Select Page

Take a look at the box office totals from this summer’s movie season, and one may conclude that the film critic played a mighty part. Fantastic Four—clobbered by critics—couldn’t even reach the top of a tepid August weekend. Lukewarm notices couldn’t help Aloha connect with audiences, as the film barely reached the US$20,000,000mark in its run. (The film’s budget? $37,000,000.)

Remember that heavily promoted nostalgia fest with Adam Sandler predicted to be a summer blockbuster? Pixels now hovers near the US$75,000,000 mark in North America, due partly to disastrous reviews. That’s only slightly more than this spring’s already forgotten sequel to Paul Blart: Mall Cop, which cost Sony a lot less to make and promote.

Meanwhile, strong notices from critics aided several of the summer’s biggest hits. Mad Max: Fury Road and Inside Out, the two biggest critical hits of the season, earned big bucks, even amidst huge competition. Straight Outta Compton defied so many box office expectations that the film is now generating Oscar talk.

However, although toxic critical reception helped to halt potential hits and written approval bolstered others, were any other films hits due to critics? Probably not. The summer’s biggest blockbuster, Jurassic World, earned lukewarm notices—not that it would have made much of a difference amid the T-Rex–sized buzz.

Film critics are still an important part of the conversation, but the influence of powerful film columnists seems to matter less by the year. If dults looking for serious, art-house fare still trust the opinions of reviewers, how come so few films aimed at older audiences lasted in theatres this summer? Mr. Holmes and Love and Mercy were modest hits for mature audiences; however, combined, the two films made less money stateside than the Entourage movie.

Do film critics still matter to audiences today? And if their influence is dwindling, what does this mean for the future of mainstream film criticism?

Film critics are still an important part of the conversation, but the influence of powerful film columnists seems to matter less by the year. If adults looking for serious, art-house fare still trust the opinions of reviewers, how come so few films aimed at older audiences lasted in theatres this summer?

Unsurprisingly, the key to keeping vital contribution to film writing alive is the Internet. Rotten Tomatoes (RT) remains one of the Web’s most popular websites, earning around 17,000,000 unique visitors each month. That is no surprise: Many surfers don’t have the time to search out detailed critical opinion, so the website’s democratized consensus is often the first place many look when deciding what to see.

One could lament the site’s spectrum of critical response, which relies on influential bloggers and some amateur writers who may lack the historical knowledge and analysis one expects in a film writer. However, one could also argue that giving a larger number of critics say over a film’s RT rating helps to connect audiences to broader opinion that may align more with their tastes.

If websites like RT are shaping the conversation by molding a consensus that audiences can trust, how can lone wolf reviewers at major magazines and newspapers continue to have influence? Well, again, it’s the Internet. It is now rare to find a mainstream critic who isn’t tweeting about their reactions to films and popular cultural events like TIFF or the Academy Awards. However, as a critic’s presence on social media extends their brand and influence, doesn’t the arrival of Facebook and Twitter help render more established views to be obsolete?

David Sacks, an arts journalist who now teaches that craft at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa, certainly thinks so. “Word-of-mouth is hugely influential,” he adds, shutting down the argument that critics had any impact on box office grosses this summer. “What new media may have done is make it very convenient for word-of-mouth to spread. That’s eroding the power of critics.”

Donato Totaro, who taught a Master’s class on film criticism at Concordia University last year, is more optimistic. “When there’s a buzz about a particular film, it is the major film critics that do lead the way,” he says.

As online demographics naturally shift to younger audiences, is there anybody available to give rich film analysis that resonates with teenagers? If there is, their influence has yet to reach any kind of apex. Meanwhile, the demographics of film audiences also show why critics may not be thriving. In the United States, Hispanics are the most regular moviegoers, accounting for around one out of every four tickets, despite accounting for fewer than 20% of the population. Nevertheless, the dominant discourse on film criticism in North America still comes from white men.

As a critic’s presence on social media extends their brand and influence, doesn’t the arrival of Facebook and Twitter help render more established views to be obsolete?

