Now That Everyone’s a Critic, Can Paid Film Criticism Survive?By Dina Gachman October 26th, 2015
It’s almost award season in film, and Oscar contenders are being debated every week. It’s prime time for film critics, but behind every review there’s a strain of anxiety that’s perhaps never been stronger.
Ask an established film critic if film criticism is dead, and you’ll be met with a mixture of wary groans, thoughtful analysis of the scourge of Twitter “reviews,” and the sad fate of beloved film sites like The Dissolve. One thing is certain: Film criticism has changed since the days of Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, and the future of the profession is in flux.
The Dissolve, which was launched back in 2013, was supposed to save film criticism. The Pitchfork Media-run site was managed by editor Scott Tobias, formerly the editor-in-chief of The A.V. Club, and its masthead boasted some of the best names in film writing, from senior editor Tasha Robinson, an A.V. Club staffer, to staff writer Noel Murray, whose film writing has been published in The A.V. Club, the Los Angeles Times, and Grantland, among others.
So when the editors announced that the site was folding this past July after only two years, many wondered whether it was yet another sign of the end times for film criticism. In an era when it has become increasingly tough for film critics to make a living, The Dissolve gave people hope. Many were optimistic that The Dissolve would provide evidence that paid, dedicated film critics were not only wanted, but necessary. Its quick demise represented for many an emphatic rejection of the economics of the form.
Many lay the blame at the feet of review aggregator sites like Metacritic and databases like IMDB. Metacritic’s aggregate scores give a snapshot of every critic’s opinion, which devalues individual reviews and promotes users to make their movie-going decisions based on a single, combined score. IMDB, meanwhile, features aggregate user scores and user reviews rather than criticism. Now, a review by an accountant in Poughkeepsie can get just just as much online real estate as a review by a paid critic—and they don’t always agree.
Take, for example, the 2002 comedy Super Troopers, which has a 90 percent audience approval rating on review site Rotten Tomatoes, and only 35 percent from critics. For many readers, the opinions of the crowd at large can be more influential that a singular critic—whether this is a good or bad thing is debatable, but undoubtedly the democratizing effects of the Internet have had a huge effect on criticism’s viability.
But just because The Dissolve failed and anyone with an Internet connection can now be a critic, does that mean the profession is truly in jeopardy? Marjorie Baumgarten, film critic and senior editor at The Austin Chronicle, believes that the notion that film criticism itself is dead is hyperbole.
“As long as movies continue to be made, film criticism will continue to exist,” she said.
Still, the days of making a career out of writing film criticism seem very far away. There are plenty of serious film critics out there—one could argue that the proliferation of blogs and online publications has even upped the quality due increased competition, but more opportunity hasn’t equaled more compensation.
Now, anyone can start a film review blog and, if their reviews are sharp and entertaining, amass followers. But they may just be doing it for free on sites like IMDB, or as a side gig for very little money. And when there are more people out there willing to review films for free or for very little pay, it disrupts the economics of the system that once sustained critics like Ebert and Kael.
Jan Wahl, a film critic with KCBS and KRON TV, says she doesn’t see too many young writers who have a deep knowledge of film history. Trained critics can discuss a film not just as a piece of entertainment, but as a cultural touchstone that shows us where we’re at as a society, and where we might be headed. With the rise of social media and the Internet, some fear that the time and financial stability required for this kind of criticism may be disappearing.
“The practice is dying as a paid profession,” Baumgarten said. “But people remain interested in consuming, discussing, and evaluating movies. Until new paradigms for journalism delivery and profitability evolve and take hold, it will remain a very insecure time for film critics.”
Odie Henderson, a critic at RogerEbert.com, started his career 10 years ago, when the decline of print journalism and the rise of blogs and social media were changing the landscape.
“What constitutes film criticism has changed,” he said, “but it’s far from dead. Outlets have been dropping established, paid critics and replacing them with folks who get paid in prestige rather than money. These opportunities seem more prevalent than paid ones nowadays.”
Wahl also sees more people reviewing films for the publicity. “The thing that makes me the saddest is when I hear somebody who is just promoting movies and they’re called a critic,” she said.
The reluctance to criticize could also be related to the need for clicks. A headline like “7 Reasons X Is the Craziest Movie Ever” will likely get more clicks than a negative review of the same film, no matter how well written and insightful it is. In many ways, these “clickbait” headlines are how publishers and editors keep their site from shutting down in the face of gutted advertising revenue.
In his piece “The Economics of Movie Reviews,” Dustin Rowles (who is a writer for Uproxx as well as the publisher of Pajiba, a review site) makes this clear, writing that “a bottom line is a bottom line.” In the world of online journalism, he asserts, sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes have lessened the value of full-time review writers.
“Film reviews are a money loser,” he writes, citing his own site Pajiba to make the point clear: “Of the 200+ reviews published during the past year, only 21 actually generated enough page views to pay for themselves.” Instead, Rowles says that more social-friendly pieces such as episode recaps, 200-word trailer posts, and headline-friendly analyses of famous movies are what bring in the clicks, and therefore the revenue. He seems ambivalent about whether this is necessarily a bad thing for film writing as a whole, but laments how many film critics have been laid off over the past few years.
Rowels concludes with the advice that, to make it in the contemporary media landscape, any aspiring film critic will have to do more than simply review film.
Despite all the hand-wringing, B. Ruby Rich, editor of Film Quarterly and longtime critic, author, and teacher, believes that the issues facing film criticism as a profession are temporary.
She hopes that new technologies and new sources of funding will emerge, and will equal new opportunities for film critics to have a sustainable career, even though in her estimation, the future of film criticism looks bleak.
“There’s a long way to go,” she admits, “but I am hopeful.”Image by Razumovskaya Marina Nikolaevna