In MediaBistro's recent So What Do You Do? interview with Rotten Tomatoes' editor-in-chief Matt Atchity, he weighs in on the state of film criticism, the discrepancy between critics and the public, and the "pitfall" of journalists being too "indie-focused."
Before we address that notion, credit Atchity for feeling guilty over Warner Bros.-owned Rotten Tomatoes being partially responsible for the decline of critics:
It does bother me that critics are some of the first on the chopping block when a newspaper, for instance, makes cutbacks, and I know that what we do at RT is a part of why that happens. But I would never want to see what we do replace actual criticism. I strongly believe that professional critics are extremely important. We absolutely ought to be analyzing the media we consume.
It's easy to point to "bloggers" as the death of criticism, but I think that's a simplistic view of the world. There was a time when a local critic really had a lot of influence on the movie-watching habits of their community, but I think the studios' marketing machines have done more to try and drown out critics than the Internet ever has. Admittedly, there are some less than stellar online writers out there, but there are some dodgy print critics out there, too.
…and for defending sacred space:
To me, the theater is sacred ground; it's a shared experience, and we should be respectful of those sharing that experience with us. When the theater owners talk about actually encouraging texting (as they did at Cinema Con recently) it makes me think they're simply going to drive away an already shrinking audience.
Now, on to Atchity's belief that "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."
He's talking about engaging audiences. His focus is on how to maximize traffic (in order to make more money through advertising), not how to serve an audience. It's a no-brainer that mainstream films, with enormous marketing engines behind them, get more traffic and coverage in general. It's a critics job to look beneath that steamroller to judge the film for its actual merits.
It's worth it to cull through offerings and–when deserved–shine a light on indie and foreign films that are often drowned by over-inflated big-budget mainstream films with millions in marketing bombast behind them. Film-loving journalists are valuable because they watch more than just the films the studios put in front of them for mass consumption. Audiences need to be alerted as to what to watch.
Thus Atchity seems to be on the side of his advertisers, the studios. It's disturbing that he uses Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive" as an example of a movie that inspired a critic vs. audience divide ("critics loved 'Drive' and most of the audience hated it"), while his own site lists the film with a critic score of 92% Fresh and an audience score of 78%. Does he like the movie or not? Does he think that the fact that it played better for highbrows than lowbrows justifies RT's editorial exclusion? He's chasing traffic. Is that the be-all and end-all?
He doesn't put "too much stock" in audience scores, calling it a "self-selecting pool." He believes we are culturally successful at picking movies we think we're going to like. "If people were more willing to see movies they were on the fence about, I think the audience scores would be a lot different than they are now." And imagine what audience scores would be like if their taste wasn't systemically influenced by which films are given the loudest marketing and largest playing field.
If it's critics vs. marketing, who's winning the war of the tastemakers?