Film criticism is dead. At least that’s what traditionalists would have you believe. If education and experience in the field of writing no longer carry the same gravitas as previously, what are the criteria? The Internet swept in and levelled the playing field, giving anyone with an opinion a voice, creating a conundrum for those whose job it is to render an informed one.
Of all the major advancements brought about by the Internet, blogging is the one that has, arguably, had the largest impact on film criticism. Since everyone has an opinion, and blogs and social media allow everyone to express it, dialogue about film has been both elevated and lessened. Hollywood — forever obsessed with profits and opening weekends — listens to the loudest consensus in an attempt to craft critic-proof films.
Blogging, for better or worse, is the ever-expanding present and unarguable future of film criticism. However, major questions remain: should bloggers be painted with a single brush and vilified for their often lack of formal education in the field? Are the atrophying traditional print and television journalists to be revered as the only ones qualified to critique film? The answer, unlike most current movie reviews, is not a simple thumbs up or down.
A Brief History of the Blog
Before we get to blogging’s effect on the film industry, it’s important to explore its backstory. From the moment it became possible to connect a computer to the Internet with a modem and telephone line, people began posting their thoughts. The first blog is attributed to the famously, and impressively, bearded Jorn Barger, a self-publisher who coined the term “weblog” (from the longer “logging the web”). On his weblog, Robot Wisdom, he wrote personal essays on James Joyce, artificial intelligence, technology and technological trends, among other topics. He also collected links to content around the “net.” He pioneered the reverse chronological order employed by WordPress, Blogger, Facebook and Twitter today.
Jorn Barger is a fascinating figure for a number of reasons, but the most important one is that the first notorious blogger on the Internet was an outsider. Coming from a difficult upbringing and focusing his studies in technology (a field not celebrated at the time), he struggled to find his place in the world. The Internet provided that — one to put his thoughts, feelings and ideas — and gave everyone else the opportunity to acknowledge them.
As weblogging began to rise in popularity, the word “weblog” was shortened to “blog” by programmer Peter Merholz in 1999 and was added to the Miriam-Webster dictionary in 2004.
When Evan Williams and Meg Hourihan (of Pyra Labs) created the user-friendly blogging software Blogger, they made it free to use, which launched blogging into the mainstream in the early ’00s.
The Blog Boom
Between 1999 and 2005, in-depth blogs flourished and corporate America took notice. Advertisers looking to connect with new audiences approached bloggers with any level of influence — built through consistent, knowledgeable posts that generated large followings. Influencers were invited to speak at conferences on their topics, and meta-blogs (blogs about blogging) popped up everywhere, with tips on how to become more successful in a niche field.
AdSense launched in 2003, making it easy for blogs to sell advertising space with little to no experience in the advertising world. When optimized correctly, significant money could be made via high visitor rates.
Blogging became not only a bastion for topic specialists, but also a place to make a living. Bloggers began quitting their day jobs, because what they did online generated a comparable salary, while offering greater flexibility and work satisfaction.
In 2005, Garrett M. Graff became the first blogger to be granted White House press credentials.
The Rise of the Film Blogger
It’s difficult to determine when the first film blog was created, but given the cultural obsession with Hollywood and its primary product — films, not celebrities — it was likely very early on. In 1999, there were 23 blogs on the Internet. By 2006, there were 50 million. That’s 175,000 per day, or two blogs added per second.
IndieWire began publishing online in 1996, with a relaunch in 2009. The Movie Blog began publishing in 2003, and SlashFilm started in 2005. In Toronto, The Globe and Mail had film content on its website in 1999, and NOW Magazine started adding content to its website in 2000, which included T.O. film listings and reviews. The National Post had film-related content and reviews online around October of 2000 as well.
As blogs in general grew in popularity, so too did movie ones. Film is a medium best consumed in a group setting, so its popularity as a blogging topic came naturally. As with many communities, film lovers adhering to a specific niche — silent film, French New Wave, the Polish School, cinéma vérité, Mumblecore, etc. — could connect with greater numbers of their kin in ways previously not possible.
The most important part of the blogging movement is the idea of kinship. Bloggers gain followers and popularity due to their personality, writing style and opinions. While a newspaper or television critic may have a wider reach, bloggers have a different, arguably more impactful, type of pull that’s akin to taking movie suggestions from a trusted friend, rather than an arm’s length critic. Studios quickly picked up on this and began granting media accreditation to bloggers in major cities, allowing them to attend films in advance and release reviews at the same time as traditional outlets.
