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Critic vs. Critic: The Changing Landscape of Movie Coverage

Critic vs. Critic: The Changing Landscape of Movie Coverage

Moviefone’s Jack Mathews and I are squabbling again, this time in a new column we’re calling Critic vs. Critic, in which we debate the latest trends and topics in movies. This week, Mathews and I take on the changing face of movie coverage, now dominated by the Internet.

In recent years there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of professional film critics in the U.S., but never have there been as many reviews of new movies available as there are today. Where people once got their moviegoing advice from familiar critics in newspapers and on television on opening day, they now get reviews days, weeks, even months in advance of a movie’s scheduled release from fan sites on the Internet. The question is: Are today’s moviegoers better served by new media … or is the Internet diluting the quality of film criticism?

JM: Yes and no. As a critic who was as interested in the process of filmmaking as in the movies themselves, I envy the amount and immediacy of reporting on the Internet. Beats the hell out of studio press kits. On the downside, I would not read a review of a movie from someone whose background and tastes I don’t know, and that includes nearly all of the citizen critics pumping reviews into cyberspace.

AT: What’s fascinating is how the Internet has evolved. Where there once were certain established news outlets with access to production set visits and filmmaker and star interviews, like Premiere, EW or Entertainment Tonight, now a host of online sites of varying size and flavors have grown and matured into flourishing media that do a decent job of servicing their readers with info as soon as they can get it: trailers, stills and one-sheets as well as interviews from festivals and junkets.

And they write reviews. At a recent online critics panel at SXSW, and as I bade a sad farewell to At the Movies I realized that I do bewail the loss of quality criticism of yore. The new batch aren’t well-trained journalism professionals; in the main, they aren’t as thoughtful and elegant as their predecessors. But they share their passions and have their ardent followers.

So I now am well-informed, if not enlightened. And I do know where to find the critics I respect, whether it’s Time, NYTimes.com, Salon, Slate and Movieline or bloggers Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, Some Came Running and Dave Kehr. While Richard Schickel no longer pontificates from on high, there is now a critic for every taste. Let many flowers bloom.

JM: I would guess that movie buffs getting all of their news online, like political buffs getting all their news from Fox, are misinformed as often as they are informed. When I was the movie editor of the Los Angeles Times in the late ’80s, early ’90s, we had freelance writers who were dying to post the latest rumors in the newspaper’s Calendar section as soon as they heard them. I pushed back on those items until the reporting was solid, which it often never became. I don’t think many of the rumors being published on the Internet today go through such editorial scrutiny.

The fact is that publishing negative, anonymous gossip about unfinished movies is very harmful to the film, its creators and its investors and, as often as not, that premature buzz proves false. How many of you who trust those early reviews would do so if they were being filed by someone with the tastes of Armond White? The thing is you can’t un-ring a bell and once published, those rushed judgments gain traction in the blogosphere and ultimately find their way into mainstream media. Damage done.

AT: Very true. The negative of the current online movie beast is that the quality of the discourse has coarsened. While Jonathan Franzen can afford to cut off his computer and sit in a quiet room, the rest of us are reading, ingesting and posting faster, shorter and with more frequency, for less money, cutting corners, trying to beat the competition, and fashioning headlines with celeb names, “controversy” or “exclusive” to build traffic. There is little awareness, I find, of many of the rules of conflict of interest and journalism ethics that were pounded into journalists as they moved up the ranks.

I’d like to think that discerning readers will seek out sites with authority and cred and writers and critics more likely to steer them right. The danger is that seeking access to junkets leads to easy promo filler (and ad quotes) over meaningful independent scrutiny. On the other hand, critic site Pajiba, which prides itself on snarky reviews, seems to be thriving. In this fragmented universe, it’s not about the many seeking truth from the one. Now, each person seeks multiple sources who they trust. You get what you want, if not what you need.

JM: I wonder what Pauline Kael would have thought of all this. The late New Yorker magazine critic was the Gertrude Stein of movie culture, the go-to guru for up-and-coming critics who craved her approbation and — for those whose work she liked — her friendship and freely given advice. Her eyes would glaze over if she were around to sample the work of unknown critics now rising like so many dandelions on the Internet landscape. I’m not saying there isn’t talent out there — as Roger Ebert has had time to verify, there is — but she’d balk at the amount of chaff she’d have to brush aside to get to the wheat.

AT: Safe to say, in sum: Nobody writes like Kael, or commands the attention that she once did, or has the impact on the culture that she once had. The two critics at the New York Times and The New Yorker respectively hold some sway, but finally the most powerful critic in America is a populist who established his fame on television’s ‘At the Movies’ — Roger Ebert. Because he lost his balcony perch when he lost his voice to cancer, he now communicates with more film fans than ever before, not only via the Chicago Sun-Times but online, on his blog and on Twitter, where he has 220,000 followers and counting. It’s the new order.

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