Media Watch: The Changing Landscape Movie Coverage

With much fanfare, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter has announced the hire of film critic Richard Lawson. “Richard’s beautifully written reviews combine insight, humor, and a refreshingly humane approach to criticism—though he’s certainly capable of eviscerating a true stinker,” stated Carter. “He’s the perfect choice to be the site’s first official film critic.” 

But in a sign of the times, he’s not a film critic at Vanity Fair Magazine. He’ll be published at VF.com, where he won’t just supply film reviews full time. He’s continuing with his duties as a bloggy Hollywood columnist weighing in on television, gossip and entertainment news. Lawson will review one to two releases each week. Here’s his review of “Captain America: Winter Soldier.” 

“We have been running film reviews in the magazine and online for as long as I can remember,” writes VF.com digital director Mike Hogan via email, “but with the launch of the dedicated Hollywood section, now felt like the right time to name a proper film critic. And it just so happened that Richard, whom we hired as the section’s columnist, loves writing reviews and is great at it. I’m sure you’ll be seeing his reviews in the magazine from time to time, but in the meantime we’re excited to feature them on a weekly basis on VF.com.”

At least VF.com is committed to covering Hollywood; they recently hired Cinema Blend’s Katey Rich as their Hollywood editor. And burgeoning Buzzfeed has also added their first film critic, Indiewire TV writer Alison Wilmore–who hopefully will not have to concoct movie quizzes. Multitasking seems to be the order of the day, though, as outlets demand their money’s worth in the form of volume, quality and traffic. That’s hard to achieve. (The NYT’s David Carr nails this subject here.)

It’s a tenuous world out there as media websites shift direction and focus. As EW, MTV and Vulture thrive online, MSN.com dramatically cut back on movie coverage last September 11, letting go of some 100 freelancers via email, including film critics Glenn Kenny, James Rocchi, William Goss and Kate Erbland. Also let go was film and book critic Mary Pols. She had served for five years as Time’s only movie reviewer when she was told she could freelance at cut-back rates. After the September email she had to give up her 13-year film critic vocation and joined the news staff for the revitalized Portland Press Herald in Maine. “The thing I loved doing had become untenable for a single mother,” she wrote me, “irresponsible even as contracts vanished and pay rates became ridiculous. I never thought I’d walk away but I am relieved I did.”

The Huffington Post last week laid off their star movie writer Mike Ryan, who’s fielding various offers. And movie writer Matt Patches left Hollywood.com, when the site eliminated most of its editorial staff last May; he’s been freelancing for VF.com, Vulture and Grantland among other outlets. 

It’s tough to be just a critic these days, as David Fear took a job as an editor at Rolling Stone, after serving as critic at Time Out New York, and the dissolution of Time Out Chicago left critic Ben Kenigsberg unmoored. As he exhibitor convention CinemaCon gets under way in Las Vegas, there’s evidence that critics do mean something, still–especially in aggregate form on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. (Reviews do very well at Indiewire.)

While various older mom & pop movie sites that have built solid followings are still thriving, from Slashfilm to Collider, there seems to be increased consolidation and competition for traffic. Carr digs into the increasing stress on journalists to stay ahead of which stories get the most page views and engagement. While it’s lovely to feel the love from readers, Facebook likes do not always reflect the most-read posts. And it’s not rocket science to figure out which movies are hot (“Nymphomania,” “Divergent” and “Grand Budapest Hotel,” yes, “Bad Words,” no). But does that mean not writing about an obscure film title at the expense of the same mainstream fare everyone else is chasing? Not at Indiewire.

Older sites have a distinct advantage —RogerEbert.com, for example, is sticking to its knitting with a slew of reviews every week, while newer sites like The Dissolve fight for a foothold. The Wrap editrix Sharon Waxman may be flogging her staff to chase traffic with clickable stories, but does that bring increased respect? 

Meanwhile Jay Penske Media haas moved to a West Side office building as Variety traffic picks up at the expense of sister site Deadline, while talks have been on and off between Nikki Finke and her estranged boss, who has been holding her to the terms of her contract. She’s tweeting the weekend box office, and live-snarked the Oscars, but has not yet activated NikkiFinke.com. It’s unlikely that she could earn the reported seven-figure income there that she did under Penske’s thumb, but at least she would be free.

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