Critics are dead.
That's the line we keep hearing as cost-cutting at newspapers claims the local movie critic, replaced by syndicated reviews or not at all. Media stories about movie openings now refer to critics with an aggregated score from Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic, rather than individual names. Time and Newsweek have relegated most of their reviews to their websites. The three-decade TV warhorse At The Movies that made national celebrities of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel is leaving the air for good in August. Its replacement: a vapid red carpet fashion parade. On Good Morning America, credible movie reviews died with Joel Siegel two years ago. David Ansen and Scott Foundas left print to program film festivals. And of course Variety, who cut costs and raised eyebrows by axing Todd McCarthy, their tireless and highly regarded lead critic of 31 years.
Not everyone has been tossed overboard. Gene Shalit hangs on at The Today Show with his gimmicky segments while the limping giants-the major city papers of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles-are still toting a full plate of film criticism. But the general feeling is the party's over.
In a March 31st New York Times essay, A.O. Scott-lead critic and current co-host of the aforementioned soon-to-be-defunct At The Movies-points out the new reality.
"Maybe criticism mattered once, but the conventional wisdom insists that it doesn't anymore," he writes. "There used to be James Agee, and now there is Rotten Tomatoes. Rotten movies routinely make huge sums of money in spite of the demurral of critics. Where once reasoned debate and knowledgeable evaluation flourished, there are now social networking and marketing algorithms and a nattering gaggle of bloggers."
True. But then why does every major and minor (i.e. indie) release rely so heavily on critics' opinions? Just look at the ads: print, internet, TV, radio, billboards, DVDs. The studios have scoured reviews from the biggest papers to the tiniest websites to flaunt whatever compliments are fit to print, even if just a single adjective: "Brilliant!" Reviews aren't just being read-they're being parsed.
"If critics are irrelevant, then why is every movie ad-without exception-based on critics' quotes?" asks veteran film critic and historian Leonard Maltin (who also publishes a thriving annual movie guide of reviews). "And it doesn't matter who the critics are. They will quote anybody, but the advertising premise seems to be that you can't persuade people to go to a movie without quoting someone recommending it."
Maltin says the practice is so pervasive that when an ad or a DVD box doesn't include a quote, he's immediately suspicious that the movie must really be a dog.
But how important are critics to exhibition, particularly for big tentpole releases?
Sequels, horror and blockbuster action films-"fanboy" movies, as they're often dismissed-would seem to least need critical support. Still even these so-called "critic proof" movies are promoted with praise if they can scrounge it from the likes of USA Today, The Wall St. Journal or Rolling Stone. Failing that, they resort to the fanboy holy grail: Ain't It Cool News, BloodyDisgusting.com and Chud. A quote is a quote, and any quote has a psychological effect on consumers.
Take the abysmally reviewed Furry Vengeance. Only one critic copped to liking it on Rotten Tomatoes, where it bottomed out at only two percent Fresh. Nevertheless, Summit Entertainment managed to crowd its ads with quotes dredged from The Dove Foundation and the Film Advisory Board. You get it where you can get it.
Marketers see exhibition and critics as strange-but necessary-bedfellows.
"The most important thing happening in film criticism right now is twofold," says marketing and distribution specialist Marian Koltai-Levine, a key executive at New Line Cinema and Picturehouse who has since struck out on her own. "From a business side, it is very important for the exhibition community and ancillary markets to see that there is a theatrical release-and the theatrical release is often indicated by one of two things: box office or film critics. Because as we know, there are lots of films that struggle at the box office, but that critics really support."
Koltai-Levine is opening a new low-budget indie film, Touching Home, in New York. It's a tough market for this particular movie, but she wants to get the New York Times review-good or bad-in order to influence exhibitors to book the film. That's how important a key review can be to get exhibition excited.
"In the world of Landmark Theatres, critics are extremely essential," says veteran exhibitor and current Landmark CEO Ted Mundorff, whose screens run a variety of studio and indie films. "Critics matter not only to hopefully get a good review, but just to expose the fact that the picture is playing at your neighborhood theater. The Landmark audience still reads. Local critics are critical for a successful release of an independent movie."
And the bigger movies that Landmark also plays?
Dreamworks' expensive cartoon How to Train Your Dragon is a perfect example of a commercial film where critics made a difference. After opening to a good-but lower-than-hoped for-$44 million, the studio increased its TV and print ads to emphasize stellar reviews. It even used the tagline, "The best reviewed movie of the year," planted next to Rotten Tomatoes' Certified Fresh logo. Dreamworks Animation marketing honcho Anne Globe and studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg frequently cited the reviews (it has an impressive 98 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes) in their trade interviews as one of the key reasons that the film gained such traction and eventually turned into a big hit in subsequent weeks-even doing the unprecedented by returning to the number one spot in its fifth week on the charts.
With potential ticket-buyers still relying on reviews, the loss of so many critics in both large and small markets is troubling to both filmmakers and exhibition. Some even directly correlate the downturn in the indie film market to the downsizing of local reviewers whose trust with readers was hard-won.
"One of our problems with newspapers slicing costs is they are cutting critics," says Mundorff. "People have a reliance on their local critic. They may not agree with that person, but they're used them, so I think critics are crucial. We even blow up reviews for lobby standees, and in some theaters we have a book on display with full reviews."
Even Maltin is taken in by words when he attends movies as a regular filmgoer.
"I have been known to stand in a lobby and read a review of a film that has somehow escaped my notice, and that will definitely fire my curiosity to see it," he says.
So are critics dead? Hardly.
"There's an even greater need for film critics because there's an even greater need for endorsement as the media has become so fragmented. This is an inexpensive way to tell people that other people like it," says Koltai-Levine.
Mundorff even suggests that downsizing critics to cut costs could instead cut profits.
"If news outlets decide they are going to cut critics, we would consider not advertising with them," he cautions. "Look, we aren't asking for great reviews. We're just asking to be reviewed."