At the recent Seattle Film Festival, Eric Kohn of Indiewire (@erickohn) moderated a panel discussion of the current state of film criticism and coverage today. I joined Seattle critics Robert Horton (@citizenhorton), Sean Axmaker (@seanaxmaker), Keith Simanton of IMDb (@IMDbKeith) and Lindy West of Jezebel (@thelindywest). We dig into long vs. shortform criticism, print vs. online, the social media conversation and how to communicate with audiences, what our role should be in promoting films, and where things are going.
Eric Kohn: The conversation about movies is evolving and changing based on the ways the media landscape is shifting. Use your sensibilities as a critic to tell us about a movie that you think didn’t get the attention it deserved.
Robert Horton: A small movie that just came to Seattle that I loved was “Something in the Air,” the new film by Oliver Assayas. It played for a week. It didn’t have the right kind of local support. A film that was big that I thought could be more appreciated is “Jack Reacher,” a kind of really clean, very smart movie that got lost because it was a Tom Cruise movie and we’re not going to spend more than 20 seconds talking about that anyway.
Lindy West: I’m the odd one out because I was a full-time film critic for seven years. I haven’t done it for a couple years and I never set out to do it. I was a person who cares about art and culture and my writing happened to catch someone’s eye. Now I write for Jezebel, a feminist blog, and review films once in a while, if something comes out that is a big story or if it’s feminist-related. I really liked “Django Unchained” and I felt like the backlash was interesting and valuable but maybe not as nuanced as it could have been because I thought that movie was fucking awesome. Watching it I thought, ‘this is what I want a movie to do… do something and not just be there.’ A lot of people were mad about it and that’s fine because I think that discussion is important.
Sean Axmaker: I wrote for the Seattle Press Intelligencer for years. I wrote for Lindy for a bit [at the Stranger]. I do a little bit for Seattle Weekly but now I write about DVDs, Blu-Ray and streaming video for MSN. I’m watching older films rather than new films. A film that was overlooked is revival “Pont de Nord” by Jacques Rivette. Years ago that kind of thing would have gotten attention with the press. We had room in the papers and those kind of things got a shout-out and I felt that when it came through this year, it was overlooked. Most people didn’t know it played in town. People didn’t have a background on who Rivette was. Film culture is going from locally based film critics talking about what’s happening over time to things getting spread out over the internet. I really loved “Cloud Atlas” and most people did not like that film. I got carried away in that movie. I got caught up in the sheer visual momentum in that movie, the way great storytelling can do that.
Anne Thompson: I’ve gone from working at a monthly to a weekly to a daily and now I work 24/7. I’m a hybrid. Sometimes it’s criticism, sometimes it’s editing other people’s criticism. It’s evolving and I can dig into the past or the present, I can do business reporting, whatever I want. I loved “Ginger and Rosa” and I also loved David Siegel and Scott McGehee’s “What Maisie Knew,” they’re smart, independent filmmakers. They deal with the kind of relationship dramas that are the least popular in cinema today.
Keith Simanton: I’m the managing editor of IMDb for 13 years now. I started writing for Movieline back in the day, a stringer for the Seattle Times and helped co-found Film.com in 1995. I’ve been more in the internet space, straddling both worlds. A smaller film I felt was overlooked was “The Deep Blue Sea.” It sticks with you over a long period of time. It’s an incredibly insightful yet mysterious film, well worth watching, with great performances. I’d stick with “Cloud Atlas” because it reminded me of Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose. It was ungainly and gigantic but when it got off the water it was pretty magnificent. We evaluate these things critically and financially at the same time, and that one didn’t do so well.
EK: Hollywood relies on critics or tries to work around critics to get the results they want. Are critics the biggest headache for Hollywood, or an asset?
AT: When the big studios send out big popcorn movies, they don’t care about critics and use the fanboy movie sites as their promotional vehicles. The critic was once defined as the serious, educated, knowledgeable, experienced person who explained movies to you in a newspaper context. That person still exists but is harder to come by: the studios see them as mainly useful for art films and the Oscar race. The studios are interested in promotion. I got a call from Paramount saying that they want me to see “World War Z”–ostensibly because they want me to improve the credibility of that film. They’re worried about it being taken seriously. [Regarding “Man of Steel”] Warner Bros. could care less what I think about that. IMDb would have a different function for them. That online universe is very different from what film critics used to be.
