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Editors Keith Phipps and Scott Tobias on the End of The Dissolve and the Future of Film Criticism

Editors Keith Phipps and Scott Tobias on the End of The Dissolve and the Future of Film Criticism

Although it’s only been a day since The Dissolve abruptly ceased publication — so abruptly that Editor Scott Tobias was in the middle of writing his “Tangerine” review when the axe fell — the sudden end to one of film culture’s brightest spots has sparked innumerable conversations about the future of film criticism. If, indeed, it has one. We turned to the site’s former editorial director and editor, Keith Phipps and Scott Tobias, for the inside perspective on what happened, why it happened, and what it means. Many thanks to them for taking the time to respond on a difficult day. (The image above is from Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” the subject of one of The Dissolve’s Movie of the Week features.)

So, what happened? And why did it happen so suddenly?

Scott Tobias: There’s an easy answer to that question: After two years, we simply
were not a viable operation, and it ended suddenly because it couldn’t
end any other way. But it ended humanely, with tremendous sadness but
also a lot of pride over what we were able to accomplish. When
publications fold, there’s an instinct to blame the publisher — and
sometimes that’s the right instinct — but Pitchfork did right by us from
the moment we walked through the door to the moment we turned in our
keys. This was simply a case of everyone trying their best to make
something great and the economics not being kind to those efforts.

The business is changing almost faster than anyone can keep up. Did
it change even during the Dissolve’s two years, and how?

Keith Phipps: If anything, I saw the pace of the Internet speed up. And, at the
risk of throwing shade, I’ve seen film coverage turn into even more of
an ouroboros, with the same stories showing up on every site. I get
it: Chadwick Boseman gets cast as the Black Panther and people want to
know about it. We played that game, too, and tried to put our own
spin on it. We had two great Newsreel editors — Matt Singer and Rachel
Handler — and a lot of talented contributors to that section who brought a
lot of personality to it. But we were never first or loudest with news,
and we never played the clickbait-y headline game. That seems to be
what drives traffic on film.

Read more: “In Memoriam: The Dissolve”

Tobias: We tried to thread a very thin needle at The Dissolve. Our mission was
to create a smart and accessible site for cinematic omnivores like
ourselves, who approached films old and new, commercial and esoteric,
foreign and domestic with equal enthusiasm and curiosity. We did not
want to succumb to the most cynical publishing trends of the day, but we
also didn’t want more casual moviegoers to feel like we were putting up
barriers. In some corners, we had critics who thought we were Us Weekly; in others, it was like we were publishing an academic journal. I
was certain we were doing neither one of those things — and I’m gratified
beyond measure that so many others seem to concur — but finding that
balance was a huge and constant challenge for us.

But
honestly, we did our best to follow our instincts. When we were at The
A.V. Club in the early days, we had the luxury of doing whatever the hell
we wanted, which resulted in a very distinct publication that was
driven by the interests and sensibilities of the writers rather than trying to do what everybody else was doing. We had the utmost confidence that The
Dissolve could function the same way — that if we built a site that
reflect our enthusiasms and publishing values, we would succeed. And
dammit, we did succeed! People loved the site like few sites are loved
on the Internet. We’ll take that with us always.

Looking back, would you have done anything differently? If you were
to launch a new site tomorrow, how would it be different?

Tobias: This is a haunting question, and I think broadly the answer is “No.”
Pitchfork gave us carte blanche to make the site that we wanted, and
gave us incredible resources from a design and development standpoint to
create something beautiful. The Dissolve that launched on Day One was
our unsullied vision of what a popular film site could be, and it’s been
pleasing to hear from others that we didn’t drift that much from where
we started. There were a million course corrections we made along
the way, from changes in staffing and the addition/elimination of
features to much smaller touches that we felt would broaden the site’s
appeal. But the changes were always made with the thought that we had to
continue to make a site we could be proud to publish. And I just don’t
see any huge changes we could have made that wouldn’t have been
soul-crushing and awful.

Phipps: For two years we got to do a site driven by our own
passions. I can second-guess some of our choices and probably will, in
my darker hours. But I’m so proud of what we accomplished, I don’t want
to do anything to diminish that now. I should add that Pitchfork was a
great, supportive partner through the whole thing, too, letting us see
our vision through.

If I were to launch a new site tomorrow…
Does anyone want to launch a new site with me? I’ve got a great team
who needs jobs. I could show you! Feel free to share my contact info!
But I would probably try to be a little more ahead of the curve in
running pieces about this week’s films, which is something we moved to
more in the second-half of our existence. And I’d probably spend a lot
of time figuring out how to present pieces on older films in a way that
grabs the attention of readers who aren’t thinking about, say, “Don’t Look Now” or “McCabe And Mrs. Miller” at the moment but are open to being given a reason to start thinking about it.

