OFCS members answer the question:
A recent article in the Chicago Tribune claims that online reviewers have “dumbed down” film criticism. Where does Internet-based film criticism fall behind its print and broadcast counterparts? What makes Internet-based film criticism stand out from other mediums?
Answers after the jump.
Sarah Boslaugh, Playback:stl:
I don’t agree that internet film criticism is generally inferior to criticism formerly or currently available in print or broadcast and I have yet to see an article which offered anything other than anecdotes and bogus comparisons in this regard. Most traditional media critics have never been of the caliber of A.O. Scott or Roger Ebert: as in most aspects of life, 90% of published criticism is crap, it’s just that when newspapers were mainly read locally no one knew or cared too much about all the crap being produced elsewhere nor did readers necessarily have a standard of comparison for their local newspaper. With the internet we can read criticism by writers from all over the world and make our own judgments about who is worth reading: we don’t have to settle for whomever happens to have been assigned by our local print news monopoly to write film reviews.
While the thought of competing with the best writers from the entire world can be daunting, writing for the internet has several advantages for the critic. Among these: you don’t have to restrict your coverage to the latest studio releases or to films of obvious commercial interest in the geographical area in which you live, you are often less bound by length restrictions, you can include multimedia and links to other articles in your review, and thanks to commenting and email your review can open up a dialogue with readers and other critics from anywhere in the world.
Kevin Carr, 7M Pictures:
The recent bellyaching from “good critics” (their words, not mine) about their loss of jobs with major papers and broadcast outlets is arrogant, narrow-minded, elitist and completely self-serving. Sure, there are “dumbed down” critics in cyberspace, but there are plenty of thoughtful ones as well. I see this as old-school print critics lashing out at a medium that has made their own platform obsolete. The Internet has actually elevated film criticism to include a diversity of opinion, a better sampling of mainstream tastes, superior search-and-compare options and accessibility of the writer to the reader. Ten years from now, Internet-based film criticism won’t be behind print, but it will have surpassed it and rendered the former as obsolete as Betamax, long-distance phone plans and the Pony Express.
Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall:
Honestly, it doesn’t have anything to do with the internet vs print. It has to do with knowledge and expertise. As you don’t need to have much experience to start a blog, many internet critics don’t have a background in cinema – they haven’t seen the classics and can’t put current releases into the context of film history. On the other hand, print critics generally need to have some background in this area just to qualify for the job. There are a lot of internet critics who do have this level of experience – and many print critics who don’t. But that’s the real issue here: inexperienced pundits cheapen the craft, whatever the topic or medium.
Mark Dujsik, Mark Reviews Movies:
To address the article directly for a moment: No apologies to the Tribune columnist, who is out-of-line and out-of-his-league in attempting to dissect the difference between the “professional” and “amateur” critic. He shows he has no clue how a site like Rotten Tomatoes works and makes every, single, redundant point most articles about the “Death of Film Criticism” because of the Internet has made. Go ahead and blame the Internet for the decline of the print medium; I’ll blame it for making your lazy, sloppy article available for me to read.
Anyway, to the question: Internet-based film criticism only falls behind in its print and broadcast cousins in the stigma placed upon it by ignorant articles like the one in question and access to movies. Online critics are not given equal access to screenings by the studios and their reps for fear that they will post reviews too early. In Chicago, our online members watched as major publications like the Tribune and the Sun-Times published their critics’ reviews of Avatar almost a week before it opened. Not a single online member of the Chicago Film Critics Association broke the studio’s embargo, and not a thing has changed. The dailies break embargoes every week and keep having better and more frequent access.
Marilyn Ferdinand, Ferdy on Films:
The Tribune columnist is being intellectually lazy in his assessment. The examples he cites of “dumber” criticism include IMDb user reviews and aggregate reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. He never once mentions blogs or online publications, and doesn’t make any kind of case that excellent criticism can only be found in gatekeeper publications (i.e., print). Trying to respond to yet another doom-and-gloom look at electronic publishing has become an exercise in diminishing returns. Allowing readers to be their own gatekeepers doesn’t sit well with people invested in hierarchical institutions. Sorry, Tribune, you’re Exhibit A in the idiocracy of print journalism in denial about its loss of status and control.
