The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Why the film critics were wrong to dismiss movie blogs

with 31 comments

medium_3109945515Film criticism – who’s it for? This was the somewhat vague title of a panel discussion I attended last week.

In the audience you would find people from all areas of the film business – critics, distributors, filmmakers, representatives for various organisations. The setup on the stage was dominated by film critics from the established traditional morning papers with one exception: a young man from a web publication who I figure was there to represent the future.

It looked like a good idea to bring him on. He if anyone, with a large and growing audience of 15-35 year old readers, should be able to give a picture of where things are heading. What do  people want from film criticism? How is it challenged by the growth of social media? What would it take to make people willing to pay for film criticism in a tie when so much is available for free on internet?

But sadly it didn’t turn out that way. It was clear from the beginning that the film critics were utterly uninterested in anything related to social media or online publications like the one the guy in the panel represented.

“What ordinary people write about a movie is of very little importance” said one.

Another one told us that the morning paper he worked for had shut down the possibility for readers to comment on reviews, since there would be too much discussion. He didn’t seem to mind.

Lack of audience
And the critics representing traditional media went on to discuss what they thought was the most important change in film criticism during the last five years, namely the fact that they had been “forced” to rate movies. Apparently the pressure from the marketing department became too large. If you don’t have star ratings, you won’t get quotes in the ads and posters for the movie, missing an opportunity for your publication to get visible. So they rated the movies and if I got them right it had turned out that it wasn’t as bad as they had thought it would be. It could even be helpful, forcing them to be clearer in their reviews, giving reasons for why a movie got a certain grade.

But then there was this little thing that kept bothering them. The audience. Or rather: the lack of it. They had 1 realised that the reading habits of the upcoming generations are a subject to change. It doesn’t occur to 20-25 year olds who are about to movie away from their parents to start subscribing for a newspaper. They know that they can get their news – including film reviews – quicker and cheaper online.

“We don’t have any readers that are born after 1965”, said one of the film critics, the one who ten minutes earlier had dismissed film discussions over blogs and twitter as having no relevance.

And I thought to myself: that it didn’t surprise me the slightest. With an attitude like that, how could you possibly attract a younger audience?

The “critic” label
I don’t claim that movie blogging, tweeting and podcasting necessarily replace what the traditional film critics do. I even think very few of us who engage in this would label ourselves “critics”. We’re just people who watch a lot of movies who enjoy talking about it with other people who do the same. We write reviews, we write columns, rants, raves and comments. Some of us are aspiring writers –  pretty knowledgeable and insightful such. Others write just “for fun”, far from the academic level you may expect from “film criticism”. Nevertheless I think it’s rather stupid to just dismiss the whole thing about blogging altogether, either it’s out of fear (“they’re stealing our jobs”) or out of ignorance, which I honestly think is the more probably cause here.

I think there’s a place for paid film critics in the future. But they need to start paying a bit of attention to the expectations of the audience of today. If they stopped being so sniffy about social media they might actually learn a few things. For instance it isn’t a bad thing to interact with your readers. The days are gone when the readers happily listened to what the “expert” had to say without questioning anything. Today we want to form our own opinions and be vocal about them. Those arguments we’re having online is a part of the movie experience: the post watching processing. The critics can have a place in this as a take-off point for discussions, provided that they’re open for it and encourage it. If you manage to work up a good discussion climate with your audience it adds something to your own material – a sense of participation, of sharing, of a being a part of something.

Evolving community
A shining example of this is Mark Kermode who, apart from encouraging listeners to share their views using twitter, facebook and by other means, also runs his own video blog on the side. Apart from this he’s a frequent Twitter user and, while not advocating every blog there is out there, he has given out recommendations for various film websites once in a while. He doesn’t fear social media and online communication. He embraces it, knowing his own value and that very few out there can compete with him in knowledge and skill with the words. With this strategy he will survive in the new media situation that film critics all over the world are facing.

Sadly I can’t think of any Swedish film critic who has reached the same level of insight. The panel discussion about film criticism indicates that many of them still are in a state of denial.

Meanwhile the online film community keeps evolving. What I’ve seen over the last year is that more and more individual blogs merge together into movie sites, with a more professional look and approach. There also appears to be more movie podcasts around but we don’t know how many of those that will find an audience and survive in the long run.  Quotes from movie blogs have become more common in the marketing of movies.