RH: Are critics a foe or an asset? Neither – they are a tool. There’s an onslaught of stuff around the Oscars. How much was being spent? The shocking amount of self-flattery.. There is still a possibility to tweak people to go see a small film, such as “Something in the Air.”
EK: Sean you write about home entertainment options, how does that affect you?
SA: There are certain times of the year when people are starting to push: ‘hey we’ve got this actor in this movie.’ Sometimes it’s Morgan Freeman and that’s cool. Sometimes it’s the guy who played the best friend’s girl and she’s a rising star and no one’s heard of her, and it’s a B-movie and we give her a push. At MSN we tend to do Morgan Freeman and avoid something else. Most actors will not do promotions for home video. If it was a big film, that’s over and done with. Every once in a while they want to push a smaller film. Joss Whedon did a series of phone interviews a couple years ago when the “Angel” box set came out.
EK: Lindy when you left The Stranger was it a breath of fresh air?
LW: It was a breath of fresh air. There’s a reason I haven’t seen as many movies as I used to. I have a weird relationship with all publicists. They liked me as a person but they didn’t want me to see their movies because I wasn’t nice. Like you said, for the big Blockbuster movies, they didn’t need me. It was always uncomfortable. They hated me when interviews came up because I never want to interview anyone. You can’t get anyone to say anything interesting. I don’t want to go sit in a room with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and have him say the same canned thing he said to 800 other people in a row. I did interview him, but it was, even one-on-one, they don’t want to be there.
EK: If you go to an IMDb page and you see a star rating with comments, these aren’t people who are going to consider themselves voices of authority but by participating in that system they influence the perception of movies. When that started to take hold, were there conversations at IMDb about that?
KS: We have passionate users and submitters and our own staff. A lot of people work on IMDb. With the ratings, we don’t allow you to vote on a movie until it comes out. We also have external reviews and we have Metacritic as well. We have not only ratings and user comments and reviews– and many of those folks work diligently because they feel their opinion is as authoritative as anyone’s. I like that we present all of those various voices. I remember my boss hated “Unforgiven” with a passion, and I went, “well you’re insane, it’s one of the best westerns ever made.” In some ways he was right and I was right. Part of that dialogue is either convincing the other party how they’re so woefully inaccurate or just listening to the ideas of why. “Only God Forgives” – people didn’t boo outright at the end of the screening but people were [unhappy]. The conversation around that film is where literate people on both sides can spar and talk about ideas, and that’s one of the things we like to try and engender.
EK: Illiterate people can push their opinions too. I was mixed on Whedon’s film [“Much Ado About Nothing”] and people did not let up. Is there a danger in the sense that audiences are started to feeling superior to critics, they’re challenging more, has this been a valuable shift?
AT: Those of us on social media– I am always engaging in a conversation– we all graze. What worries me the most is that many folks do not click through to to the story and read the full piece. In today’s culture it’s now about having the right headline. A great film critic grabs someone with that opening graph and gets them to dig in deeper and be further enlightened. Today people are going with the aggregate review. Critics create those [Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic] numbers and stats but I worry that digging into the longer piece is no longer happening as much as it used to.
LW: I always try really hard to make my piece of criticism its own piece of art, where it’s not just in service of the movie. I want it to be its own thing, which is kind of selfish of me but I feel like that helps it withstand this deluge of online reviews and the “Yelp” model. I’ve always tried to make sure – and that’s why I hate things like canned press junket interviews– I want to make something entertaining to read whether they see the movie or not. We care about our writing, not just telling people the movies are bad. It’s harder to get paid to do it but there are tons of outlets to do that on the internet.
SA: Home entertainment is a different audience because I write about older films. By the time the film is released, it’s been around awhile. When I’m writing my home video review, I’m taking in what people have been talking about for the past three months and placing the film in the conversation while I try to express why I featured it. For older films, you’re getting a different audience. If someone is looking up the review of “Wild Strawberries,” for example, they’re going to read that because they want something that is more deep dish. They are going to be reflecting on something that has fifty years of writing already, and they want to engage in something more profound. For that reason I get fewer clicks through. When I put up a thing talking about the “Harry Potter” box set, I got more response on that than anything else put together for the month.