Rob Gonsalves, eFilmCritic:
Internet-based film criticism falls behind its print/broadcast counterparts only in terms of old-school credibility. It’s true that any moron can start a blog and call himself a critic. (Such activities used to be relegated to zines.) But I’d take a lot of web-only critics over some of the blurb whores and dinosaurs who currently see print. It’s the quality of the work that matters, not the delivery system. Snobbiness towards web writers is very 20th-century. The attitude seems to be that a critic who hasn’t earned the imprimatur of a byline at an established newspaper or magazine must not be any good, by definition. That’s a little like saying that a mom-and-pop store must not be any good because it isn’t Wal-Mart. Point is, working for a corporation (which major print and broadcast media are) doesn’t make you respectable any more than working for yourself makes you a bum.
Web criticism can stand out from the rest because it lets brilliant writers who wouldn’t benefit from the scissors of some doofus editor delve into the nooks and crannies of a movie, or a filmmaker’s work, to his/her heart’s content. Granted, some close-reading critical pieces are dry, academic, or generally tl;dr, but some of them, unlimited by column-inch paucity and unopposed by editors afraid to offend readers and advertisers, can take you to some interesting and unexpected places. The next Pauline Kael will come out of the web, not out of the rapidly dying world of print criticism, which no longer has a place or even space for serious work in the field.
Margot Harrison, Seven Days VT:
Honestly, I don’t understand the charges put forth in columns like this. Most well-known print media film critics have no “professional” qualifications for the job other than proven writing ability and a long-standing passion for film. Few attended film school, much less “film criticism” school. As someone who does have what might be considered “professional qualifications” to review books (namely, a PhD in comparative literature), I can tell you that such degre
es don’t mean much outside academe. Some people who have them can write great book reviews; others can’t write to save their lives.
But, um, I know that wasn’t really the question. In my mind, the only thing that separates online criticism from print criticism is accessibility. Whatever the medium, I seek out critics I respect. And I find them. (I don’t bother reading print reviews from the AP in the local daily, and I don’t think I’m missing anything by not consulting these “professionals.”)
If people want to use “amateur” critics to bolster their impression that The Hurt Locker isn’t worth seeing, they will do so. But those are people who would never have given the movie more than grudging respect anyway. And as for Saw fans, I really don’t think they care whether those films are Oscar worthy. Idiocracy is not about the proliferation of self-styled critics. It’s about people losing energy for anything that takes mental effort, which includes reading and writing criticism.
Roderick Heath, Ferdy on Films:
At the risk of sounding combative and churlish, to be frank, I began composing on-line film commentary because of my own frustration with a lot of critics I was reading in print in the late ’90s, confronted by opposing poles of glib newspaper reviewers and the ersatz scholarship and boring snobbery in some film magazines, particularly on the Australian scene, a lot of written by old ex-hippie farts still pining for the grand old days of Bergman and Godard. I started writing then to get some of my frustration off my chest and try to sharpen my own sensibility and critical standards, which is largely why I still write in this mode. Far from any desire to “dumb down” film commentary – a dubious and difficult proposition to define – I wanted to present a more expansive and generous-minded sensibility than one I was often encountering. Whilst I have no desire to see print criticism disappear, far from it, I also have happily benefited from a great expansion in potential channels of communication and audience through the internet. One of the best things about on-line writing is its total lack of parochialism: am I not an Aussie film writer who’s a member of an American-run society? I’ve had comments from people who live in the United States, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Britain, Bulgaria… and that to me is a great aspect of internet writing. It’s also not, as such writing was back then, a basically one-way street, and perhaps it’s that air of privileged sanctity that some are missing most. So in short my general opinion for the negativity of print critics is, if they couldn’t do any better than they sometimes do, then to hell with them.