If the film critics want to find a future for themselves I think they’d do wise to stop dismissing social media, asking what they can learn from them and what they can do to become a part of it and still earn a living.

They had the chance to learn something. There was a whole bunch of movie bloggers in the audience who they indirectly dismissed. They didn’t ask us anything. And you know what? The loss is theirs.

photo credit: Miss Mita via photopin cc

Written by Jessica

September 3, 2013 at 1:00 am

31 Responses

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  1. That’s crazy, entertainment as a whole is becoming more and more a niche market. With information so readily accessible, it’s easier for fans of a niche to find exactly what they want, and vice-versa: creators of niche entertainment much more easily find their audiences. Film criticism in the professional sense is geared toward the wide audience, while more movie blogs and even the consolidated multi-person movie sites are more often geared toward the niche. Whether it’s a specific niche genre, or merely someone who is very personal and relates to their readers on a more one-to-one level rather than a very broad, vague level. It’s crazy that professional film critics can be in that much denial, the so-called “wide” audience is going away, and for entertainment to really evolve for the future, it needs to understand that. I think that’s one reason why independent cinema is the biggest that it’s ever been, it’s that much easier to reach these niche audiences than it has ever been.

    Bubbawheat

    September 3, 2013 at 1:29 am

    • I share the same view as you do, though I guess we’re both biased with the perspective of a blogger. I have yet to see an objective analysis on this, coming from someone who isn’t a blogger or a film critic. Maybe there’s some paper out here, but nothing that I’ve heard.

      Jessica

      September 3, 2013 at 7:21 am

  2. The one thing the professionals have that the amateurs don’t is they see pretty much everything, and at the point of release. This is why I have tended to prefer the format of Kermode’s show or At The Movies that just give snippet thoughts of a bunch of films over things that provide extended analysis of one or two things. I have my informal places that I consider just as good for detailed thoughts on specific films. What I ask of a professional is to give me enough about all kinds of films, with some indication of quality, that I can prioritize my own watching. I don’t want to read detailed criticism about films I haven’t seen anyway.

    Bondo

    September 3, 2013 at 2:34 am

    • That’s true. Very few amateur bloggers watch so much that you can get the quick overview of what’s up in cinemas. That’s an area where professional critics can shine. In the end I think I’m attracted to the style of certain writers an podcasters. I don’t think a lot about if they’re professional or not. It’s more a question of having an understanding for their taste, of feeling connected and of being entertained.

      Jessica

      September 3, 2013 at 7:23 am

  3. I still think there’s a place for professional film critics, but they’ll be more like Matt Singer and similar voices in the future. They’ll still write traditional pieces but will also do podcasts, videos, and other approaches to connect with viewers. If they’re standing on a pedestal and aren’t interacting with people, then there’s little point to me. That’s the best part of doing a movie blog, getting the chance to talk to other movie fans. I know there’s a different mindset on what a critic is from the past, but that’s going away quickly. I’m surprised to hear that attitude at this point from professionals.

    Dan Heaton

    September 3, 2013 at 3:13 am

    • Exactly! Matt Singer is doing it right. That’s the future IMO. Maybe Swedish film critics are just more backwards than their colleagues from US and UK?

      Jessica

      September 3, 2013 at 7:25 am

  4. For at least the last 20-25 years I’ve felt that there are faw too many film critics getting widely published and far too few movie reviewers. Critics take up their column space telling you why they are smarter than the writers, directors, and producers. Reviewers actually tell you enough about the film to let you judge for yourself if it’s something you might be interested in.

    Several years back IMDB would have a weekly headline – “[insert movie name] is number one at the box office despite negative critics’ reviews.” It went on for months. Someone finally caught a clue that the vast majority of people who buy a ticket for a movie could not care less what any professional critic thought of it. They cared what their friends thought, or they liked the trailer they saw. Bloggers, once they become trusted by the readers, serve a quasi-friend role in making recommendations to others. Few critics were ever able to achieve that. Roger Ebert was one, but he’s gone now.

    It’s only people who are really into movies (and many bloggers qualify) that care enough what professional critics think to read their columns.

    Chip Lary

    September 3, 2013 at 4:35 am

    • Well I think you’re a little harsh on critics here – but then I’m one of those that are really into movies. But yeah, I think you have a point about what the boad audience want. They actually had a discussion about this at the panel, about the balance between analysing a movie and providing consumer information. Actually all of the critics said that it wasn’t one thing or the other, that their role was to provide both. At least that’s something.

