In the past three years, three dozen film critics have been told by the struggling newspapers and alternative weeklies for which they work that their interpretations of the latest Hollywood and foreign fare are no longer part of the business plan in a business that no longer has much of a plan except to hold off the Grim Reaper as long as possible–which, in the words of the deranged ex-CIA agent Vince Ricardo in The In-Laws, “could be about an hour.”
Indeed, it is likely that by the time the year is over, only the top 10 or 15 papers in the country will have a movie critic on staff. The rest will rely on freelancers or wire service reviews. The death of the newspaper movie critic has been the occasion for much weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth among . . . newspaper movie critics. If you live in one of the cities in which the local critic is no more, you may not even have noticed the difference.
If you have worked for a newspaper in the past 20 years, and have had the fascinating misfortune of attending one of the innumerable focus groups convened to tell you what is right or wrong with your paper, you will have learned many awful things.
One is that many people are stupid. The other is that nobody pays attention to the things professional writers care the most about. They don’t look at bylines; they don’t know the difference between wire copy and staff-written material. They like (or used to like, before the Internet came along) sports scores and stats boxes, TV listings and stock quotes, and weather maps. They adore weather maps. They are keenly interested in the supermarket ads and the movie ads.
What do all these things have in common? They are not written.
There is a story told about a major American newspaper that was among the first to do a huge readership survey in the early 1980s. The survey cost several million dollars. And in those days, the editors expected to learn that their lead political columnist was the most popular in the paper, that people really followed the sports columnists, and that the area rose and fell with the opinions on the editorial page.
To their absolute horror, what the editors discovered was this: No more than 5 percent of the readers looked at the editorials. The lead political columnist was one of the least-read. And the most popular item was “Walter Scott’s Personality Parade,” a column of questions and answers about celebrities which appeared not in the newspaper itself but in Parade, the independently published Sunday supplement.
And nobody, but nobody, knew the names of the critics. This was at a time when the paper in question had two movie critics, two theater critics, two television critics, two book critics, a dance critic, a rock critic, a classical music critic, and an architecture critic. It took the paper nearly three decades to get around to it, but the lead critics in all but one of these fields have taken buyouts and are not being replaced.
Of course, newspaper readers are also aware of the vast difference between “The News” and The News, and that they rarely intersect, which has also sped up the newspaper’s Red Queen’s Race.
Meanwhile, just as in 2003, when the film industry convinced itself that texting cell phones were their enemy, they’re starting to lose sleep over the “Twitter Assault on the Studios — and Movie Critics”, as Maria Russo describes the “assault”:
At the moment, “Wolverine” is topping the tweets, with such tiny jewels of insight as @albertkiko’s: “I saw X-Men Origins Wolverine! I think it was a good film based on the fictional Marvel comics!”
Whether the site catches on or not, one thing seems sure: It could be what helps studios and film critics, not usually the best of friends, find common cause. Both are under siege by the armies of critics at the movies these days packing iPhones and Blackberries.
Tweeting insta-opinions about movies is hard to resist for those addicted to constant connectivity. But it could be disastrous for the movie business, introducing an element of randomness and chaos into an already volatile landscape.
The idea of tweets from random strangers moving public opinion for or against a movie gives new meaning to William Goldman’s famous line about Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything.”
It’s also one more cruel strike against the notion that professional film critics perform a valuable service that, sorry, Average Joe Movielover cannot reproduce — especially not in 140 characters.
When Universal Pictures Chairman Marc Shmuger spoke on a panel about the future of Hollywood at TheWrap’s launch party in January, he noted that the studios are in a bad spot when people text their opinions about movies to friends even before the movie is done. Months of marketing planning are out the window.
Yes, God forbid the rubes have opinions of their own and share them with others! Obviously a 140-character tweet isn’t going to replace a meaty lengthy carefully written review, but for getting a quick sense if a popcorn movie is any good, adding up the number of SUX! versus ROX! tweets is a pretty good indicator to see if a mass media product is finding support amongst its intended audience.
But yes, losing newspaper critics helps to coarsen the culture. On the other hand, for critics such as the late Pauline Kael of the New Yorker, who went out of her way to promote trash cinema, over more nuanced, traditional content, is that a bug or a feature?