Prominent reviewers like Grantland’s Wesley Morris and Flick Filosopher’s MaryAnn Johanson give thoughtful criticism of mainstream hits, frequently writing about films through a racial or feminist lens that adds to the cultural conversation. (Read Morris’s eviscerations of Let’s Be Cops and Ted 2 for some of his most on-point writing.)

The dwindling influence of film critics, merged with the downsizing of newspapers, led to rampant layoffs over the last decade. Totaro says he still reads critics like J. Hoberman and Armond White, who both used to be the voice in alternative presses. However, those writers have migrated online.

One possible outcome from the Internet’s proliferation is more columns about film, post-release. This year, American Sniper and Straight Outta Compton received much contemplation from culture writers, in print and online, after their release. Critics may set the tone for a film’s response on Rotten Tomatoes, but what about in-depth analysis once a film reaches a level in the cultural

Totaro refers to film criticism as different from reviewing. He says that criticism is to help audiences who are already familiar with a film and guide the viewer toward a new way of seeing or interpreting elements in the story. “Writing about film is about sharing ideas,” he says. “It’s sort of tied to the value we place on film. But in some respects, films have become so disposable for us. We can see almost anything we want without leaving our house.”

Film reviewing attempts to sell a movie to a prospective audience to watch. Like television reviews, it may be limited to details of plot, character and theme. Film reviews, however, lack the directness of tv, possibly because tv reviews are aimed at devout followers.Therefore, film writers have a responsibility to stretch their pedigree as critics by discussing a talked-about film with detail, bringing up points that perhaps don’t fit within a 500-word review.

Meanwhile, how can film criticism remain interactive as well as influential? Totaro insists that the rising popularity of online video essays on films, actors and directors has helped the discourse. “Younger generation kids are used to seeing images,” he says, referring to the essays of Kevin Lee as well as sites like Red Letter Media as examples of where popular criticism may be heading. “It’s a good trend. It can be critical but it’s also fun.”

Film criticism will survive only if writers can find a way to resonate with both casual audiences and cinephiles. In an online culture saturated with clickbait, there isn’t much room for thoughtful analysis.

It is hard to deny that mainstream criticism still counts at select times during the year, specifically at major film festivals. For the Toronto International Film Festival, it is a critic’s role to cut through the hype and point audiences toward films they should see.

Both Boyhood and Whiplash premiered at Sundance last year, receiving unanimous praise and, later, widespread coverage among major critics. As a result, these films got the attention they deserved upon release and found a devoted theatrical audience—and, later, several end-of-year awards. It is still the role of the critic to champion the underdog. In a cultural arena with so many media options to choose from, critics still have tremendous value.

Still, film criticism will survive only if writers can find a way to resonate with both casual audiences and cinephiles. In an online culture saturated with clickbait, there isn’t much room for thoughtful analysis. “There’s a lot of ‘weighing in’ going on,” wrote Village Voice critic Stephanie Zacharek in an article about Internet criticism, “but not so much actual thinking.”

It isn’t easy to make a living as a film critic today. With so many writers trying to find a space for their musings online, the field is more crowded than it needs to be. But, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for enriching, educational columns that are both accessibly and passionately written.

A few online destinations have already found a rhythm writing original, thought-provoking pieces about the cinema that go further than a traditional starred review. (The A.V. Club is one. The now-defunct Dissolve was another.) A model arts website should lead the conversation, not follow it: If the main voice isn’t shouting loud enough, diversify with new voices or topics.

The field of film criticism needs more Internet ventures with a specific focus on cultivating film writing in all forms. This should include websites that take an alternative stance on cinema, centering on queer, black and/or feminist interests. The Internet doesn’t just allow for the words to spread: critics undone by the constraints of traditional column lengths can adjust their arguments without sacrificing their content.

At the end of the day, if critics aren’t writing about the artistic value and cultural impact of today’s films, then audiences will not recognize just how good it is to still go to the movies.

 

This article is the third in a three-part series looking at the past, present, and future of film criticism.