Critical Mass – The Depreciating Value of Film Criticism

With the Internet turning a whole legion of casual moviegoers into film critics via blogs and social networking sites, does genuine film criticism still carry any value? Veteran critic and former BAFTA magazine editor Quentin Falk finds out…

 

A typically stern cautionary covering note accompanies the latest multimedia invitation to one of the autumn’s potential Hollywood blockbusters. Under the sub-heading ‘Review Embargo’, the metaphorical finger wags: ‘With your attendance you recognise that you must not publish any reports or reviews in print, TV, radio or online (including Blogging, Forum, Online Chats, Tweeting, Facebook etc) as per the above.’

As the media-savvy crowd, including a number of supposedly influential print and radio critics, are relieved of their cellphones under threat of expulsion ahead of being given a body search by dark-suited heavies for other possibly secreted recording devices, it’s clear that if piracy is the number one crime against today’s cinema, then a close-run second seems to be reviewing a film at a time not of the distributor’s own choosing.

The delicious irony hovering over the early evening brouhaha—which will be repeated almost once a week in West End cinema lobbies until all the season’s most eagerly anticipated films are in the public arena—is that this particular night’s offering is The Social Network, about the invention of, yes, Facebook, now, arguably, the most potent new democracy of cultural opinion with half a billion subscribers globally.

Blogging? Tweeting? Facebook? So, just who are the film critics now? You, me, everyone might be at least an answer.

If you look at the online people, they are generally totally honest: they’ve nothing to do with the industry. – Jason Solomons, (Film Critic, The Guardian@JasonCritic)

Long before social networking sites were even the merest twinkle in the eye of cybernauts and wannabe opinion makers, it was all so much simpler. For perhaps the first eight or so decades of film—since the first recorded review noted, on June 15 1896 of May Irwin Kiss, ‘absolutely disgusting’—criticism principally resided with newspaper and magazine contributors as well as the occasional television commentator notably, in this country, Barry Norman, followed, latterly, by Jonathan Ross.

For years, print had it very much its own way with a succession of, in this country at least, fine and eminently quotable critics ranging from legends like Graham Greene, Richard Winnington, Dilys Powell and Alexander Walker to the top of the contemporary crop such as Philip French, Derek Malcolm, Christopher Tookey and Peter Bradshaw.

The first hints, however, that there might be a shift in the potency of opinion from the conventional arenas to the burgeoning world of online probably came in 1999 with the release of a film that cost around $25,000 to shoot. The Blair Witch Project, a spooky thriller craftily packaged as ‘reality footage’, eventually grossed nearly a quarter of a billion dollars around the world following a groundbreaking marketing campaign on the Internet. By the time the film actually hit cinemas, it had become virtually critic-proof.

10 years later, an article appeared in a reputable if rather obscure European magazine for cineastes. It was headlined starkly The End-of-Film-Criticism Industry and in it the veteran critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote: ‘One reason why film reviewing … appears to be undergoing a loss of prestige is the rapid growth and expansion of Internet film reviewing and blogging, which has intensified the already popular idea that anyone can be a film critic (unlike, say, a dance critic or a sports commentator—two other professions in which some background knowledge is regarded as essential).’

Few of the Internet critics bother to offer a reasoned argument to back up their opinions. – Christopher Tookey (Film Critic, The Daily Mail)

A few months earlier, the cover story of Sight & Sound, the BFI’s repository of comment, had blasted ‘Who needs critics?’ In his introduction, S&S Editor Nick James noted that as UK newspaper revenues continued to fall and film critics felt the threat of redundancy—a chain of events that has since come to pass with increasing rapidity in regional journalism—‘the dilemma is clear. There is a welcome increase in free access to writing about film, but the consequence has been a drop in the status of the professional film reviewer … No-one therefore finds the critic-dodging of distributors unusual …’

This last point refers most directly to what some might regard as a kind of Faustian pact often struck between the companies that release films and handle stars, and their PR representatives, with the people who write on or about them.

According to Jason Solomons of the Observer, who is also chair of the film section of the Critics’ Circle (founded 1902), “When I started it was the PRs who needed to know who was moving where and on what newspaper or journal; now, journalists are often more concerned which PR is moving to what firm.

“As for ‘towing the party line’ to get access? I think that probably happens more and more. Most of us will at some point have needed a good relationship with the PR that we couldn’t afford to be totally honest about a film.

“Yet if you look at the online people, they are generally totally honest; they’ve nothing to do with the industry and can say pretty much whatever they want. Perhaps that’s where critics have to go as well. Mind you, we’re all published online now, whether we like it or not. Why write for a publication; why not just write your own blog. But if you write, will they come. Perhaps it’s not so much about the writing anymore, and more about the honesty of the opinion.”

