In an essay called “The Economics of Movie Reviews, or Why So Many Film Critics Continue to Lose Their Jobs,” Pajiba’s Dustin Rowles surveys the industry’s ever-shifting landscape from two perspectives: That of a writer who wants to be paid for his work, and that of a publisher who has to keep the business the writer writes for afloat:
As much as the writer in me loathes the sentiment, the publisher in me also understands that a bottom line is a bottom line. I am paid to write for Uproxx, for instance, and though I aim to produce quality content geared toward a particular demographic, I also understand that most of my value as a contributor over there is tied up into my ability to generate traffic and therefore revenue, and thus justify what they pay me. They’re very good at what they do over there (and they have a much better business sense than I’ve got), they’re respectful of our abilities, and they give us the freedom to write what and how we please (within reason). It’s a good gig. Still, though no one on Uproxx has ever told me that my value is tied up in my ability to generate traffic, I have enough common sense to understand that if I cost more money to the company than I can create, my job would not necessarily be safe.
Film reviews, Rowles explains, are “a money loser,” especially for “those smaller, independent and art films that no one watches.” Of the more than 200 Pajiba ran in the past year, he says, only 21 generated enough to pay for themselves. (He seems to be talking specifically about paying the writers what amounts to minimum wage for the three- to five-hour process of producing a review, and not the myriad other costs associated with running a website.) What pays the bills, he says, is writers who “recap shows, and they cover the trailer beat, and they write pieces on the evolution of superhero movies or rant about Zack Snyder or bitch about Jonah Hill’s homophobic slur. In other words, they earn their value in other ways, while most of the other feature and celebrity writers make up the difference.”
This won’t surprise anyone who’s kept an eye on the world of film criticism — and if you’re reading this, that’s probably you. (Thanks. Come back any time.) Criticism is, as far as I’m concerned, a vital and important art form, but I don’t think anyone operates under the delusion that it’s a cash cow. (“Sorry, no room for that piece about whether Justin Bieber’s a racist; we’ve got reviews to run.”) There are exceptions, of course, mostly when it comes to studio blockbusters: It may be true that, as Rowles puts it, “The days of turning to your favorite critic to find out whether you should see ‘Transformers: Age of Extinction’ are long over,” but readers still click through in droves to read those reviews, and often stick around to call the critic a hater or worse. (Advertisers pay more for readers who linger on a page, so by all means, keep it up.)
But Rowles edges onto a slippery slope when he gets into case of Owen Gleiberman, who was laid off by by Entertainment Weekly in April after nearly 25 years at the magazine. “The reason they laid him off,” Rowles speculates, “was probably the same reason smaller sites such as Film.com, Cinematical, or bigger outlets such as AOL, MSN Movies and others have laid off critics over the years. It wasn’t to save money, and it wasn’t because they were bad film critics. It was so they could stop losing money.”
I have no idea whether Owen Gleiberman was losing Entertainment Weekly money. (For that matter, neither does Rowles, which makes spitballing about why it happened kind of a bad idea.) But I do know this: Whether or not the pages containing his reviews generated sufficient pageviews to pay his salary is only part of the equation, and not just because EW also exists in print. Gleiberman was, for lack of a more human term, a brand, one who, along with his former colleague Lisa Schwarzbaum, was practically synonymous with the magazine itself. I know who reviews movies for Entertainment Weekly now because it’s part of my job, but who else does? That’s not a slur against those writers, some of whom are great, but an illustration of how circumscribed their roles have become. When you don’t give a critic enough space to make an impression, or enough time to write something worth sharing, then you are, among other things, depriving them of the opportunity to make you money.
As a practical matter, Rowles is right that it’s not enough to be a critic anymore; as in any profession, the smart play is to figure out how to make yourself useful. But there’s a difference between canny career management and professional responsibility, and the idea that it’s a critic’s job to write whatever gets the most web traffic is a profound, even ruinously, bad one. That’s a publisher’s job, or a social media editor’s. (It’s also part, though thankfully not all, of my job.) It’s not a critic’s job to balance the budget, any more than it’s an accountant’s job to recap “Game of Thrones.”
Perhaps there are movie critics who are losing their jobs because they’re stubbornly stuck in their ways, but more often, they do their best to adapt amid contradictory directives and muddled priorities and then they get fired anyway. No one is entitled to a job, and good people lose theirs all the time. Publications run out of money, and just like any other business, they cut staff. But when a factory lays off workers, we don’t rush to blame the workers for not building the right car.