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.