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How Do Film Critics Decide Which Films Are Worth Covering in the Age of Netflix? — IndieWire Critics Survey

It used to be easy to divide films into theatrical releases and straight-to-video dumps, but now there are at least 50 shades of gray.

“Mudbound”

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question:

Dee Rees’ “Mudbound” is now streaming on Netflix (in addition to playing in a few theaters), and the Oscar-tipped Sundance favorite is as high-profile a film as the streaming giant has ever premiered. It’s another landmark moment in the ongoing shift towards novel distribution patterns — once upon a time it was easy enough to divide things into theatrical releases and films that went straight-to-video, but now there are at least 50 shades of gray.

As a result of this sea change, a number of major films are inevitably falling through the cracks. For example, Stephen Cone’s “Princess Cyd” recently enjoyed a theatrical run at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image, but that apparently wasn’t enough to earn the film a review in the New York Times.

In this amorphous distribution climate, how should film critics decide which films are worth covering?

lgbt film princess cyd

“Princess Cyd”

MoMI

Joshua Rothkopf (@joshrothkopf), Time Out New York

You just said “Princess Cyd” and I said “What?” That’s not a major film, brother. I don’t think any publication is fully comprehensive anymore, not even Variety. As recently as a few years ago, a workable coverage policy could be summarized as: anything a non-film-geek might have heard of, plus anything they should have heard of (i.e., the good stuff).

Today, though, with 20-plus movies releasing in NYC a week, that’s simply impossible, especially for a print section like Time Out. Curation is required. The streaming question doesn’t have to be so complicated. Try this: If something is not getting a theatrical release, it’s not a movie. It’s television. And there’s an award for that—an Emmy.

Even if a movie gets a one-week theatrical release, it may be a half-hearted ruse simply to qualify for reviews and film awards. I don’t play that game. “Mudbound” expanded its theatrical options beyond the bare minimum because that campaign didn’t want its title to be perceived as TV and rejected. That’s good pressure for us editors to bring to bear.

I would further this and say that, among all the movies that have secured one-week releases, a responsible editor will pick and choose in order to create a balanced package of coverage for the reader. Employing the concept of “significance”—which can accommodate everything from “Justice League” to “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold”—is a much better metric to engage with, than a compulsory “You must cover it.”

Significant to who? To the reader. And to me. That’s the call an editor should be making.

Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse), Freelance for The Guardian, Vulture, the New York Times

In purely practical terms, this question is pretty easily answered for a full-time freelancer: you go where the money is. When an editor emails you and says they need someone to cover “Geostorm,” you forlornly check your online bank statement and then say yes. That’s just how this rapidly disintegrating business works, at least for me.

But I understand the question, and in an ideal world where pageviews don’t drive editorial decisions, a critic would write about whatever might interest them that week. If that means completely bypassing coverage of “Justice League” and running a feature on a movie playing at one museum out in Queens, so be it! Are we not all better off?

Candice Frederick (@ReelTalker), Hello Beautiful, Birth.Movies.Death, The Mary Sue

I think that a Netflix distribution makes a film even more accessible to audiences as the streaming platform has brought movies that may have not seen as much of a turnout at the box office (in part due to lack of marketing or small distribution). Plus, people underestimate how ubiquitous the platform is. We’ve gotten to the point where it seems like more people have Netflix than those who don’t. In addition, some people first watch first on Netflix, then, if they really like it and feel so inclined, they go to the theater to experience them on the big screen. That should be taken into consideration as critics think about what they should be covering.

Particularly in the case of “Mudbound,” it has a staggered theatrical release — which means many audiences who live outside the selected markets do not have the opportunity to see it, at least right away. That said, the simultaneous Netflix release makes up for those people who live miles away from a participating theater, making it a wider release that is every bit as deserving of a review as a traditional wide release drama.That should incite critics to cover it as their audience would have likely heard of it.

But even if a film strictly has an online release, if it’s worth discussing why not tell your audience about it? Chances are, many subscribe to that platform and a review can bring it to their attention. We do it with streaming series like “Stranger Things” and “Orange is the New Black.” Why not do it with films as well?

Jude Dry (@JDry), IndieWire

While I’m disheartened to learn the New York Times didn’t review one of my favorite films of the year, I’ll take the opportunity to shamelessly plug my A- review of Stephen Cone’s tender and funny “Princess Cyd.” The queer coming-of-age tale played ten times throughout the course of MoMI’s early career retrospective of Cone’s films, which does not technically constitute a theatrical run. The paper of record’s rule has always been to only review films once they are released in theaters. While lovely gems like “Princess Cyd” may slip through the cracks, in the words of Omar Little, “a man got to have a code.” As much as I wish I could answer the dreaded, “So what good movies are playing now?” question by telling everyone I know to run and see “Princess Cyd,” I can’t, because it’s not playing. And if I can’t recommend it, I can’t very well expect the New York Times to do it. The average moviegoer wants to walk into a theater and buy a ticket that day, they’re not following every limited-run series at MoMI or The Metrograph, no matter how inventive the programming. In the meantime, we online publications get first dibs on some of the most revelatory, if under-seen, festival films.

Vadim Rizov (@Vrizov), Filmmaker Magazine

Ask me, that’s always the right answer.