EK: How many of you deal with angry comments?
AT: The more opinionated you are, the more comments you get, that’s the way it works. It leads to bad behavior. Many people writing out there will just go for the snark to get the traffic.
RH: An article on Indiewire asked “Why do we have these film critics if no one cares?” Very few people care. The comments said, “that’s what I’ve been saying all along, we don’t need them.” There’s this weird resentment and hostility going on. If somebody says that “Cloud Atlas” is a great movie, I will go at you and we will have an interesting conversation. Regarding what Sean said about “Wild Strawberries,” the weird thing is that probably more people will have read your unread thing than would have with a small film magazine in the 1960s. It’s disappointing that it doesn’t get as many clicks but the strange thing is that everything else around it is so huge that it will get lost.
EK: Lindy, with Jezebel, you’re talking about feminist conversations at the same time you have the mandates of traffic and a certain tone. Tell us about that.
LW: I say outrageous things because I feel outrageous things. My company makes money from advertising, but no one talks to me about that. People think that I get a dollar every time someone clicks, but no. I want to prove to people that you really feel what you say, and I do. The only time that my work gets manipulated is when my editor will often do the headline; sometimes the headline is ridiculous.
EK: Do you ever feel you need to trick people?
LW: Yeah. People tell me that I’m stupid. So many commenters have spammed me. I do write in a colloquial way, the way that I talk. That’s sort of a trick I do that makes it feel accessible. I do try to talk about sophisticated concepts but I try to make them accessible. I don’t want to read things that are dry. At Jezebel I write about serious things in a funny way which makes it easier for people to talk about it so it’s not just me scolding people. Everything that I do is smuggling and tricking people.
EK: Everybody needs an access point in a valuable conversation, especially when it comes to culture. With the recent passing of Roger Ebert, there has been a lot of discussion about the “thumbs” – did it create another gig in making people think about film in a certain way?
AT: Ebert is a transitional figure. The thumbs up thing is fine because he was a champion, a popularizer, someone who loved movies and wanted people to see them. He would go to see Michael Moore’s movie the night it was opposite something else at Telluride, or Errol Morris, and I applaud him. But the reason he’s a transitional figure is because instead of coming from on high from some ivory tower, he really engaged. When he was post-voice and was engaging online, he really found his milieu. It worked. It was fertile ground. I’m curious to see what our Indiewire colleague Matt Zoller Seitz does running the new RogerEbert.com. I believe that the conversation now is moving in that direction, the successful communication among critics, and that having comments, being able to communicate with readers is a good thing. Ebert took us there.
RH: The thumbs were a form of smuggling. When I started writing for newspapers, they had the star system. Of course I said, “I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to lower myself.” But they said, “do the stars.” It was fine because you put stars out there because you don’t even have to say “I like this movie or that movie,” you can just engage the idea. That’s what the thumb was. Ebert liked to engage ideas and was good at that.
EK: Have you ever been contacted by a studio to use your adjective?
LW: One time, it was a really gory horrifying movie. I wrote a review saying this movie was “gross,” and they just took all the reviews of “this movie is gross.” They didn’t misconstrue my review. They just mined it for all that stuff.
SA: When I was at the Seattle P.I., for local press, I had a lot of headlines for smaller films or art films. For the most part they just wanted to get to as few positive words as possible. No one actually manipulated much but there was a couple times when studios asked, “can we rewrite the sentence?” Strangely enough I get about twice a year different publicists from straight-to-video movies saying we’d like to send you a copy and if you say something nice we’ll put it on the box.
EK: Keith how would you feel if IMDb users were quoted in advertisements?
KS: It would be fantastic — and they have been – because there can be the reviewer in Des Moines who really understands a film and we give them that ability to voice that. Whether they do it consistently and get paid, that I’m not sure of, but there’s a democratic way for them to say what they think about that film. It has always been thus with blurb-meisters – I think that was coined in the mid-80s – the bold type and the byline is incredibly small, if shown at all. I don’t think it’s particularly different. Let the buyer beware, in some senses. If you just look for those bold headlines, you’re probably looking for what you want to see anyway because you’re looking at that ad space. You want to see that that alien movie is “gory” not that its mise-en-scene is reflective of late Clouseau. It’s marketing. That’s one of the great things for me about the Academy Awards, which were created as a marketing tool. We all talk about them, for good or for ill, but they do promote movies, movies that people wouldn’t see otherwise. If you’re watching movies, hurrah!
