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Are Film Journalists Too Indie-Focused?

Are Film Journalists Too Indie-Focused?

Buried at the bottom of an interview on Mediabistro is a striking comment from Rotten Tomatoes Editor-In-Chief Matt Atchity about film coverage on the web. Here’s what he had to say in response to a question about “golden rules” for engaging movie lovers online:

“With film journalists, there’s a pitfall of getting too indie-focused. When you’re seeing three, four movies a week, Hollywood formulas can be boring, and so it’s easy to start paying more and more attention to indie and foreign films, because that’s what’s interesting. But there’s not a lot of traffic in covering indie movies, compared to coverage of mainstream movies.”

On a practical level, yes: articles about indie movies get less traffic than articles about mainstream movies. If I write two pieces, one about “The Amazing Spider-Man” and one about “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” it’s a pretty safe bet that the one about Spider-Man is going to generate a lot more pageviews, even on a blog like mine where the audience is an independent film friendly crowd.

But does that mean that mean film journalists are “too indie-focused?” Should they skip covering “Beasts” because more readers will click a link about “Spider-Man?” Atchity’s comment sort of puts the onus of boring Hollywood formulas on critics, rather than the formulaic movies themselves. Critics see so many movies, he argues, that they get sick of their cliches and more curious about indie and foreign films.

Again, on a practical level: that’s all accurate. But isn’t that the way it should be? Don’t we want critics to tell us when a movie is just recycled from other movies? And don’t we want them to tell us when they find something truly unique?

There’s another question here, and it’s about visibility and access. Independent movies make less money than mainstream ones, but they also have fewer advertising dollars behind them and they open in fewer theaters. Critics don’t need to tell anybody to see “The Amazing Spider-Man,” Sony’s marketing machine will do that pretty well on its own. But it’s not that simple for “Beasts of the Southern Wild” or “Sound of My Voice” or “Klown” or any other number of great little movies that audiences might love, if only they knew about them. That’s where the indie-focused film journalist comes in. You can’t be interested in something if you’re not aware of it in the first place.

More people will see “The Amazing Spider-Man” than “Beasts of the Southern Wild” hence more people will read about “The Amazing Spider-Man” than “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” But here’s the thing: the Internet is starting to change movies’ visibility and access the same way it’s changing journalism. Look at the most popular streaming titles on Netflix according to the website Instant Watcher. The recent super-hero movie “Thor” — a surefire traffic draw for any movie website — is currently ranked #17, behind more obscure foreign films like “The Decoy Bride” (#11) and “Battle Royale” (#6). When given the access, a lot of people choose the indie option. They’re tired of formulas too. But sometimes formula is all that’s playing at the local multiplex on Friday night.

I’ve met Matt Atchity a few times and I’ve spoken to him a few more times over Twitter and email. I think he’s a very smart guy. I like Rotten Tomatoes, and I enjoy his YouTube review show What the Flick?! with Alonso Duralde, Christy Lemire, and Ben Mankiewicz. But on this point, I respectfully disagree. Mainstream coverage definiteiy attracts more readers. Whether it truly engages them is another story.

Read more of “So What Do You Do, Matt Atchity, Editor-in-Chief of Rotten Tomatoes?

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Daniel Delago

I have a movie review blog on and it is true. When I write a mainstream Hollywood movie review, my article gets major hits. When I review a quality indie film, it is not as popular with my readers. It's okay because most of my readers are not hardcore cinephiles. The worst thing a journalist can do is only focus on "popcorn" films because that is what the masses crave. I feel that it is my duty as a film critic to uncover those hidden indie gems for my readers who are more discriminating in their film-going tastes.

Charles Judson

I think Atchity's underlying point that if a writer isn't diligent they can suffer "critical drift" is a valid one. It does become tempting to write about the films you respond to with more thought and the ones you don't with less rigor. Which I do think becomes an issue for some writers. Yes, TRANSFORMERS may suck, but if you're going to say it sucks and there's enough there, then you should do it with some of the same intensity you would praising a great or even good film. However, I do think it has to be pointed out that Atchity's answer was to a question that was more business oriented than it was cultural. In terms of business, his answer is more on the money and intellectually honest. In that vein, I would find his answer of "slide shows with good captions are an easy traffic win for online writers and producers" more troubling. Encouraging writers to cover mainstream films with more writing and discussion would in my mind be less a "sin" than pushing writers to just throw up a bunch of studio released pics and call that engagement. Which I think is the more important question: in terms of criticism what is authentic engagement? I think it's important to ponder, because even when a critic is covering a film like BEASTS their coverage can be just as disconnected from the audiences they are writing for as the films they may dislike covering. You can dissect a film with intellectual prowess and still leave a reader empty and hollow. So even though I quibble with some of the other points, I still arrive at the same end. True engagement is much more elusive than getting more clicks or being indie-focused. One could even argue that Richard Hogan's use of the indie-focused pull quote to clearly draw people into a fairly standard industry profile is an example of faux engagement and is itself nakedly shallow.


This contains the kernel of an idea of a film critic who specializes in the taste of people who only see tent pole films essentially could only exist if all he watched were the same 3 or so films a year that they did.

To cover all the films released, you'd have to have a rather large stable of them and divvy out their assignments at the beginning of the year. They should show no particular interest in films at any point in there life, nor should they have ever attended a film studies class. However, they should be competent at writing and generally expressing their views.

I would rather like to read their take on "Beasts of the Southern Wild" if only to compare it to someone who has been taking film seriously for a majority of their life.

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