“There has never been a statue erected to honour a critic.”
– Zig Ziglar
Most people don’t like film criticism. Stephen Fry called it a “dreadful trade”, asking “What decent person would want to spend a life picking and cavilling?” Director Alex Proyas called critics “a pack of diseased vultures pecking at the bones of a dying carcass”. The unfortunate truth, however, is that film critics do matter. Alfred Hitchcock was just an entertainer until Cahiers du Cinema defended his artistry. Bonnie and Clyde revolutionised American filmmaking, but only after being championed by Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert. And many great filmmakers – Wallace Shawn; Paul Greengrass; Lynne Ramsay – owe (some of) their success to good early notices.
Still, the disdain coagulates. Films like Suicide Squad, Bright, and The Last Jedi are key here. These blockbusters were received very differently by critics and audiences – a phenomenon which climaxed with two farcical Change.org petitions. The first asked “the audiences” to ignore film criticism, while the second charged that Disney had bribed Rotten Tomatoes against non-Marvel superhero movies. These may be extreme examples, but the sentiment behind them is widespread, and the internet has inflamed and harnessed it.
We now have two key digital alternatives to traditional film criticism. The first is to bypass “reviewers” altogether. In 2012, Radio Times Film Editor Andrew Collins noticed a curious phenomenon. Posters for Project X (a justly-forgotten frat comedy) were splattered with praise not from respectable film critics, but from everyday Twitter users. Investigating further, Collins found the quotes came from two accounts – one with no biographical information and one belonging to an Islamic rock band. Without impugning Project X’s marketing, one has to ask – if there’s no accountability for the opinion, if it’s essentially anonymous – why should we trust it?
The second alternative comes in the form of “critics” who are not, strictly speaking, critics. Jeremy Jahns, one of youtube’s most popular film reviewers, goes to great lengths to define himself against film criticism. “In this recent boom” he says, “the internet has given power to normal people… they like movies that are fun… they’re not really after the ‘artsy’ type”. Jahns worked at a film theatre before making videos. His background is not academic, and he skews towards popular films and “erd culture. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s unlikely that Jahns or his competitors would ever kickstart the careers of obscure new filmmakers – they would just go unnoticed. This complaint might seem odd, but Roger Ebert did exactly that with Hoop Dreams and My Dinner With Andre. These films’ success was directly thanks to the critics who championed them.To quote Ratatouille, “There are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new”. In an age when cinema relies on blockbuster tentpole sequels and reboots, a defence of the new is desperately needed. But online film criticism, it seems, is usually more interested in the pre-established – dissecting trailers, posters, and costumes for upcoming franchise entries.
Of course, beyond how online critics operate, it is useful to discuss the consequences of their very existence. In an all too familiar fashion, printed film criticism is in crisis. In 2009 Variety dismissed Todd McCarthy – its longstanding film critic, one of America’s most respected. An internal memo proclaimed “It doesn’t make economic sense to have full-time reviewers… Today’s changes won’t be noticed by the readers.” Shortly thereafter, New York Times’ critic A.O. Scott (who had just argued that film criticism was not dying at an Atlanta conference) had his 36 year old TV show At the Movies axed. Disney lawyers called the programme “a dinosaur” in the online age, while Scott pondered the implications. “Everyone’s a critic!” he wrote, “Or maybe no-one is.”
But the greatest loss for film criticism was yet to come. Roger Ebert died on April 4th 2013, after battling throat cancer for seven years. There was an outpouring of grief and admiration from all corners – even President Obama paid tribute: “For a generation of Americans”, he said “Roger was the movies.” But there was a sense that more than just one man had been lost. The International Business Times ran an article entitled “Movie Critic’s Death Symbolizes the End of a Profession”, declaring Ebert the last critic “whose opinion actually mattered”.
But there is a curious addendum to Ebert’s passing. If fears about the internet bled into his public mourning (and they did) it must be acknowledged that these were not fears that Roger Ebert shared. In 2006, cancer stole Ebert’s voice and, thus, his TV Show. But he wasn’t deterred. Roger went global, filing all his reviews (new and old) on his website, and using an army of twitter followers to extend his reach further than ever before. Mark Kermode, the UK’s leading film critic, has succeeded on similar grounds – with his blog and podcast becoming worldwide successes. The Mark Kermode Appreciation Society on Facebook boasts 5400 members, while his reviews (also broadcast on BBC 5Live) regularly rake in tens of thousands of youtube hits. Moreover, the internet has fostered a new kind of filmic discussion – based on interaction, and allowed the time to cater to niche topics. Both Kermode and Ebert used blogs to focus in on films, filmmakers, or cinematic ideas, while the likes of Cinefix and Lindsay Ellis have built careers on this format – something that would not have been possible without the internet. There remains a market for serious filmic discussion, and the internet can facilitate it.
This does not erase the challenges film critics face. But it does present a path forward. The online world can accommodate good criticism, both from internet natives and digital migrants. And for all the worries around the quality of digital film reviews, I’d like to point out a 1990 article about Roger Ebert’s television show, written by Time Magazine’s Richard Corliss: “This is, shall we say, no film university of the air. The program does not dwell on shot analysis, or any other kind of analysis. It is a sitcom… starring two guys who live in a movie theater and argue all the time.”
Corliss’ column raged against television’s limitations. He worried it was killing American film criticism. He neglected to mention the many episodes which analysed specific films, tropes, or filmmakers, and his complaints ring particularly hollow when weighed against Ebert’s legacy today. The same principle holds true for the online film criticism. It’s new, and it is scary. But it is not the end.