The Death of the Movie Critic

As independent films continue to struggle against dwindling revenue streams, both foreign and domestic, one related industry (also in peril) contributing to the precariousness of today’s small film is Film Journalism – i.e. The Press. There are now fewer full-time journalists (and therefore film journalists) than ever before. There are more films than ever before. As these seemingly inexorable trends continue, the unsuspecting victims are small Indies. Already fragile from low budgets and a lack of Hollywood stars, they are the first to suffer a premature death from lack of love.

“These two industries orbit and influence each other. There will either be mutual decline or the opportunity to spur each other to new successes…”

When you consider these two massive industries together – Filmmaking and Journalism – it is impossible to think about the fate of independent film without considering the state of film journalism. Indies, more so than large studio fare, are dependent on a positive critical buzz to propel them success. Lady Bird, famously, has a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. So important was critical praise to Lady Bird’s success that the first negative review online was said to solicit death threats! Venom, on the other hand, with its $100M budget and Marvel comic fanbase is well on its way to making a billion dollars worldwide despite having over 200 bad reviews (out of 285).

And yet few people are paying attention to what is happening to the film critic today. That’s why in October of 2018, a survey went out to 750 top film critics in the US, Canada, Australia, and Britain. Shining a light on what’s happening with film writing will hopefully lead to expanding coverage of small films.

Survey sponsors were: Project Lodestar, an organization dedicated to helping independent film; and Bunker 15 Films, a company focused on bringing films better Press through smarter Publicity methods.

The Intertwined fates of Filmmaking and Film Journalism…

Around 750 film journalists were emailed a survey with just under 100 responses. A high percentage of responses for a given survey. This indicates a lot of change and a high level of enthusiasm and curiosity within the community of writers.

The Survey Questions

  1. How has the economics of film writing changed in your view? i.e. more salaried positions or less? More or less freelance jobs/freelance writers? Pay is up/down/sideways?
  2. Have mobile readers or internet readers changed the writing or your work in some way?
  3. How much do you cover the straight-to-VOD small films or is it strictly large theatrical releases?
  4. Do you have special interests or a niche? Genre preferences or a target audience?
  5. How do you (if you do) use social media like Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram to communicate to your readers?
  6. Is Rotten Tomatoes helping or hurting film critics?

Results – Overview

Because the survey was not multiple choice and the respondents were welcomed to write as much or as little as they liked, the results don’t lend themselves easily to objective quantification. Therefore, reasonable people could have read all the answers and summarized them differently or with a different emphasis. We hope that we summarized the opinions of the film journalists fairly.

This survey is one part of a larger effort to influence film industry leaders and inform their decisions on how to continue to grow small and Independent Film. We see the issues affecting film journalism as one of the core, underlying problems negatively impacting Indie Films finding larger audiences.

Question by Question Results

How has the economics of film writing changed in your view? i.e. more salaried positions or less? More or less freelance jobs/freelance writers? Pay is up/down/sideways?

Doesn’t appear the answers here will surprise anyone. Almost everyone, everywhere – with the exception of the Washington Post – has reported a steep decrease and in many cases a total elimination of full-time salaried positions for film critics. This mirrors the overall state of journalism everywhere. Revenue streams are smaller and business models are evolving (i.e. challenged) in an economy where almost all readers expect content to be free.

Some reported that salaried positions were eliminated and a wire service was used for movie reviews but most said that writers were “hired back” on a freelance basis – with a reduced payment structure.

“…the writing has value to the films, but the value is not making it to the journalists.”

For freelance fees, most said that over the years the fees were going down although some reported that they had remained level for many, many years (not increasing with inflation nor cost of living). No one reported seeing any increases in salaries nor freelance fees.

Notable is that in Europe these trends seemed to occur many years prior. British and Irish critics reported that all movie reviews have been freelance for years.

Interesting to the Survey-Authors is that this steep decline in revenues for film writing is paradoxically coming at a time where studios are taking notice of the increased impact of reviews on their largest franchises. Thus the writing has value to the films, but the value is not making it to the journalists.

2. Have mobile readers or internet readers changed the writing or your work in some way?

Differing opinions here. Most established writers saying their writing style has NOT changed at all. Comments like “good writing is good writing” were common.

A small number claimed that there have been cosmetic changes recommended by their Editors – i.e. Using Click-bait titles to draw users in and trying to game Search Engines by using the names of famous actors in the film early in the review and often.

