Do film critics have a future?
Eleanor Ringel Gillespie’s scheduled ‘departure’ from the Atlanta Journal and Constitution heightens concerns about the future of film criticism
The recent New York Times article, covering the Atlanta Journal and
Constitution’s replacement of it’s staff book reviewer, Teresa Weaver, by wire services, furthers our ongoing concerns about the current consolidation of arts criticism that’s sweeping the media nationwide.
Book reviewers now. Film critics next?
The answer to that question is, unfortunately, yes.
An astonishing case in point: Effective June 30, AJC is also replacing
veteran critic Eleanor Ringel Gillespie with ‘the wires.’
Ringel Gillespie, an AWFJ member, has been AJC?s film reviewer for almost 30 years, is revered by a substantial and devoted readership and ranked by the film industry among the nation’s most respected, most influential critics.
The Alliance of Women Film Journalists is dismayed by the shocking– but not quite surprising– turn of events.
“For the record, Eleanor Ringel Gillespie at the AJC is the best there is — funny, keen and lively,” says AWFJ member Carrie Rickey, film critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “When we read about a film critics being pinkslipped we should see it as a symptom of a contracting newspaper industry rather than as a referendum on the talent of said critic.”< AWFJ is highly aware and deeply concerned that Ringel Gillespie's not the only film critic who's position has been eliminated, or is in jeopardy. "In a cinematic world where multiplexes were supposed to mean a multiplicity of choices-- and have wound showing "Spider-Man 3" every 15 minutes-- the trend toward newspapers using wire service reviews rather than local critics is a disheartening and dangerous one,? says AWFJ member Carol Cling, staff reviewer for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Consolidation trend is sweeping the realm of alt weeklies, with the New Times chain?s pooling of reviewers and its syndication of their reviews. Freelance reviewers whose bylines have been regularly seen in film sections and are expected and respected by local readers, are receiving few or no assignments from New York-based New Times management. AWFJ, a non-profit organization of leading women film journalists from across the nation, joins other organizations and individuals who maintain that locally-based film critics-- male or female, AWFJ member or not-- are important assets to daily and weekly newspapers that wish to serve their readerships responsibly and with the respect due to them. "Local newspapers provide a vital service geared to their specific communites," says Cling. "As an example, I'm augmenting my annual summer movie preview with a story devoted to this summer's made-in-Vegas movies, from "Ocean's Thirteen" to "Lucky You." As a Las Vegas-based critic, I can tell local readers which movies get details right ...and which don't. I provide specific insight into movie-related news-- such as when the local CineVegas film festival had to sponsor "Shortbus" because no local theater chains would book it-- that wire coverage of "Shortbus" would lack." Newspapers eliminating staff reviewers in favor of wire-service feeds severely limits the pool of professional, informed opinions available to and so valued by moviegoers. ?Newspapers don't run wire reviews because they they've come to the considered editorial conclusion that the critic for any particular service is so informed and authoritative that all other voices are superfluous. They're looking to cut costs," comments AWFJ Vice President Maitland McDonagh, senior film editor for TVGuide.com. "Online searches 'appear' to return dozens of reviews for a particular title, but often prove to be the same handful of reviews recycled across dozens of sites. The way to learn about a movie you haven't seen is to compare and contrast, not to put your faith -- whether you like it or not -- in a single opinion. We need to recognize that online sites-- both print-affiliated and stand alone-- don't add 'tell us what you think areas' because they want to open the floor to diverse and vital opinions. They're filling up space for free." Platforms for long-form criticism and features are also collapsing. Premiere Magazine, the nation's most widely read film book, morphed into its solely online presence at premiere.com. "The drying up of outlets for meaningful film reviews and/or criticism doesn't come as a particular surprise," says Glenn Kenny, who survived Premiere?s morph and now single-handedly covers film for premiere.com. "I don't have the quote in front of me, but I recall what Truffaut said about the movie reviewer being the one kind of critic nobody has any problem second-guessing; now market and media conditions are such that rather than second-guess the critic, platforms can just eliminate him or her. That you've got industry mandarins like Peter Bart seemingly rooting for the death of film criticism doesn?t help either, and treating Bart as a figure of fun (as I have) only dulls the pain and damage superficially. What it means is that eventually people who have a passion for film and a passion for writing about film will increasingly do it for free, on the internet. Passion, while it can be an admirable trait in many respects, doesn?t insure quality; still, I'm encouraged by a lot that I see in the emerging web-based film culture. The ground that garbage-peddling studios think they've gained by eliminating pesky 'middlemen' like the film critics could be taken back, somehow, someday." AWFJ member Anne Thompson wrote an obit for Premiere Magazine and suggests that traditional media is capitalizing on the increasingly important blogoshpere, thereby changing the nature of film criticism.