Awards season considerations aside, I don’t really get all the category fraud handwringing over this. If it’s a feature-length movie shown in a theater for a week, it is technically a movie (if we’re relitigating the “OJ: Made in America” thing again). Is it a feature-length film object made available on one of the big streaming platforms, with or without an accompanying (at least NY/LA) theatrical run? Then it should probably be reviewed: it’s at least as notable to somebody as, say, a weeklong run of an otherwise undistributed film at NYC’s Anthology Film Archives. (I’d argue the latter’s generally more important, but on a macro consumer consumer scale my point probably stands.) Is it actually necessary to review every Adam Sandler feature that drops? If there’s any kind of point to regular beat coverage just for the historical record, probably, but maybe you’d like to reallocate your resources towards something more interesting.

Again, just ask me. I won’t steer you wrong.

“Mudbound”

Photo Courtesy of MACRO

Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker

The privilege of working as a critic entails the responsibility to be alert to the best movies that are around, whether prominent or obscure—to go beyond the movies most readily available in order to see the future of the art in the present day.  Even before the age of home video and streaming, many of the best films passed largely unnoticed by critics (or were noticed but dismissed). Many of the best movies made, now as ever, are marginal to the industry, and so, I try to pay close attention to movies that get limited releases, scant releases, one-off screenings in series or festivals, movies that come out streaming, or even movies that haven’t yet come out at all.

On the other hand, the profusion of available films makes it harder to justify devoting time and space to obscure but mediocre films—it seems odd to call readers’ attention to a movie that’s almost certain to be off their radar only to let them know that they really don’t need to bother with it. It’s one of my big fears that I’ll miss a great movie that hasn’t gotten the attention that it deserves; critics owe filmmakers that attention; the history of the art is strewn with careers that didn’t progress as they should have. (That’s also why it’s important to go to festivals—I don’t go as often as I’d like, but when I do so, I often see essential movies with no U.S. presence.) Far be it from me to recommend practices to other critics or editors, but I’d say that what’s worth covering is, first of all, whatever arouses enthusiasm—but what underlies that notion is watching a wide enough range of movies to expand one’s own tastes, expectations, and ideas rather than merely perpetuate them. (The ease with which classics have become available has sparked a pathology of old-Hollywood nostalgia; the ease with which popular movies of recent decades have become available is responsible for a pathology of phenomenon-celebration.) Where there’s critical passion, curiosity, and open-mindedness, there’s a way—even a word on social media can make a difference.

Kate Erbland (@katerbland), IndieWire

There’s no question that the classifications of movies based purely on release — theatrical! VOD! streaming! — are evolving at a rapid rate, and it’s very easy to keep getting bogged down in the nomenclatures of yore, instead of doing what we should be doing; advocating and covering the movies that we’re passionate about. Sure, sure, there are always going to be movies to write about because the zeitgeist and culture demand them, but those are not the ones that need that attention and love, it’s the smaller ones that aren’t getting the “traditional release” that need a boast. Those are the ones worth picking through to cover, to bolster, to champion. It’s harder than ever before, goodness knows it requires extra legwork, but when you comb through the many options for viewing, that’s when you find some of the real gems.

Edward Douglas (@EDouglasWW), The Tracking Board

Honestly, there are different levels of coverage and it varies depending on whether I’m writing as a freelancer (as I have been in the past year and a half) or a staffer (which I am once again).  Let’s take the first scenario and that’s when you’re a writer who is basically being assigned stuff by an editor.

That’s easy. Someone assigns you a movie to write about and you say “Yes” because the opposite of “yes” is not in a freelancer’s vocabulary. As a staffer, I actually have a lot more leeway on what movies I write about, and while my bosses would prefer I write about all the big superhero movies, etc, I don’t have to since they have a full-time critic who can review them. That gives me the chance to review some of the smaller movies, and then on Saturdays, I started up a weekly thing called “Under the Radar” where I literally can write about the most esoteric and unknown movies being released in any given week. I’m pretty proud of what I’ve been covering there which includes a few lesser-publicized docs and movies that just don’t have that big a marketing budget… and the whole point of the column is to give attention to movies that might not be getting attention elsewhere (including the NY Times).

Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail/Film Festival Today

If current trends in audience habits continue, there is a good chance that more and more film distributors may choose the online route, be it for cable, VOD, SVOD or some other outlet we have yet to imagine. Already, with the rising numbers of quality long-form dramas made exclusively for home viewing, we see fewer people going to theaters for all but the big spectacles (and even those can fail). Why leave the house to consume your content if Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, HBO, Showtiime, the networks, etc., all offer powerful moving-image content. Sure, “Star Wars” and Marvel films and other such extravaganzas might look better on the big screen, but the rest? We will all be faced with a changing landscape in the near future, and I don’t have an answer, now, to help navigate that potentially fast-approaching reality.

In the present, however, I write for two websites with different focuses, each choosing what to review in different ways. Hammer to Nail mostly focuses on very low-budget features (including documentaries), many of which only get online distribution: it’s the budget that determines coverage, and not the means of distribution. Film Festival Today mostly focuses on more mainstream content, with an additional category of “specialty releases” that means studio indies of a higher budget than the majority of what I review at Hammer to Nail. So, for now, I get to have it both ways, though it does make for a lot of writing . . . How’s that for a non-answer answer?

Question: What is the best film currently playing in theaters?

Answer: “Lady Bird”

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