We expected most to say there would be a push for shorter reviews so they could be more easily digested online or even on a mobile device – yet we found little support for this theory. In fact, those that commented on the length of the reviews said that the move online had the OPPOSITE effect: i.e. making reviews LONGER. Because length was less of an issue therefore allowing for more in-depth reviews without regard to the physical space limit inherent in a physical paper.

“Now everyone with an internet connection can be a movie critic…”

Another common refrain was the scheduling difference online vs print. Now that we have instant online publication of reviews, to be FIRST (always a priority in journalism) you might need to be online within a few hours of the end of the screening! And if you don’t push your review out the day the embargo lifts then you might be “out of the conversation” or being seen as “behind the times.” The speed at which publications wish to print is often much different in an online world. The need to post so quickly is seen as hurting the reflective process in writing a review. Especially if a writer is at a festival. One critic noted that the need to post something to twitter from a festival screening can be so overwhelming that he and many colleagues are forming the post-screening tweet before the film is over.

Another common comment here was the pervasiveness of the “Movie Blog.” Now everyone with an internet connection can be a movie critic. Many new writers thanked the internet for their popularity and, even, their existence. But established writers see pluses and minuses to so many untrained opinions flooding the internet. Diversity of opinion was praised but as one critic put it: “you used to need a degree to do this and now anyone can be a film critic even if you have no education in film.”

3. How much do you cover the straight-to-VOD small films or is it strictly large theatrical releases?

A surprising set of answers here again going against our expectations. We expected journalists to be moving in the direction of covering more VOD releases since so many films are skipping theatrical release schedules. This did not bear out in the survey responses.

The large majority of critics said they do not cover any straight-to-VOD films except the big Netflix releases. Reasons were varied. Interestingly, a few commented that they did not think straight-to-VOD indies were any good and a theatrical release was a mark of quality.

“The overall trend we saw in responses were that indies had always been given short shrift and that trend intensifies…”

But most critics commented that even restricting themselves to theatrical releases has meant a sharp increase in the number of films that must be covered due to the common practice of showing smaller films in local limited release schedules. Instead of local indie theaters showing 2 films per month with longer timeframes, now they are showing 8 films per month with much shorter tenures in the theater – meaning many more “Theatrically released films” in any given city.

The overall trend we saw in responses were that indies had always been given short shrift and that trend intensifies as the number of paid critics goes down, the number of paid freelance jobs goes down and the number of theatrical films in a town goes up.

4. Do you have special interests or a niche? Genre preferences or a target audience?

As expected, the vast majority of critics had no particular niche. We thought we would see a trend towards more niched criticism with a certain target demographic. Even though there was some of this, mostly critics were covering whatever they were assigned which had more to do with Theater rollouts than genres. Some critics have preferences for one genre or another but very few restrict themselves to only covering certain types of films.

5. How do you use social media like Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram to communicate to your readers?

Many reported posting their reviews on Facebook or Twitter – not really Instagram. Especially if there was a larger media outlet involved then the reviews would get posted. Some critics would post on their own accounts but very few reported any interaction with readers or any benefit from doing this.

“Almost no one reported a positive experience building an audience using social media…”

Outside of posting the reviews, very little usage of these social media platforms. Many critics made reference to the negative aspects like trolls, anonymous comments from belligerent internet users, etc.  Almost no one reported a positive experience building an audience using social media.

We heard from a lot of critics that feel like twitter is a more important venue for work and writing than Facebook. Many avoid or dislike Facebook with some liking it. Negative comments about twitter were more rare and positive comments about twitter were more common.

6. Is Rotten Tomatoes helping or hurting film critics?

No clear winner on if Rotten Tomatoes is a net positive or net negative for critics. For the film critic (as opposed to films), our respondents had many positive and good number of negative things to say about Rotten Tomatoes. It was by no means universally positive but many do like that it is used by so many film fans out there and credit the site in lending them a “Resume item” and credibility. Most critics do not see any jump in web traffic to their site due to being listed on RT which leads us to assume most readers only scan the RT site, look at the score or possibly the summary sentences but they do not click to the review itself.

“There was consensus that Rotten Tomatoes was probably bad for films…”

There was consensus that Rotten Tomatoes was probably bad for films. The Thumbs Up / Thumbs Down, which can be traced to Siskel and Ebert and beyond, is reductionist and does not allow for nuanced film criticism. Summing the review up to simple ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’ is not something that most critics want to do and also leads to inflated scores on mediocre (yet unoffending) movies like Toy Story while more challenging films that could be well worth watching (and studying) could get lower RT scores because of controversial content.