      Jessica

      September 3, 2013 at 7:28 am

  5. Wow, very interesting piece. The internet and social media have certainly opened up a broader avenue for people to both put their material out there and for others to read. This is clearly a form of competition for mainstream critics. Therefore I can see some of their apprehension. But as with everything, things are evolving. That evolution has allowed me the opportunity to write about what I love. I still love reading some mainstream critics and I think there’s room for us all. It’s just finding that and adapting to it.

    keith7198

    September 3, 2013 at 3:24 pm

    • Thanks Keith! Yes, I don’t think professional critics will disappear anytime soon. But it wouldn’t hurt of they were a little mre openminded.

      Jessica

      September 3, 2013 at 10:41 pm

  6. Great article Jessica. I personally feel we have the “critics” on the run 😉

    Mark Walker

    September 3, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    • Last year Sight & Sound invited some internet movie critics to vote for its once every decade poll, one of them was Georgaris of They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? – and I guess S&S is one of the top 5 more important film magazines in the world so I think we have to distinguish between two situations: 1 – is it possible for the best internet film critics to earn the respect of the professional critics? the S&S episode makes me think that it is possible; 2 – is it possible for a blogger to be as influent as a professional critic? I doubt it and my doubt is founded upon various reasons, an influential critic has to be up to date with the latest releases and only pros have that kind of access, to be influential you need tons of readers and we can’t compete with the kind of numbers generated by the NYT or even by professional critics whose papers are considered by Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes.

      ismokecigars

      September 3, 2013 at 4:58 pm

      • I disagree a little bit about that you need “tons of readers” to be influencal. There’s more than just numbers to it. You’re probably right that it’s hard for an amateur blogger to reach the level of fame as a paid film critic, but this doesn’t mean that they should be dismissed completely. It’s not black and white.

        Jessica

        September 3, 2013 at 11:25 pm

    • Thanks Mark! Yeah, you can’t help wondering if they feel threated.

      Jessica

      September 3, 2013 at 10:39 pm

  7. I think the perceived gap between pro critics and amateur bloggers is getting smaller all the time. But ismokecigars is absolutely right about the advantages the pros currently have that hobby bloggers can’t hope to compete with. Some of us may be able to get on local press lists and attend preview screenings, but none of us have an audience size that really matters. You could add up all of the pageviews that the top 10 most popular blogs in The LAMB receive in one year, and it would still be less than what the BBC gets in a single day.

    Bonjour Tristesse

    September 3, 2013 at 6:01 pm

    • It’s a tricky thing to measure influence. The number of hits is one parameter, but not the only one. I think those who read movie blogs are more likely to be film fans who actually go to theatres than the average reader of a newspaper. Also: there’s more than just clicks. People who blog are often active on twitter as well and maybe they have a facebook page. Ideas get wings and will fly much further than you have reason to think at a quick glance.

      But obviously those are just my own ponderings, not founded in science or anything. It’s just the gut feeling.

      Jessica

      September 3, 2013 at 11:14 pm

      • You’re right, there is much more to it than just raw numbers. We each have a certain degree of influence within our little community, and get lucky once in awhile when a post or idea goes viral. But because they have such a big readership, the major critics also have some power to sway festival programmers, distributors, and cinema owners.

        Bonjour Tristesse

        September 4, 2013 at 3:52 am

        • That’s true. But I think things are changing, if ever so slowly. Just the fact that we were a whole bunch of bloggers that were invited to attend this event that earlier was for professional critics and people in the film industry is fantastic and shows that the Swedish Film Institute is trying to keep up with the development.

          Jessica

          September 5, 2013 at 10:19 pm

  8. I could sort of understand their objections to rating — that it signified movies as pure entertainment and not culture on par with an opera or a theatre performance. But part of the problem with the seminar was that it did not distiguish between film criticism and film debate in general.

    Also I’m not sure that they would dismiss all social media, but the example they had to respond to was a celebrity who tweets “This movie is awesome/sucks!” thereby making all his thousands of followers to either run to or from the movie theatres. Were I a professional, I would not particularly enjoy that situation either.

