Movie Critics, a Dying Breed?

If an MSM movie critic reviews a movie in an empty forest, will anyone care? That is the question posed by newspaper film reviewer, Steven Whitty who seems agonized that the general public and the movie industry increasingly regard him and his colleagues as irrelevant:

[Helping end the days when MSM critics matter more] has been Hollywood's increasing reliance on pre-sold titles, saturation advertising and action franchises aimed at teenage boys.

"When I started at Paramount in the '60s, you opened a picture in four theaters and hoped for good reviews," says the former studio exec. "Nowadays, when you open a movie on 4,000 screens, spend $80 million on ads -- well, you're not exactly dependent on word of mouth."

No argument there, and no news to veteran critics.

"I think the studios have finally realized they have all this power, so why don't they use it," says Dave Kehr, who reviewed films for the Chicago Tribune, the New York Daily News and the New York Times before switching to a DVD column for the Times. "They don't need us. People like Adam Sandler have demonstrated that you can treat critics with open contempt and it doesn't make the slightest difference."

There's a lot of truth in Whitty's analysis so far. Since most people no longer read newspapers, it stands to reason that they'd stop consulting critics working in their employ. And he is certainly right about Sandler, whose cinematic corpus delicti demonstrates contempt not just for critics but for anyone with an IQ higher than 70. Unfortunately, this is about all our erstwhile critic gets right.

After a brief discussion and complaint about corporate media behemoths using their empires to cross-promote products, Warner Bros. films being plugged in Time, etc., Whitty's analysis begins to veer off-track as he complains about how critics like him often are not allowed to watch a movie before its general release (quel horreur!) before getting into the inevitable bashing of his internet competitors for having the temerity to write about film without consulting him:

Another jolt to mainstream critics has been the rise of the Internet, a phenomenon that has studios buying online ads and mainstream media rethinking their approach. Some Web site critics brag that they have more readers than their local paper; some papers worry that their print reviewers won't appeal to the online generation they're trying to reach.

And so the Village Voice, once the bastion of long-form, serious reviews, has made room for shorter, snarkier and shallower critiques. Entertainment Weekly has been redesigned to look more like a Web site, crowded with trivia, inconsequential lists and personal Q-and-A's. [...]
Many Web sites, however, operate like personal fiefdoms. How do you know that the anonymous rave you saw wasn't posted by a publicist? How can you be sure that the blogger you've bookmarked isn't plugging only film festivals that comp her expenses? [...]
It's also endemic. Sure, there are cyber critics who post detailed critiques rooted in an appreciation of cinema's history. But sometimes it seems as if they're outnumbered -- or at least outshouted -- by hundreds of Comic Book Guys, all hurling invective and tediously explaining how every other reviewer is wrong.

"The Internet has given a huge number of young people the chance to write criticism and yet so many of them are imitating the worst aspects," says Kehr, who keeps a hand in at davekehr.com. "It just seems as though there are an awful lot of people getting up on their hind legs and yelling. If you disagree with them you're an idiot. And if you choose not to continue the disagreement endlessly, you're a coward."

While it's certainly clear that there are plenty of web sites where a PR person can be operating in sock puppet fashion, it's worth noting that Whitty provides no examples of this, nor does he establish how exactly a blogger "plugging only film festivals that comp her expenses," is any worse than Time magazine shilling for a corporate sibling-produced movie. One could even argue that Whitty's fictional blogger is more ethical than editors, reporters, and critics who willingly give free advertising to awful or mediocre films like "Fahrenheit 9/11," "American Beauty," or "Brokeback Mountain" simply because they promote left-wing values.

The essence of Whitty's complaint is essentially the same as many others emanating from many MSM critics who are irritated and even upset that people no longer have to jump through the hoops of the media establishment in order to get their voices heard.

"But people will get it wrong!" goes the refrain. Absolutely. Some will. But some will also get it right. What complaining old media types fail to realize is that bloggers and journalists deal in the same coin, credibility. And credibility is something that has to be earned and maintained. Most people are smart enough to extend it to anyone who consistently turns out intelligent and fair content about films or anything else. The rest will watch Adam Sandler despite what anyone says.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013