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Cause For Celebration For Film Critics

Cause For Celebration For Film Critics

Normally in a state of constant heightened aggravation, this week has given the critical hivemind cause for momentary celebration. A group of writers who left The A.V. Club announced last Thursday that (under the auspices of Pitchfork Media) they’d be launching a new film publication, The Dissolve. Led by A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps, the site plans to provide a wide range of film coverage without traffic-baiting compromises. In an interview published on Time Magazine‘s website, Phipps correctly cited “a hole in the market for really expansive film criticism and places that want to go in-depth.”

Reviews are relegated to a marginal role on most film-centric websites, which are more interested in driving traffic through interviews, lists and easier bait with a quickly-approaching expiration date. There’s no generalized film site whose primary draw is a top-notch all-round review section that can grow into an archive worth revisiting, and few comprehensively specializing in the many movies that never see conventional theatrical mass release. Via email, staff member and longtime A.V. Club contributor Noel Murray noted an example of how his contributions would go beyond the usual release beat to include a weekly column about short films and “a monthly column rounding up the kind of new-to-DVD movies that usually end up in the Midnight Madness programs at film festivals,” two thoughtfully identified underserved film ecosystems lacking centralized coverage.

Also raising spirits was the announcement that Matt Zoller Seitz would be assuming editorial control of RogerEbert.com, which early this year began supplementing its late founder’s reviews with other writers’ appraisals. Adding briefly via email to his expansive introductory post, Seitz noted that as an editor, he favors pitches “writers have been carrying around in their hip pocket forever and ever, with the details changing, and that they’ve never written for a professional outlet because they keep getting told that the idea is too weird or the thesis too hard to prove, or that it’s not ‘a good fit’ for the section, or whatever. […] ‘That sounds completely ridiculous’ followed by ‘but this writer might actually have a point’ is the best possible reaction that a publication can get from readers.”

The absence of a centralized source of reviews and long-form writings doesn’t mean that there’s a lack of excellent reading online, just that the pieces can be spread out over an unruly diaspora of sites. Established reliable aggregators of higher-grade pieces include links-plus-tersely-opinionated-commentary from Ray Pride at Movie City News and the indefatigable David Hudson, currently practicing his trade at Fandor. Both offer a coherent roundup of both trade noise and critical discourse. A recent dark horse addition to the aggregation field is Critics Round Up, which offers links from a decidedly personal selection of reviews published online. In the site’s introduction, founder James Kang bluntly states that he doesn’t “feel bad about excluding most Rotten Tomatoes film critics, since they write thoughtlessly and without a point.” Since his launch, he noted in an email, “Traffic goes up and down without a gradual increase.” He works “about 6-8 hours a day, including weekends” (he hopes to replace an inefficient, time-consuming system later this month) and finds “it’s a struggle to remain optimistic” about accruing a permanently larger audience. 

What the two new ventures and the steadily-evolving Ebert site have in common is a shared emphasis on providing one unified location for speaking at length without interruption from the noise of transient casting announcements or misleadingly attention-getting headlines. It remains to be seen whether the number of people online interested in reading long-form criticism overly devoted to informedly idiosyncratic voices has a built-in ceiling or whether internet film writing can be shifted as a whole into pieces with more durability.

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