Chris Tookey, who has been film critic of the Daily Mail since 1993, has no such reservations, and is also scathing about reviewers compromising their craft and critics who are, in his words, no better than just “quote whores”.

“Nowadays, thanks mainly to the Internet, everyone’s a critic, and—unfortunately—few of the Internet critics bother to offer a reasoned argument to back their opinions. A vehement statement of opinion is held to be enough. It isn’t—or rather, it shouldn’t be.

“Those critics who double as interviewers for radio or TV—in whose ranks I have sometimes been myself—should always be careful that they are not gilding the truth in order to make themselves more palatable to film stars, filmmakers and publicists they’re interviewing.

“There is no shortage of people posing as honest reviewers who are, in reality, liars, cheats and tricksters, and they certainly let down the craft of film criticism,” spits Tookey.

But what’s the view from the other side of the fence, or fences if you count not just the distributor but the filmmakers themselves, whose movies are also being assessed in this new climate of almost-anything-goes-and-where criticism?

Stephen Woolley has been producing (and occasionally directing) films, over 50 in all, for more than 25 years, most recently Perrier’s Bounty and Made in Dagenham, while Rebecca O’Brien is perhaps most associated with the work of Ken Loach having, to date, produced 13 of his films including his latest, Route Irish.

While they have differing views on the work of critics—O’Brien, for example, hates the way the name ‘Loach’ tends to predicate the type of review—both are absolutely agreed on the absurdity of the star system. No, not that star system but rather the prevailing method by which some critics tend to flag up a film’s worth.

For Woolley, this suggests reviews are written with less consideration about the meaning and depth of the film and much more about its superficial entertainment value. For O’Brien, it’s a lazy method of apportioning merit and also leads to—“and I am guilty of this, too” —“laziness among readers. It is very frustrating for filmmakers. It demeans and diminishes criticism and that’s a sad thing as it’s part of the whole machinery we need to keep our industry going.”

While the distributors will gleefully appropriate those stars for their newspaper, poster or TV campaigns, there is at least some acknowledgment of their shortcoming. Duncan Clark, executive vice-president for international distribution at Universal Pictures, who spent years at the coalface of ad/pub promo for various European and Hollywood companies, describes them as an “inevitability. That instant soundbite-style gratification is just a sign of the times.

“It’s like when you sometimes get a mini-review, rather like a précis at the top of the review itself. If it’s poor then you probably won’t read any further. It’s a shame you’re effectively reducing things to just a thumbs-up or thumbs-down especially when there’s so much material that kind of slips into a greyer area than that.”

However, just in case today’s critics feels they are under fire from all sides, then they can take some comfort in these reassuring words from a spokesman for the leading independent, Optimum Releasing.

“Despite the undeniably important online comment and social networking platforms in today’s marketplace, we never underestimate the value of traditional print support for quality product … critical mass in print remains an invaluable marketing tool for distributors commanding a level of space and awareness we cannot possibly achieve through advertising or online alone.”

Which doesn’t mean that some films aren’t, dammit, critic-proof. Duncan Clark acknowledges it—“just look at a film like Mamma Mia!”—as does Jason Solomons. “Actually,” he sighs, “I think most movies are critic-proof which is, I suppose, a very depressing thing for me to admit.”

The final thought belongs to Guardian man Peter Bradshaw, who in the midst of all this debate about the continuing value or not of the film critic today, joyously sums up the continuing “thrill” of his job thus: It’s “going to see a film at 10.30 in the morning, or even earlier. It feels illegal, immoral and absolutely brilliant. Short of actually drinking a pint of absinthe and smoking one of Lord Henry Wotton’s opium-flavoured cigarettes in the cinema foyer, it couldn’t be more decadent. I feel this less-than-innocent pleasure will never pall.”

Quentin Falk reviewed films for more than 30 years in the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Mirror, Punch, Screen International and the Wokingham, Bracknell & Ascot Times.

EXTRA

Mark Batey, chief executive of the Film Distributors’ Association, gives his opinion of modern film criticism

“Film critics can help interested readers/viewers find films they may enjoy and give context to back up their opinions. They can champion a particular film or filmmaker in a well informed, credible and passionate way. This has long been the case but it still applies today and, in a world of 500 theatrical releases a year, it’s really important to have voices speaking for the quality films they admire and want to bring to wider attention.

“What’s changed, of course, as the Internet has tightened its hold on the ways most of us communicate, is the huge expansion in sources of information and opinion on films (and everything else). For many young people, the buzz on social network sites is far more compelling and salient than what, for instance, a national newspaper says.

“And there is nowhere to hide: opinion formers coming out of an opening day showing can text their friends with a reaction the moment they leave (or even, unfortunately, during the film itself)—potentially affecting traffic to that film later in the same opening day! This was simply not the case a few years ago but, for better or worse, is a fact of life in today’s digital age

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