Conclusion

Indie film and film journalism are currently suffering similar fates. An explosion of content and simultaneously a declining revenue model. As film journalism funding wanes, so does the attention they are able to lavish on smaller (but deserving) films. The development of new business models and revenue streams for film publications and film journalists could spell good news for films themselves. Projects like Project Lodestar and companies like Bunker 15 Films are working with film publications like Film Threat to bring more publicity and public awareness of small films. These two industries are forever interwoven. Improvements in one area will have positive affects in the other. Each is having a dark period now but if one thing is certain is that the role of movies and the role of stories in our modern world will never wane. Music’s business model was reinvented online and small film’s revenue model will evolve in the coming years as well.

About the author

Daniel Harlow, a UCLA alum, sold his IT firm in 1995 and went back to UCLA (film this time). Now he splits time between Project Lodestar, a non-profit dedicated to helping Indie Film and Bunker 15, a tech company that matches movies with film writers so they get the press they deserve. Daniel may be contacted at his firm at films@bunker15films.com

4 responses to “The Death of the Movie Critic

  1. I use to screen films for Ebert, Siskel and Roeper. I think the death of criticisms coincided with the death of Roger Ebert. The marketing agencies and theatre chains use to fall all over themselves to get a review from him. At the time the rise of internet criticisms was happening with Ain’t It Cool News and reviewers from web sites were sitting in the same screening room. When Roger died there were no more critical heavy weights. Then there was a huge shift in content. Movies became populist comic book films, remakes or had popular sources. They became critic proof. People went because they had a previouse relationship with the source.
    The critic use to let us know about things that were worth watching and tell us what they thought was a waste of time. They also introduced us to things we never knew existed. Times have changed and so has film or filmed entertainment. It’s sad but the days of the critic are really gone.

    1. Ebert was the only critic I ever read on a regular basis. It wasn’t because of his opinions, but his ability as a writer. If he had been reviewing kitchen appliances, I still would have read his stuff. Great film criticism is great writing–that’s it. If opinions are like assholes, then great writers are like third eyes.

      And great writing doesn’t seem to be something of value on the internet–or many other places. Instead, the game is instant gratification–how quick can I get my information and what’s the simplest way for me to feel something. Rotten Tomatoes is appealing because of its simplicity and time management, which is understandable for the person who just wants to see what’s good and what’s playing–not everyone is a film buff, nor need they be. Boiling down nuanced opinions into a number wouldn’t be so successful if there wasn’t a demand for it.

      Movie reviews aside, how many people are reading long-form content of any sort? Because we have all the information in the history of the world in our pockets, there’s this idea that people are far more educated than ever before. But having information is meaningless if you don’t know how to process it, which is especially hard when you’re receiving new information every five seconds. Catching one baseball is easy, but if someone threw two at you, you might become so intent on trying to catch them both that you don’t catch either. For this reason, I think literacy and critical thinking are on a downswing, but I could be wrong.

      However, there is an audience out there–the people who still skulk around bookstores once a week–that is interested in long-form writing. And I think film criticism has failed them, or at least garnered a reputation for being an unsophisticated medium. I don’t know how you change that perception, but I do know time is involved.

      So, I think it’s a failure on both ends–the critics and the public. The critics for not producing interesting content and the public for not demanding interesting content.

  2. I have a theory that Roger was popular not only because he was such a great writer but he was a pioneer in self-promotion! He was to film criticism what Paris Hilton was to Instagram. He leveraged video (which is, frankly, rare even for film critics TODAY – and he did it in the 1970’s)… he had his own show with his partner Siskel. He (and Siskel) would go on the Tonight Show. He’d go to the Oscars. The typical Film Journalist is far too introverted and solitary.

    He even started an elaborate, searchable website years ago. If Ebert were just starting out today, he would likely have his own Youtube channel, he’d be all over twitter and other social media.

    Social media stars know that to be a “Media Influencer,” you have to be famous – and Ebert, instinctively, knew the same thing. I think film critics of today should take a page from this playbook and get their message out there. That includes becoming known personalities in their own right. Ebert was never a goofy character. He never used shock to get attention, instead he had charisma and that helped him become famous – which lead to more and more people tuning in to his reviews!

    -Dan Harlow

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