly, the vast majority of those films are not going to be helped much by a New York Times review,” said Magnolia Pictures president Eamonn Bowles.

Scott said the paper has begun emailing publicists when it declines to review their film and that the number of films that have not been critiqued since the policy was instituted is relatively small.

“It’s not hard to spot a vanity booking,” he noted. “There are clues you can find. We are always erring on the side of reviewing. If there’s a chance that something will be worth our time and space, we want to take that chance.”

Scott said that the Times changed its review policy because the number of films that were released every year had grown exponentially

“It’s driven a lot by what might have been in the past straight to DVD or straight to video releases that will open for a week on a Manhattan screen,” he said. “They will get the slight publicity boost of a New York Times review and that’s driven the numbers up.”

“We have three staff critics and a good roster of freelancers, but it takes time and space and editorial labor and costs a lot of money to review that many movies,” he added.

The rise of on-demand platforms and streaming services such as Netflix have lowered the barrier to entry for aspiring filmmakers, and many of these pictures are very minor films that rely on a review in the Times to give them a patina of legitimacy.

This attempt to game the system was roundly condemned in a 2014 piece by Scott’s fellow critic Manohla Dargis.

“Dumping crummy movies that should go straight to on-demand into theaters just to get a review before rushing into the on-demand maw is no way to sustain, much less build, a healthy film culture,” Dargis wrote.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly included a portion of a forwarded email and attributed it to A.O. Scott. In addition, this piece incorrectly reported that the decision had been made this week.

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