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Seven Years Ago, This Column Got Me in Trouble

Seven Years Ago, This Column Got Me in Trouble

Reading this now, I was chronicling the demise of newspaper critics, which clearly has continued, as many of the ones I mention here have moved elsewhere. (It’s two years since Roger Ebert simply passed on.) What I do not describe below is the degree to which online critics of every stripe wield influence in the movie fan space, including the old-media scribes who were able to make the digital transition. 

Here’s the April 2008 Variety piece (hence Varietyese like “auds”):

Imagine a world where moviegoers make their decisions about what to see without the help of movie critics. It’s already here.

My University of Southern California film criticism students can’t name a working critic other than Roger Ebert—thanks to his TV fame.
They may scan Rolling Stone or Entertainment Weekly, but they don’t know critics Peter Travers or Owen Gleiberman. They may check out film rankings at Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic and dip into some reviews, but they haven’t established a one-on-one relationship with a film critic who they trust to steer them straight. And they are just as likely to look up old movies for their Netflix queue as new ones. On the Internet, the long tail prevails. (Snarky review site pajiba.com’s “underappreciated gem” “Trading Places” grabbed 310 comments in two days.)
These sophisticated film fans admire the auteurs Anderson and Coen, can parse Hitchcock’s “Psycho” with the best of them, and have studied Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. But they don’t read newspapers, and never will. 
Many of them don’t even frequent like-minded blogs that share their cinephilia. Youth auds often get movie info straight from the studio marketing departments, who couldn’t be happier. These kids go to YouTube, Yahoo Movies and Apple to find trailers. As they surf the Web, bits of movie flotsam and visuals planted by the studios on MSN Movies or IGN or JoBlo eventually cross their eyeballs. But they also listen to their friends more than any authority figures, and distrust obvious studio hype. 
It’s these kids’ boomer parents who still have a jones for reading movie critics (whose average age is 55 to 65) and going out to movie theaters—when there’s something for them to see. (Younger moviegoers are fickle; they’re just as likely to play Guitar Hero or download “The Office” episodes from iTunes.) The studios for the most part continue to bank on short-term, wide-release youth movies over slow-burn, risky execution-dependent movies for adults. Thus the largest most passionate habitual audience they could hope for is being pushed toward HBO, VOD and Netflix. As the boomers age and their subscriptions expire –and the younger generation ignores newspapers altogether–the increasingly desperate economics of newspaper publishing force aging movie critics out the door.   
Over the past few years, newspapers have forced out or pushed well-paid senior critics into early retirement with buyout packages. Losing major critics are Detroit (the Free-Press never replaced Terry Lawson), Atlanta, Denver, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale. Tribune Company newspapers have ousted Michael Wilmington from The Chicago Tribune and Gene Seymour, John Anderson and Jan Stuart from New York Newsday. The New York Daily News lost Dave Kehr (who contributes a weekly DVD column to the New York Times), Jami Bernard, and Jack Mathews. Among the alternative weeklies, Jonathan Rosenbaum left The Chicago Reader. And the Village Voice Media chain is abandoning local critics in favor of syndicating their stars on the two coasts, LA Weekly’s Scott Foundas and The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman;  the chain let go younger Village Voice critics Dennis Lim and most recently, Nathan Lee. 
“When all news divisions are pared down to the core, it seems when you can’t fully cover a presidential campaign, a movie critic might seem like a luxury,” says Carrie Rickey, film critic of 22 years at The Philadelphia Inquirer, which plays up weekend film coverage on its home page. “Papers are managing contraction right now.” 
Newspapers with vision and resources are investing in robust online sites, including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times,  Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, which are buttressing text with videos, trailers  and podcasts. In the not-too-distant post-TMZ future, critics will be telegenic video or podcast performers adept at combining print and broadcast skills. And maybe, they’ll reach younger auds in a way that stodgy content-oriented critics who don’t appreciate visual effects do not. The Fort Worth Telegram’s Christopher Kelly kept his film critic title and stayed employed by becoming the creative guru of the paper’s new entertainment website, where he will turn out web videos. 
Ironically, critics who build online readerships via blogs that permit easy interactive communication can hold up their online traffic as evidence of their worth. Movie reviews can be mighty online traffic builders. Rickey posts a blog, Flickgrrl, that she refreshes twice a week, encouraging reader comment. She also answers tons of email from readers of her four or so reviews a week, which are syndicated around the country; her defense of Kimberly Peirce’s “Stop-Loss” appeared in over 50 papers.  
Once lost, local critic fanbases will never be regained. This hurts the indies and studio subdivisions that are in the business of pushing Oscar contenders and lower-budget films for adults. Specialty fare needs local support and interpretation from the critic as explainer, interpreter, and champion. Over the years, critics helped audiences appreciate the likes of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris,” Brian De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill,” Robert Altman’s “The Player,” the Coens’ “No Country for Old Men” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will be Blood.” Where would we have been without them? It will now be up to Pajiba or Cinematical Indie to influence readers to seek out small releases once heralded by critics. 
And yet there’s hope for critics at well-funded magazines: John Powers soldiers on at Vogue, Anthony Lane and David Denby compete for space at The New Yorker, Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum are well-read at E.W., and David Edelstein writes and blogs at New York Magazine, which has invested heavily in an improved website and has the traffic to show for it.
But the newsweeklies Time and Newsweek are facing leaner times. 111 Newsweek staffers recently accepted buyouts last week, including 30-year veteran David Ansen, who will continue to contribute under contract. Time’s Richard Corliss basically writes movie blurbs, the occasional column and about everything but movies. “It is scary,” says Ansen. “They are letting a lot of people go these days. It’s a lot like a return to the hard old days when I was growing up when anybody could be a movie critic and they’d take somebody off the sports desk. It’s a profound diss to the knowledge and expertise of a lot of good critics out there.” 
Gone are the halcyon years when Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael ignited controversies that still inspire debate. Today, no critics dominate cultural discourse the way they did during the 70s and 80s. 40ish  New York Times critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis have built passionate followings, and will likely become even more powerful as the NYT moves into the void left by newspapers that see no option but to cut back on their cultural coverage. (TV and other art-world critics like dance are also getting the axe.)
All is not lost for the reading moviegoing public. While newspaper attrition continues, criticism both amateur and pro is proliferating on the Web, aggregated by inclusive Rotten Tomatoes and the choosier Metacritic. “I used to think what I did ended up as fish wrap,” says Rickey. “But online movie reviews live in perpetuity.” Three months ago she received a rush of mail about her 2005 review of “Brokeback Mountain.” A feature on the centenary of Jeanette MacDonald yielded over 200 emails, including college students comparing Ernst Lubitsch and Nelson Eddy. “That piece was sent all over the Internet,” she explains, “all over the world. The Internet has made reviews not fish wrap anymore.”
But how many people click through to the reviews on those sites? “We are living in a star rating or thumb rating world,” wrote one commenter at my ThompsononHollywood blog. “Tell us if it’s good or not, then don’t tell us any more.” 
Roger Ebert may not be a reviewing on TV, but he’s still in print in Chicago, syndicated nationally and lures huge traffic to his website. Many independent film critics are building online fans, from Dave Kehr and Emanuel Levy to Matt Zoller Seitz, with likely many more to come as the ranks of the unemployed increase. 
Ebert and his original cohort Gene Siskel’s “At the Movies” used to start off with the two critics throwing stacks of their rival Chicago newspapers, the Sun-Times and The Tribune, off a delivery truck. How quaint. 

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