    Sofia

    September 3, 2013 at 8:40 pm

    • The problem was that they didn’t take social media seriously at all, including that kind of ridiculous example, but not going into any deeper discussion about what effects social media has on film criticism.
      But then again “film criticism” is a vague label. It needs to be defined, which they unfortunately didn’t do.

      Jessica

      September 3, 2013 at 11:18 pm

  9. Amen!

    fernandorafael

    September 5, 2013 at 1:13 am

  10. Interesting discussion. The only movie reviews outside of blogs I might read are in the free newspapers you see in the subway and train…besides that most of what I read about movies is through blogs.

    Ebert also had a big presence on the web and fully embraced it, only adding to his popularity….he evolved. Seems the ones in this panel knew indeed were afraid of their jobs…

    Nostra

    September 5, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    • Oh Ebert! Of course! I should have mentioned him too. He’s an excellent example of someone who didn’t sneer at blogging, despite his exceptional position. He tweeted, he blogged and as far as I’ve heard he happily spoke to and encouraged young, aspiring movie reviewers. But maybe it takes a lot of confidence to have such a generous attitude.

      Jessica

      September 5, 2013 at 10:16 pm

  11. “The only movie reviews outside of blogs I might read are in the free newspapers you see in the subway and train…besides that most of what I read about movies is through blogs.”

    I hope Nostra will realize that writing a statement like this it’s not dismissing professional film criticism, it’s dismissing film as a respectable art form tout court.
    I guess when you need a lawyer or a doctor you want the services of a professional, should you found out that your doctor is a quack I guess you would dismiss him, but when it comes to film you are satisfied with the services of an amateur, really?
    I like to write about films myself, I like to discuss films with people who – just like me – are not pros, only aficionados, but I believe that if a blogger was as good as the likes of Jonathan Rosenbaum or Richard Corliss, I doubt he would remain a blogger for long.
    Being a pro film critic doesn’t made you a good writer, but I suppose someone hired you and checked your credentials.

    ismokecigars

    September 6, 2013 at 3:56 pm

    • Well you said it yourself. Starting out as a blogger can be one way into the profession nowadays. So there is a potential deelopment there. But if you ask me I think you should get yourself a universe degree as well if you’re planning to work full-time with this.

      This said. as much as I respect professional film critics (and I do love to read and listen to a couple of them) the majority of writing and talking about film that I consume these days is produced by amateurs. I think this has to do with what you say: that you want to discuss films. And since professionals often regard themselves as being above this, we discuss with each other and the few critics who are talkable.

      Jessica

      September 8, 2013 at 12:30 am

  12. I was a strange seminar. First off I didn’t think the moderator was so good. Her questions was kind of boring and without a focused context. What was the seminar really about? Social media? Film criticism? The survival of old paper media? All this is very interesting but I don’t they really got that thru.

    Also, the panel just seemed to answer the questions one by one without really getting a debate going.

    About the topic itself, I got the feeling that the “old media” people are trying to klinging on, not really knowing what to do with all new possibilities. Kind of the same it has been with the music and film industry, and partyly still is.

    One Swedish good example is the radio show Kino. They are active on both Instagram and Twitter, where interact with listeners, and they do quite good podcasts from different festivals and other events (as Malmö Filmdagar).

    Jojjenito

    September 8, 2013 at 10:11 am

    • I should definitely have mentioned Kino in my post, they’re reaching out to the audience in a way that the newspaper critics in Sweden don’t seem to do. I think they’re “getting” it. Perhaps it’s easier to embrace it if you’re working with a media that has public financiation than if you have to find peopl who are willing to pay for your content. Just a thought.

      Jessica

      September 9, 2013 at 8:00 am

  13. I was gonna mention Ebert but it’s been done by two other commentators 🙂

    I watched a documentary this week about newspapers. The prediction of some was that within 10 years there won’t be a newspaper around any more. People are used to getting free news from the internet. And even if it turns out to be not that extreme, year by year you can see newspaper and magazine sales dropping.

    The times, they are a-changing and you need to jump on the train or in ten yours you’ll notice that you’re writing for a tiny public.

    carrandas

    September 9, 2013 at 5:35 pm

    • What documentary was that? I watched Page One, which was a bit worrying, but that sounds even worse… It kind of breaks my heart. As a former journalist I feel for all those risking to lose their jobs. But like you I think they need to adapt. Resistance is futile as they say…

      Jessica

      September 9, 2013 at 11:42 pm


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