James Plath, DVD Town:
I don’t see any reason to overreact. The Tribune columnist is generalizing here, and I’d challenge him to try to tell me that all newspaper reporters are writing at the same level, or even all print reviewers. There are some rank amateurs out there on the Internet writing reviews and blogging, and we all know it. But there are also some very good movie critics who are members of the Online Film Critics Society. Part of our mission ought to be to promote that online film criticism which is heady and informed, because there are always going to be incompetents and pretenders writing, whether in print, online, or some new as-yet-uninvented media.
Robert Roten, Laramie Movie Scope:
As a former print journalism film critic, now a purely online critic, I can see where the columnist is coming from: Print is dying and the internet is to blame. He’s bitter. I’m bitter too and I despair over the rapid decline in this nation’s great newspapers, the Tribune among them.
It is not true, however that print-based film journalism is inherently better than internet film journalism. It does have advantages, the main one being the ability of print publications to hire the best writers by paying them more money. That ability, however, is rapidly being eroded by the loss of print revenue. That ability was never fully utilized in the first place. The hiring of film journalists in print was often a matter of luck and connections. In many cases, film criticism was not a high priority in newspapers. In many cases it still isn’t.
I have never heard of a newspaper or magazine having a contest to find the best movie critic in the nation, with judges pouring over the work of thousands of contestants.
What you have in the wild and woolly world of online film criticism is literally thousands of film journalists slugging it out for recognition and money. It is a true marketplace of ideas and talent, the way newspapers used to be, but are not anymore. It is also, for many of us, a pure labor or love. Print is dying, but online criticism is robust and healthy.
Sure, you can find many examples of online film critics who can’t write well and don’t know much about film, but that is also true of dead tree journalism. You can also find many examples of well-written, well thought-out, entertaining movie reviews online. In fact you can find more of everything online than you can find in print, good and bad.
I suspect that if every print newspaper and magazine conducted fair, well-publicized contests, open to everyone, to find the best film critics for their staffs, based on a substantial body of work, a great many online critics would end up with those jobs. The same would happen if similar contests were held for those coveted newspaper columnist positions. There are a great number of very talented bloggers online who could do a great job for those print publications.
Felix Vasquez, Cinema Crazed:
I don’t see any reason to overreact. The columnist is generalizing here, and I’d challenge him to try to tell me that all newspaper reporters are writing at the same level, or even all print reviewers. There are some rank amateurs out there on the Internet writing reviews and blogging, and we all know it. But there are also some very good movie critics who are members of the Online Film Critics Society. Part of our mission ought to be to promote that online film criticism which is heady and informed, because there are always going to be incompetents and pretenders writing, whether in print, online, or some new as-yet-uninvented media.
Finally, here’s a reprint of the letter MovieCrypt‘s Kevin A. Ranson sent to the Tribune:
I have read articles such as yours regarding the decline of meaningful film critique as it is being diluted by the deluge of voices online. While the decline of print news and paid critics is certainly something to lament, you also fail to point out how many of those “print critics” are (or were) journalists assigned to the task whether they had any interest or experience in film to begin with.
With a medium like the Internet where a distinct voice is often drowned out by the collective, there are great things coming from that. Organizations such as the Online Film Critics Society (of which I am a member in the interest of full disclosure) do their best to gather, recommend, and promote up and coming critics using established standards that must be maintained. Additionally, many of these online critics hone their art for love of film rather than paid assignment, and with the decline of print media, it isn’t as if opportunities for paid positions are springing up everywhere.
Finally, citing a popular franchise in a genre such as slasher films for automatically being less than worthy is a example of something you have failed to consider. While it’s no secret that studios prefer revenue over art, small budgets and thin premises are the bread and butter o
f inventive thinking, and plenty of celebrity directors, actors, and other filmmakers have paid their dues or have made careers out of screaming or menacing their way across the big screen. If your assessment of a critic championing such fare is automatically the example of this looming “Idiocracy” on its way in, I must point out that Roger Ebert himself endorsed Blade 2 as one of the best movies of 2002 (and I agree with him).