Tuned In

Thumbs Down for Pro Movie Critics?

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I Am David Carr’s Publicist Week continues this morning, as the prolific New York Times writer pens an interesting piece on the disappearance of print movie critics. (I should note, self-servingly, that print TV critics have been downsized or bought out left and right lately also—and, less self-servingly, that much the same has been happening to book critics.) In the New York area alone, he notes, critics have recently been sacked at Newsday and The Village Voice, while Newsweek’s critical giant David Ansen repoortedly took a buyout this week.

Why are movie critics getting massacred? (Budget reasons, of course, but that leads to the question of why they’ve become the budget target of choice lately.) And should you care?

The populist knock on movie critics is often that they’re too snooty, elitist and out of touch with what ordinary people like. Carr makes the intriguing point that critics may have made themselves vulnerable just the opposite way. Eager to ingratiate themselves to readers, print publications have focused ever more on covering blockbusters—to which critics are largely irrelevant—and ceded a lot of the discussion of less-popular, more intellectual movies to the blogs.

With criticism treated, as EW’s Owen Gleiberman tells Carr, “as a kind of product,” newspaper readers’ experience of movie criticism is increasingly limited to reviews (often pans) of movies they’re going to see anyway. Whereas reviews that seek to tell readers about movies they don’t already know about are rarer and rarer—even though they are precisely the sorts of pieces that take advantage of movie critics’ knowledge that the general readership doesn’t have.

If I had to sum up in one sentence the biggest problem with journalism today, it would probably be: We assume that readers will get mad at us if we try to tell them things they don’t already know.

Because TV critics are in much the same position as movie critics, I want to be careful not to be too self-serving here. It’s true that some film (and TV, and music, etc.) criticism done for free online is better than that in some newspapers. But there are still good reasons not to ditch the paid print movie reviewers. One is that amateur bloggers, however insightful and devoted to the art, are often specialists, writing about their areas of particular interest and skipping over others they don’t care about. The broad generalist’s knowledge of a David Ansen simply takes a vast amount of time doing nothing but watching, thinking and writing about movies, without holding down another 9-to-5 to pay the bills. Without some kind of subsidy, it’s hard too imagine how you replace that, except by dividing the work among dozens of micro-enthusiasts. (That has its value, don’t get me wrong—but only by having one critic who’s knowledgable about his whole field, high and low, genre and literary, foreign and domestic, can you get the kind of context and cross-comparisons that make for great criticism.)

The more practical reason is that, while it’s easy to say that theoretically a thousand critical flowers can bloom online, in practice, new media hasn’t replaced the newspaper. Whatever problems print has, millions of people still get their movie reviews from it—now, they’ll just get those reviews from a dwindling number of syndicated and reprinted voices from wire services and other cities.

[Update: Of course, a lot of people—myself included—get a lot of their reviews from national critics: from magazines like the New Yorker, national newspapers, radio and so on. But local papers are, or were, a vital part of the farm system for them. I remember following the reviews of a young critic in the Detroit Free Press by the name of… big Paul Harvey rest-of-the-story pause… Elvis Mitchell, later a film critic for NPR and the New York Times.]

But again, maybe my critics’ bias is starting to show. What movie critics can’t you live without? Or are there any? And is there anything that your local newspaper critics could do to make themselves more valuable to you?