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Critics Debate What the Disney Ban Against the L.A. Times Says About the Future of Film Criticism

In a recent panel discussion, critics weighed in about recent events that reflect changes in their profession.

Critics panel at the Key West Film Festival

Earlier this year, critics group made headlines when they came together to protest Disney’s decision to ban the Los Angeles Times’ access to the studio’s films. The ban was eventually lifted, but it raised a number of questions about how critics and studios maintain an ongoing relationship.

During a recent panel discussion at the Key West Film Festival moderated by IndieWire’s Eric Kohn, Los Angeles Times’ critic Kenneth Turan was joined by Rolling Stone’s David Fear, Time Out New York’s Joshua Rothkopf, Buzzfeed’s Alison Willmore, and Miami-based freelancer Juan Barquin to discuss the ramifications of Disney’s decision and other related issues. The following is an edited excerpt from that conversation.

KENNETH TURAN: Around the time of “Thor,” a lot of people in the film department of the paper were not getting invited. We knew screenings were taking place. We got in touch with the publicist and found out something we’d already heard in relation to the reporters — that Disney had issued a corporate ban on the Los Angeles Times. A reporter named Daniel Miller did a very interesting series of stories about how Disney threw its weight around in Anaheim, where Disneyland is located, and that they had an outsized influence there. It’s about how they had influences on elections in Anaheim, the kind of thing that you would expect. Amazon probably has a lot of influence in Seattle. It’s a big corporation and it has an impact in the city that houses it. So it wasn’t even that shocking a story, but Disney decided they didn’t like it.

Disney was just upset, and said, “We’re not talking to anyone in the L.A. Times, no one in the L.A. Times gets anything from us.” This happened a couple of weeks before it became public, but finally it did, because usually you have your screening of a film a few days earlier and then your review in the paper the day the film comes out. But we weren’t going to have a “Thor” review that day, so we had to put a notice in the paper to explain why we couldn’t see the film.

“Thor: Ragnarok”

This kind of thing had never really happened before. They’d been mad at critics because of reviews, barred specific critics because of what they reviewed, they’d stopped advertising because of a review. To bar everyone because of a reported piece had never happened before. This was why the New York Times spoke out. They said it as clearly intended to have a chilling impact on reporting, which is why they made the statement that they did.

DAVID FEAR: In a lot of ways, there needs to be a separation of church and state. I may be writing a flashy profile of George Clooney. If a critic at the magazine sees “Suburbicon” and has a less-than-positive response to it, the critic for that magazine should still be able to go forward and say, “I don’t think this movie works, and here’s why.” It shouldn’t be the tail wagging the dog here.

“Suburbicon”

ALISON WILLMORE: However, it’s sort of a luxury to just be a film critic. Particularly in the modern market, it’s a very rare luxury. I’ve had to interview people whose movies I’ve reviewed badly, and it goes as well as you’d expect. But I think we’re also seeing the crumbling of an older wall, between advertising and editorial, which is more alarming to me. Pulling access because of an investigative piece is one thing; to pull advertising from a paper because you don’t like it is more alarming. As someone working for a website that does advertorial, like a lot of websites, it’s a conversation that we have to have more and more because that’s just the reality of the business.

JOSHUA ROTHKOPF: It’s a funny thing, being a critic and working with studios, because they love you until they don’t. They need you to sell their films, to put your quotes on their posters and trailers. If you say something bad, then the sophisticated, smart publicists know the wheel turns, there’s always another movie, and everyone plays fair. But at the same time, there is a feeling of retribution. What I love about the action we took as critics was that it wasn’t just an expression of solidarity; it really struck them where it hurts. There was some discussion: Should we not review these films? That would almost be like taking it out on the reader. We decided to take it out where it really hurts them,  their eligibility for awards. That’s really why the whole thing worked.

JUAN BARQUIN: In Miami and a lot of other cities that are smaller, relative to New York and L.A., we get films anywhere from one week to three weeks after elsewhere. “Lady Bird” played in Miami two weeks after it opened in the other cities. I did an interview with Greta Gerwig for it, and because of that delay, it doesn’t matter as much on a grander scale. But it matters because some of the art cinemas in our town are opening the film.

Speaking to Alison’s point about advertising: Smaller publications are now telling me, “Listen, it’s probably not going to into print because we need that ad space.” That’s fine, it still goes online, I still got to talk to Greta Gerwig. But it does suck that we don’t have the benefit of reaching a wider online audience. The delayed dates make it harder, especially when you’re a freelancer trying to reach a larger audience. It does become this weird game of access. Why can’t we get it at the same time as other cities? Some publicists will ask us to hold our reviews for the Miami release. I would like to get it as soon as it comes out on a New York and L.A. scale. But if the publicist says, “If you do that, it’s a problem,” then it does become like blackmail.

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