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A.O. Scott on Why the New York Times Changed Its Review Policy

A.O. Scott on Why the New York Times Changed Its Review Policy

Yesterday, Variety broke the story that the New York Times was no longer reviewing every theatrical release in New York City — a change that, as critic A.O. Scott quickly pointed on on Twitter, actually went into effect earlier this year. Scott had a number of other qualms with Variety’s story (which has since been updated), so we reached out to him directly to get clarification on what’s changed at the Times, and what it means for the future.

When did the Times make the decision to stop reviewing every theatrical release in New York City, and what was the straw that broke the camel’s back?

This has been under discussion for a long time, as the number of
New York releases has continued to grow every year, driven in part (as
you and others have pointed out) by our policy of reviewing everything.
Late last year we decided to make a change, which went into effect early
this year, in early February
if I remember right. As a courtesy, we’ve been sending emails to
publicists whose movies we’re not reviewing so they aren’t blind-sided
when they open the paper on Friday.
One of those emails finally made it into the grapevine this week, and
made it to Variety. We were a little surprised it took so long for that
shoe to drop.

How big an effect is this likely to have? How many movies will end up going unreviewed?

The target is freelance budget rather than
number of reviews. I can’t share the number, and I’m not quite sure how
it will correlate with how many reviews we end up with, but I don’t
imagine it would amount to more than 10%, if that.

Who makes the decision about which movies get reviewed and which don’t? What is the process?

Manohla
and I make the assignments, as we always have, and we decide what to
skip. We research the titles and try to cull obvious four-walls, vanity
releases and movies that would have been straight-to-video releases in
the past. We always try to err on the side of [giving] a movie attention. It’s
better to risk running a review of something worthless than to risk
overlooking something worthwhile. That’s ultimately a subjective
judgment, of course, but we do our best.

As you’d expect, the immediate concern now that this policy has gone public is that smaller releases will fall through the cracks, and that films, and the Times’ coverage, will suffer as a whole. What’s the upside? Is there a way this might improve the Times’ movie coverage as well?

We will save money. We’ll have more opportunities to break reviews out of the very crowded Friday
roundup. And as digital platforms and non-theatrical release options
occupy more and more of the landscape, we’ll be better able to figure
out how to address them. The ways that people consume movies and every
other kind of visual media is changing, and we’re trying to keep abreast
of that change, and maybe even get ahead of it. This change in policy
is a small part of that. 

This Article is related to: News


Comments

JAD

Here we have A.O. Scott all but insisting that films without commercial prospects aren’t worth reviewing, even as everyone else bemoans the failures of the marketplace to promote excellence. There might be a case for not reviewing films which, in the reviewer’s estimation, are beneath comment, but of course NYT will never apply that standard to fatuous big budget material. At least Scott doesn’t pretend to know anything about filmmaking (unlike Manohla), but surely he could send out Jim Hoberman to review the stuff he deems beneath his notice, simply because no distributor would touch it or his "research" indicates it’s a vanity project?

Ron Greenfield

Interesting, but one of the things he doesn’t make comment on is the fact that bloggers are writing about new and current releases faster than the NYT can get it online. They don’t like the competition and they don’t like the fact that they don’t hold as much "say" or "influence" on a film’s success or failure. In short, over the past few years as more people talk about films, good, bad or indifferent they’re beating the NYT to the punch and their influence has greatly deteriorated.

JoeS

Really? The "freelance budget" for the biggest newspaper in the world? How expensive can it be to send a freelancer to a movie theater and punch out a review? With all the layoffs of film critics over the pass few years, I’m sure the Times could get several qualified – if not OVER-qualified – freelancers out there for a song to do the job that Scott and Dargis don’t want to do.

JS

I DO NOT AGREE with yet another gate keeper, (now the critics of NY Times), set up to not give all films a chance. Who’s to say some ‘self financed’ film isnt going to be a masterpiece (I dont speak for myself, I have never had the luxury to self finance)? Maybe the filmmaker is extremely independent or the film is deemed ‘too obscure’ or whatever…..It doesnt set a good level playing field for independent film and its very disturbing. If a film sucks, then the critics can give it a bad review. If its brilliant, then they can actually DISCOVER that its brilliant. I think this is really awful and arrogant of the NY Times to decide on which films to review, sight unseen. I wont read NY times now. Sticking with Guardian and LA Times.

Jim Fields

"We research the titles and try to cull obvious four-walls, vanity releases and movies that would have been straight-to-video releases in the past." So is self-distributing my indie movie considered a "vanity production" or "four wall?" I think this is designed to hurt indie filmmakers without a major distributor who are releasing their film on their own. It’s sad that today there are so many "gatekeepers" ready to stifle true indie filmmakers.

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