Film critics: how useful are they anyway?

Every summer or so (dating back many years), and occasionally in the winter, the hallowed circles of film criticism seem to go through a major identity crisis. In the summer: why do so many people still go to see the movies that we’ve not just disliked, but often truly loathed? and why won’t the studios screen those movies for us in advance? In the winter: why has no one else seen our top movie picks for the year? And yet, sadly, despite the copious amounts of erudite writing, nothing seems to change. Go figure.

Here are some excerpts from how this weighty matter played out through 2006-2007:

SUMMER 2006

Avast, Me Critics!” Ye Kill the Fun: Critics and the Masses Disagree About Film Choices (yep, that whole thing really is the title)

A.O. Scott (The New York Times)

But the discrepancy between what critics think and how the public behaves is of perennial interest because it throws into relief some basic questions about taste, economics and the nature of popular entertainment, as well as the more vexing issue of what, exactly, critics are for.

Are we out of touch with the audience? Why do we go sniffing after art where everyone else is looking for fun, and spoiling everybody’s fun when it doesn’t live up to our notion or art? What gives us the right to yell “bomb” outside a crowded theater?

[...] So we’re damned if we don’t. And sometimes, also, if we do. When our breathless praise garlands advertisements for movies the public greets with a shrug, we look like suckers or shills. But these accusations would stick only if the job of the critic were to reflect, predict or influence the public taste.

Screening Call

Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly)

There’s been a bit of media chatter over the last month on the question of whether movie critics ”still matter.” Obviously, I have a vested interest in the subject — I confess! I really want to matter! — but what irks me is that whenever this issue comes up, which is every few years (generally in the midst of the summer season, when some mediocre blockbuster that all the reviewers hated becomes a big hit anyway), it leaves in its trail the same soggy residue of lazy analysis and historical half-truth about what critics do, why it should matter, and, if you look closely, still does.

[...] The vast majority of movie critics I know are not snobs. We enjoy a vast range of films and help, in our non-godlike-power way, to guide readers to (or away from) them. What the ”Do critics matter?” question truly misses is that the heart and soul of our jobs is not merely to recommend. It is to take this popular art we all love and hold it up to the light, to absorb it and reflect it back to you, to enhance the experience of seeing a movie by serving, on the page, as a companionable guide, someone to bounce your own opinion off of, whether or not you happen to agree with that opinion. It’s that process, that exchange, that dialogue that matters — and will, as long as the movies themselves matter too.

Criticism’s status quo getting thumbs down

Anne Thompson (The Hollywood Reporter)

But critics do have a huge impact on independent movies, [Paul Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal] adds. Tentpole movies with gargantuan ad campaigns don’t need critics to brand their titles. But most other movies need reviews, which are crucial to their long-term life, from their theatrical run through television and DVD. That is why filmmakers kill to get a theatrical platform even in just a few key cities. Films like the 2005 mock-docu “My Date With Drew” could easily have gone directly to DVD — but the filmmakers insisted on the legitimization of a theatrical review.

WINTER 2006

Do Movie Critics Matter?

Richard Corliss (Time)

Oh, our readers revere us — while calling us heartless when we don’t like a film they love, and snobbish when we like a film they wouldn’t care to see. Our publishers cherish our expertise, although they’d rather print profiles of stars than reviews of the movies they’re in. The big movie studios are crazy about us — although they keep us out of screenings that every other staffer on the newspaper or magazine is invited to.

SUMMER 2007

Calling Out Film Critics

Mike Nizza (The New York Times blog)

That the movie “300″ was able to weather an unusually fierce barrage of bad reviews on its way to becoming the No. 1 movie in America is prompting a simple question. Should critics just … stop?

One way to answer that would be to judge the success of critics as studios judge the success of their movies: By their box office receipts. People may disregard reviews, but do they continue to seek them out?

In defense of film critics

Peter Rainer (The Christian Science Monitor)

Why do we need film critics? It’s a question that movie executives, publicists, and even readers often ask around this time of year, as we edge into summer, and the studios haul out their extravaganzas – the types of films often panned by reviewers.

[...] But criticism – reasoned, informed, independent-minded criticism – is truly the only thing protecting the consumer from the seller in the movie marketplace prior to a film’s release. That’s why studios try to marginalize serious critics – the ones who can’t be counted on to gush over every piece of product that skitters off the assembly line. The marginalization usually takes the form of withholding preview screenings until it’s too late for the film to be reviewed on its opening weekend. Newspaper and magazine feature editors may discover that their access to movie stars has dried up if the house critic is too tough. Movie ads may be pulled.

WINTER 2007

Do Film Critics Know Anything?

Richard Corliss (Time), round two – as a movie writer himself, I think this guy may have some job issues

[...I] realized that we critics may give these awards to the winners, but we give them for ourselves. In fact, we’re essentially passing notes to one another, admiring our connoisseurship at the risk of ignoring the vast audience that sees movies and the smaller one that reads us.

[...] the Golden Globes and the Oscars, if they follow the critics’ lead, will have V.D.D. — viewer deficit disorder. Large numbers of people won’t watch shows paying tribute to movies they haven’t seen.

[...] And it all starts here, with critics fighting over which hardly seen movie they want to call the best of the year.

See Cinematical’s thoughts on the seasonal Corliss crisis here.

For some other views from ’06-’07, click on one of the links below:

Rotten Tomatoes
For a list of movies not screened for critics in ’06; shockingly, critics despised them once they did finally see them – who would have thought?

Public radio
In print and audio; go for the audio, clearly there’s way too much text in this post already anyway. Helpful quote: ” ‘I’ll even go one further and say that when you have a very big movie and you get a bad review from critics, I bet there are some people at the studios who say, “I think we got a winner on our hands.’ “

Variety
Helpful quote: “The distribution gurus say they prefer “four-quadrant movies,” but I”d suggest that there are only two: One quadrant consists of the hardcore fans who are propelled by “buzz” and the second embraces the rest of the filmgoing public who wait to learn whether the movie”s any good or not.” If you can’t guess, they’re speaking about movies like 300, which I seem to recall doing, you know, okay at the box office.

Forbes
Beware the Forbes Welcome Screen; but once you get past that, another look at critics being “frozen out” of film screenings.

MSNBC
The war between the elitists and the populists: fought to the death, or to the deadline at least, until the end of time. Oh, and Pirates again (ooo, and another list!).

The New York Times
Yet more on movies that don’t get screened for critics, but this time via The Da Vinci Code.

Okay, that’s all well and good, you might be thinking, but what do I think about all this? Well, I think that as long as there is something to critique, we’ll have people there critiquing it and an audience who wants to know what they think. The format may change (a platform in the Forum, a pulpit, print, blogs, virtual transmission of a central system’s information), but the need and message stay the same. We always want to know what others think, particularly those who seem like an authority in some way and can make an “official” judgment, and will seek out what they have to say. Not for everything, sure, but for enough. Whether we follow what they say is a bit irrelevant; we still need to know. And therefore, we still need them.

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