Audience: I’m imagining that it’s different now than it was years ago. Now you are seeing screeners that you watch at home or online as opposed to going to a premiere and sitting in a big movie house with other critics, or going to a studio. Is that true?
AT: We’re getting more DVDs and Vimeo links. Even going to a screening is less likely.
KS: There is a certain pressure to get your opinion out quickly that there really wasn’t before, internally, on the part of a writer.
Audience: When you’re reviewing the artistry of the movie, does it make a difference in a theater as opposed to looking at it on your laptop?
SA: When I’m doing home entertainment, I’m looking at those qualities. Robert also, when we were covering SIFF, we are getting a lot of the films screened for us but also through Vimeo link or disc, and the quality could vary. That is a difficult thing to deal with. I had to review “Horses of God” from Morocco and it might have been a beautiful film but I couldn’t tell from the disc. How do you cover something like that? I didn’t write about the visual quality because I couldn’t be fair. On the other hand, I saw “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and it was so gorgeous I kept thinking I really wish I could see this on the big screen. If you saw it at SIFF, it’s going to be a different version.
RH: Sometimes it doesn’t make a difference. Sometimes you will have a better experience in a theater.
AT: On Facebook, a film writer asked, “which movie should I see today?” Her Facebook friends were saying, “Go see ‘Before Midnight’ and ‘Frances Ha.'” There were questions of what she would see in the theater versus home. She wouldn’t see docs at a theater, she saw them at home. This is what goes on now.
KS: The first time I saw “Citizen Kane” was on television. I think one of the exciting things is this proliferation of video. It allows access. You’ll have the trolls out there but people now can access movies that they couldn’t otherwise, before now, and you’ve got things like Amazon and other places and you can watch a movie now in two minutes that you heard about five minutes ago. The pendulum swings back. There’s such a proliferation of voices, it’s hard to find the ones to listen to, but there’s so much comment and so many voices, the sifting process will happen again. A larger audience that couldn’t get to hear someone as literate as Robert Horton talk about film gets that opportunity, and can watch it.
AT: There’s curation, being able to champion little independent films. And there’s a certain kind of branding going on where we’re saying, “David Lowery is someone you should be following, and check out ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.'”
KS: “Amour,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” they weren’t bigger films when they showed up.
RH: The one thing I worry about is that becomes the point and whatever it is that we do is just initiating the conversation, which is good, but if that’s how you’re looking at it, rather like what Lindy said, we’re actually trying to create something that is finished and has a rhythm. It’s okay with me if nobody ever comments on that because I am trying to mold something. I hope that the craft does not get lost.
KS: There are traditional methods of publication. Now we’re talking about whether you can create your review, which is an original thought piece.
RH: I’m not giving up on that. I hope that the world doesn’t evolve beyond that.
Audience: Keith, do you oppose what Tarantino said, “which is that film now is TV”? Video has brought films to people but it seems to be in direct opposition to what he said.
KS: I disagree. As I always understood TV, it is the perception that something is going to happen. Little Joe is gonna meet that girl and marry and move off the ponderosa. It never happens, it’s always that stress that things are going to change because it’s that familial association. You’re expecting someone to come into your house. Movies are intensely different than that although I do recognize how many series are approaching, I’d say TV is approaching movies.
AT: I’d say it’s ahead. The best writing, the best talent. It’s depressing to me that studios are abandoning audiences. They’re still chasing the young male demo who comes on the opening weekend, and that’s why they do it. One studio chief told me, ‘my job is to figure out what will get audiences to come to theaters.’ They are willfully and purposefully and intentionally, and they don’t care, driving audiences to television. Some of the best material now is being made on television. What you see every year at the Oscars are the ten films that somehow by hook or by crook, and with the great independents that came from nowhere, got into that last race at the end of the year. All the other stuff that didn’t or couldn’t get made is never going to get made, and we’re losing an enormous resource. I’m not saying I want TV to be where the best stuff is being made, but that’s where it’s going.