“Media outlets are building online traffic by giving their best-known writers blogs,” writes Thompson. “While fact- and spell-checking is still de rigueur, so are more personal statements of point-of-view and opinion.”
That?s a good thing. Well-established critics Shawn Levy (The Oregonian), Ty Burr (Boston Globe) and Lou Lumenick (NY Post) use newspaper-affiliated blogs to deliver personal insights about films and industry developments.
That’s an opportunity welcomed by Carrie Rickey, who initiated her Philadelphia Inquirer blog recently. “What I worry about is that in some newsrooms, as Peter Rainer has written about so eloquently in The Christian Science Monitor, editors expect movie critics to be cheerleaders rather than critics. (They’d never expect food critics to rhapsodize over Burger King, but they expect film critics to love love love the latest Burger King tie-in.) I worry that newspapers, anxious about alienating advertisers, will jettison criticism in favor of fluffy features that promote films without saying anything substantive about them,” says Rickey.
The print-online straddle may feel comfortable– perhaps progressive– at the moment, but one wonders whether that will last. Will print critics-cum-bloggers be able to sustain their print presence? Or will they eventually be forced to go online only, emulating some ex-print critic colleagues who?ve kept their careers alive by developing strong personal Web sites (EmanuelLevy.com, HenrySheehan.com and DaveKehr.com, for example, have substantial followings) or fading into the ranks of basement bloggers whose qualifications are unknown, unproven.
The proliferation of online outlets giving free access to people who want to comment about films is laudably democratic, but it doesn?t replace the function of nor need for professional critics.
“It’s a fallacy to suggest that because movies are a popular medium, all opinions are created equal,” says McDonagh. “Blogging and reader-generated reviews expose writers who?d once have gone unheard because they lacked professional affiliation, and some of them are smart and dedicated. But when I seek a review — of a book, ballet, film or anything else — I want to read what someone who knows more than I do has to say. Consistently, and not just about a handful of things in which they happen to be passionately interested.”
“Being a movie reviewer is great work if you can get it, but it is work if you’re doing it right,” McDonagh continues. “Doing it right means reading the book the movie’s based on, not just knowing something?s a remake, but seeing the original and taking another look if the last time you saw it was in high school. It means setting aside the fact that you don’t like romantic comedies and evaluating ‘this’ romantic comedy against the history and expectations of the genre– and not being embarrassed to say “genre” because someone might think you’re showing off. It means seeing documentaries about goat herders in Burkina Faso and booger-laced comedies about misfit kiddie soccer teams. It means knowing that fill-in-the-blank “rocks” (or “sucks”) is not a review. That’s what professional reviewers commit to doing, and that’s why we need more of them, not fewer.”
AWFJ Vice President Joanna Langfield, The Movie Minute?s host and syndicator, comments that consolidation’s hitting broadcast critics, as well.
“Conglomerate ownership bring conglomerate reviewing (a network feed of Jeffrey Lyons, airs on NBC affiliates, replacing local reviewers whom stations would have to pay). Many stations opt to report box office results instead of airing reviews,” says Langfield. “I can assure those thinking this offers greater opportunity to syndicators, that?s not necessarily the case. It’s cheaper for local stations to air network entertainment programming– and in some cases station group owners require affiliates to carry only internally-produced product. This doesn’t imply quality stations aren’t seeking high quality programming, but limitations are far greater than in the past. We should note this trend is affecting film critics across the full spectrum of media.”
Decisions to cut critics from the payroll undoubtedly fit corporate economic requirements, shifting business paradigms and immediate bottom lines. But is cutting film critics really efficient from a business standpoint?
“You can see why book reviewers are feeling the heat– because, hey, how many people read literary fiction or offbeat histories of the cod fishing industry? But movies are a more popular medium, attracting more readers, more advertising, especially if you consider their post-theatrical life. Publications can recycle reviews when a title comes out on DVD or plays on TV. Newspapers get their money’s worth from staff film reviewers,” says McDonagh.
AWFJ acknowledges that the mediascape is transforming quickly, drastically. As traditional outlets for professional film critics disappear from the horizon, others are popping up. As traditional print and broadcast outlets diminish, the Internet offers unlimited free access to those– professional or not– who care to comment about film in personal blogs, pod and videocasts. Given these inevitable changes, AWFJ strongly believes that moviegoers have relationships– love ’em or hate ’em– with their local movie reviewers. Local critics provide priceless perspectives that simply cannot be replaced.
“Blogs and websites play into the “everyone’s a critic” school of thought– but while everyone has opinions and all opinions are valid, that doesn’t make all bearers of them critics,” Cling comments. “Popular culture of late has become increasingly dumbed-down and homogenized– and it seems criticism of same is following suit. One of my mentors, the late Gene Siskel, used to describe movie criticism as “the national dream beat.” Who’s going to report that the dream is becoming a nightmare, when all the dream analysts have been sent packing?”
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