Your former A.V. Club colleague Todd VanDerWerff, who is now Vox’s
culture editor, said that The Dissolve’s end “suggests the speciality
web is on its way out” — that is, that in order for sites to survive,
they need to be generalists rather than experts. Do you agree?

Tobias: I worry that Todd
might be right on that, but I hope that’s not the case. To succeed
financially in digital publishing, you need to attract an enormous
readership, and it helps to have a wide range of culture coverage that
appeals to the largest possible audience. But it’s a lamentable
situation, because there’s no incentive to cover art that’s outside the
mainstream. At The Dissolve, we would regularly publish features,
reviews, and interviews that we knew few people would read, and we now
have the metrics to know EXACTLY how few would read it. But we wanted to
make sure that the films and the filmmakers we cared about would get
the attention they deserved, and we trusted that we’d balance those
losses with features that we knew would hit hard. To me, that’s good
publishing. I feel like this need to have all hits all the time
leaves too much great stuff in the dark. I don’t want a bunch of sites
that have film coverage, but don’t bother with Cinema Guild or
Oscilloscope or Drafthouse Films because they’re generalists rather
than experts. We wanted to our site to encourage cinephilia and
encourage people to come along with us and take chances on seeing things
they might not have seen (or been aware of) otherwise. I hate to think
of a publishing world where the biggest movies of the day suck up all
the oxygen.

Phipps: He might be right. Maybe not “generalists” in the sense of running the whole spectrum of news, but it often felt by focusing solely on film we were closing out parts of the cultural conversation, particularly around television.

Is there a larger lesson in The Dissolve’s fate? Or is there a danger
in generalizing too much from your specific situation?

Tobias: The economics of digital
publishing are not encouraging. We had so many advantages going into
this: A core group of writers and editors who had great chemistry and
had proven themselves as a team at The A.V. Club; a lean and truly
independent company that had only published on the Internet and been
successful doing so; and a great deal of support from the media world.
We executed the site more or less exactly how we drew it up, and we fell
short. Probably way short. Draw your own lessons from that.

Phipps: I’m not sure that’s for me to answer. I’ve had my head down in the Dissolve trenches too long.

A number of young film writers have taken this as evidence that film
criticism is no longer a viable profession. What would you say to them?

Phipps: I don’t know if there will soon be more than a handful of people
who will be able to write about film as a full-time job, myself
included. And that wasn’t even true of The Dissolve, for the most
part. Most everyone there wore multiple hats, writing, editing, working
on the CMS, recording the podcast. But, to get back to your original
question, the economics of journalism in general and criticism in
particular and film criticism especially don’t look great right
now. When I was a kid, I just wanted to grow up to be Terry Lawson, film
critic for my hometown paper, The Dayton Daily News. Here was a
guy whose job was to go to movies and write about them in a clear,
intelligent way for a general readership — and every town had a Terry
Lawson (though few were as good as him). Those jobs don’t exist anymore,
and the Internet hasn’t really created their equivalent, with a few great exceptions like Dana Stevens at Slate aside.
There are plenty of terrific writers out there writing about film — we
tried to feature as many of them as we could! — but a lot of them aren’t
doing it full-time. And I worry that they’ll leave it when necessity
demands it. Right now, I worry that necessity is demanding I leave it.

Read more: “The Dissolve Shuts Down”

Tobias: I don’t know what to say to young writers anymore, because I don’t want
to discourage them. We had two major contributors in their twenties — our
news editor, Rachel Handler, and a prominent freelancer, Charles
Bramesco — who are astonishing talents and who absolutely deserve to make a
living doing what they’re doing. But you have to go into this field
with eyes wide open and know that it’s extremely hard to make it work as
a vocation. We’ve all seen brilliant, accomplished, veteran critics
deposited cruelly on the other side of this business, as once-thriving
publications have dried up and a new, less lucrative marketplace has
left them feeling alienated. I fear that for myself, and I certainly
fear that for young writers who are trying to make this dream happen for
themselves. Back in 1998, when I first started writing professionally,
being a film critic seemed like a whimsical and improbable way to make a
living; now, it’s an infinitely grimmer prospect.

It ended sooner that anyone would have wanted, but The Dissolve still
accomplished much in its short lifespan. What are you most proud of?

Phipps: 
I’m really proud when people come up to me or write me and say The Dissolve changed
the way they thought about film. That it got them passionate about it
and that it introduced them to a way of discussing film — via our articles
and our comments section, which was largely a great oasis of sanity and
civility on the Internet — that they didn’t know before. That’s what I
wanted. And while I wish it could have lasted longer, I’m proud of what
we got done.

Tobias: Do I have to name just one? I’m proud of so many things: Of building
the site of our dreams and not compromising it; of fostering a community
of film lovers and inspiring people to watch and think about movies; of
leaving a beautiful corpse. But I’m mostly proud of our staff. They
fought so hard to make this work and left everything on the table. I’m awed
by their talent and their passion. I love them so much. And I’m
heartbroken that we couldn’t make it work.

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