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Eugene Hernandez: Critics (still) Matter

Eugene Hernandez: Critics (still) Matter

New York, NY, October 12, 2009 — Filmmaker Antonio Campos reads his reviews. Since debuting his first feature “Afterschool” at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and later screening at the New York Film Festival, among others, he’s been closely following polarized reactions to the film. Now, a week into his self-funded theatrical release, he’s taking things a step further by hosting a debate about his movie featuring two film critics who have opposing views on his movie.

Tonight, after the 6:45 p.m. showing of “Afterschool” at New York City’s Cinema Village, Campos will be in the audience for a debate he’s arranged. Bilge Ebiri, who likes the film, and Vadim Rizov, who doesn’t, will debate the film.

“The whole thing came about because there seemed to be this debate happening online in the blogs about the film, something that the NY Times review even pointed out,” Campos told me via email yesterday. “There have been many times I’ve wanted to respond to blog posts or email bloggers, this seemed like a better way to engage in a conversation.”

“I think criticism still matters very much,” “Afterschool” director Campos told me yesterday, “Even if the way people consume it has changed.”

While some filmmakers and distributors are trying to harness critical attention, hoping to fuel more interest in their films, others are unsure exactly what to make of it. The head of a leading film distribution company recently told me that mainstream critics are increasingly less important to the release of certain specialty films. There’s such a thing as a “critic-proof art film,” he said.

At the recent IFP Independent Film Week and then at the Indie Summit, a debate emerged about how audiences are finding films. Independent films used to be driven by big city critics, said B-Side’s Paola Freccero, arguing that her company is targeting ordinary audiences who don’t rely on critics, but rather on blogs and social media.

Such talk is leaving established critics feeling quite threatened and defensive. So many print based writers have lost jobs in recent years (at least 58 according to Sean Means who’s been tracking the cutbacks). Meanwhile, without a viable print path to a career in criticism, a new generation of writers continue to emerge online. And, the old guard is skeptical.

“Among the most vicious critics of critics are critics,” filmmaker James Toback offered on Saturday, setting the stage for the the Hamptons International Film Festival panel discussion.

“We don’t really know the web yet,” admitted U.S. Weekly critic Thelma Adams at a panel celebrating the 75th anniversary of the New York Film Critics Circle over the weekend at the Hamptons Fest. Even though the established critics (Adams, John Anderson, Karen Durbim, Marshall Fine and Armond White) spoke of the web as the place where they can publish longer, more thoughtful writing, many generally expressed concerns about new voices emerging online.

In fact, a passionate debate emerged about the new kids. Elle Magazine’s Karen Durbin touted the work of Spout’s Karina Longworth, igniting an argument about younger writers. “I am proud to say I am a chairman of a professional organization,” said Armond White from The New York Press, later adding that online outlets and critics “don’t rate.”

“There’s just a glut of opinion from everywhere,” White said, “But never from a place that you can trust.” “The web has created a democratization that has diluted any opinion,” offered Star Magazine’s Marshall Fine on the panel.

“As NYFCC Chairman, I am representing a organization of professional film critics,” Armond White told me today, when I asked him to clarify his remarks via email. “With the advent of the internet, ‘professionalism’ has been disregarded for the purposes of a speciously-defined ‘democracy’. Without professionalism, journalism is left with amateurism, gossip, cliques. It is destructive to the culture when these things replace education, expertise, experience. It’s never enough to simply ‘love movies’. As I said at the panel, professionals put themseIves on the line regularly and for these reasons, I defend my profession against amateur attacks that never rise to the level of intelligent discussion.”

Armond White has been called out online for dissing Karina Longworth, but as I told blogger Michael Tully this weekend (for his article about the panel), I feel like White was speaking generally, but focused on Karina and Spout as representative since they were the topic of the conversation.” Karina, who is in the Middle East for a festival, defended herself and her internet outlet.

“I have to write online, or perish,” Karina wrote, “And apparently, that means I have to keep dealing with the same blanket dismissals from the same generation of critics, who essentially seem to be saying that they’d rather see film criticism die on the vine than join every other genre of journalism in a media evolution. Which is fine for them, but I can’t stay mired in this tired debate. I have to keep moving forward, or I will die.”

I respect Armond for defending the definition of a film critic, and raising a voice for quality writing, but its clear that groups like the New York Film Critics Circle are increasingly forced to grapple with how to define the term professional. There may be fewer and fewer full-time film critics in the future, just as there are countless filmmakers who are paid little to nothing when they make a movie.

The Internet has created an endless outlet for anyone who wants to critique or review movies, but just as there are numerous paid people writing boring reviews for print publications, there are plenty of web-based writers who I find uninteresting. Conversely, there are also many people writing about movies online who are intriguing and engaging. The folks at Reverse Shot are among them and Karina Longworth is another. I also have friends, who don’t call themselves critics, whose insights I value as much as the writing of Manohla Dargis or Michael Koresky.

This era of scattered, socially-driven media, is fueled by on the job training, often without permission or editorial guidance. There is no clear path for the next generation of film critics, the ones who could carry the New York Film Critics Circle to its centennial. What role could the NYFCC play in fostering future film critics while also preserving the power of its current members?

Film criticism still matters, despite the fact that fewer film critics are getting paid to share their passion with moviegoers and even though audiences are relying on new tools to share information and insight.

This is a big topic for indieWIRE as we head into the end of the year. What can we do to support film critics, preserve their status as key filters of film culture and provide a platform for their work? We have a few ideas.

What do you think?

Eugene Hernandez is the Editor-in-Chief & Co-Founder of indieWIRE and can be reached on his blog, through Facebook or via Twitter: @eug.

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