In Sunday’s Arts & Leisure section, New York Times critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis offered their “Memos to Hollywood,” a series of suggestions both incontestable — hire more female directors; stop furnishing critics with subpar e-screeners — and quixotic. (Dargis suggests that critics “just write about, you know, movies,” a suggestion she evidently feels no need to follow herself.) So it’s only fair that we offer our own suggestions to their place of employ, or rather, just one: Stop reviewing every movie that opens in New York.
As box-office columnist Donald Wilson argues in the new Film Comment, and as I have in this space more than once, the Times’ policy of reviewing every movie that opens in the five boroughs, including four-walled releases that buy out a theater for the sole purpose of garnering a Times review, has become the subject of frequent and unavoidable abuse. In an infamous article, Dargis complained that distributors were flooding the market with sub-par movies, but Wilson points out that’s not actually the case: Indie stalwarts like Magnolia and IFC released roughly as many movies in 2013 as they did in 2011. Instead, the flood seems to originate elsewhere, not from independent distributors but from films whose only claim to theatrical release is an $11,000 check.
Instead of attempting to achieve some impossible platonic ideal of fairness (the Times, though it reviews every release, certainly prioritizes films in a number of subtle ways: review placement, photo inclusion, length, additional feature coverage), shouldn’t the cultural gatekeepers live up to their responsibilities? Instead of covering every film released, they should make smart decisions about what films are worth covering (and on what platforms they’re being released — should great films released only on streaming be penalized for how they reach viewers?). I imagine that the arts editors, in conjunction with the lead reviewers — who, one assumes, talk to other critics, hear about interesting films, and see other interesting films while attending film festivals –could do a decent job of putting together an editorial calendar that makes sense. Films would fall through the cracks, sure. But instead of being a clearinghouse, Arts & Leisure’s weekly review coverage could be a curated space for the best writing about the best films. Does the front page of the Times cover all the news? Or just what’s fit to print?
Wilson admits movies might fall through the cracks, but then they already do; a token review by what Wilson calls “the faceless Genzlingers and Hales of the world” scarcely generates more buzz than no review at all, even if it does allow the filmmakers to slap a quote on their site credited to “the New York Times.”
Virtually every other publication does this already, out of financial necessity if for no other reason. And while it’s possible that some babies will get thrown out with the bathwater, exercising a greater degree of editorial oversight — the word “curate” has taken enough abuse already, thanks — would allow the Times to lavish more attention on the films they’ve determined really deserve it. My only requirement would be that the Times apply the same standard to studio releases as to microbudget indies. If it turns out the latest Adam Sandler comedy isn’t worth the attention, throw it right onto the junkheap next to the movie that was made for less than Sandler paid his on-set stylist. Those movies don’t need the attention anyway, and the critics probably have better things to do with their time.