These credentials, and the ability to publish reviews at the same time as the aforementioned traditional outlets, legitimized film blogging. As bloggers began receiving media accreditation to festivals and other major events, the playing field was forever levelled, for better and worse.
Quality vs. Quantity
The moment blogging became part of the mainstream, a raging debate arose: is the work of a blogger (whose education, background and experience may not formally be remotely related to the topics they write about) necessarily of a lower quality than that produced by someone who has graduated from journalism or film school? Will a film critic who has informally studied the subject their whole lives produce lower quality work than someone with a degree in film studies?
While results obviously vary wildly, depending on the blogger, their knowledge base, quality of writing, personality, etc., to imply there isn’t excellent critical work being done in the online world is patently ridiculous.
With the structure and support of a larger website or newspaper, editors (and therefore writers) are beholden to advertisers seeking high return on their investments, but there are no such constraints for indie bloggers. Consistent work at a large website may come with a steady paycheque, but also with more restrictions. “Top Five” and “The Best Of” lists are ubiquitous on almost every website, film-related or not, and while they are fun to read, they can be soul-crushing to write.
On the flipside, bloggers who work without traditional structures and guidance can suffer for it. Without formal training in spelling, grammar or journalistic standards, and certainly without copyeditors and editors, bloggers may come across as more relatable to the everyman, but also less professional. A scathing rant about the quality of a film riddled with spelling mistakes, missing words, inside jokes and factual errors hurts not just the credibility of the blogger but, some would argue, film criticism as a whole.
Blogging’s largest impact on film criticism is its sheer volume. Regardless of quality, that volume has lessened its impact. The adage “everyone’s a critic” has come into play like never before. Looking back, there were a few major voices in film criticism (outside of academic circles), and all of their work was exposed to the public via television, radio or newspapers, carrying a cache — a veneer of stardom and authority — that made those opinions matter. With Roger Ebert’s passing, there are no celebrity critics left, and with so many voices now available, the babble drowns out salient opinions. No single opinion is given space to breathe — to be absorbed — because the content engine constantly requires more.
The trickle-down effect of the diluting of critical writing on film is the weakening of the product. In Hollywood especially, where the scale is tipped in favour of the bottom line, an increasing number of spectacle films come out each year, sacrificing work about human connection and drama. Awards season comes along and pundits lament, “It hasn’t been a very good year,” when in reality, it hasn’t been a good decade for the type of films awards recognize. The Internet has changed the way we interact with the world, giving the average user a voice where none existed before. The idea that the volume and quality of film criticism online aren’t having a dramatic impact is naïve.
The Trouble with Bloggers
There is, as noted, a considerable amount of excellent work being produced in the online realm — finding it, of course, poses its own separate issues. Despite this, the word “blogger” has always been a dirty one, carrying negative connotations and implications for those who identify as such. Some of these slights are born of the tension from traditional journalists seeing their work eroded and salaries slashed by freelance writers who will take less pay (or none at all) to write more generalist content that garners more “hits.” Some grievances, however, stem from legitimate issues.
The reasons bloggers start their namesakes are as unique as the creators themselves. Some are natural journalers, and blogs are an excellent medium for that endeavour. Some are looking for a place to keep their statistics. Some like the interactive nature, finding solace in the community the Internet brings. And some are looking for notoriety, fame and income.
The Internet obliterated the concept of the traditional gatekeeper, and blogs were a major part of that destruction. With the formal checks and balances gone, it now falls upon the new breed to uphold these standards — to effectively edit themselves. While being a self-appointed gatekeeper shouldn’t be taken lightly, this is not a belief all bloggers adhere to. The struggle between writing what one pleases and the longing for the “legitimacy” that comes with studio and festival accreditation is a battle that plays out in a number of negative ways.
When film blogging first began, studios and publicists saw an opportunity to capitalize on a new type of free publicity. They could reach thousands of people and all it would cost them was a ticket to a promotional screening they were running regardless. By the time blogging reached its zenith as a phenomenon in 2007 and 2008, being added to a media list was as simple as emailing a publicist, sharing your traffic numbers and including your email address. As more and more bloggers attempted to access said lists, the prerequisites increased, pitting bloggers against one another for traffic, audience engagement and popularity.
One of the main reasons behind festivals and studios adding restrictions is that of standards. If a blogger eviscerates every movie released by a studio, what good is it to have that person on the list? Even though “any publicity is good publicity,” as the old adage goes, there’s a level of professionalism required, and professionalism is often lacking in the blogging community. Some bloggers pursue film writing as a career, seeking work from paying websites or striving to make their sites attractive to advertisers, while others view it as a hobby. (However, it should be noted that these are some of the most dedicated and rabid hobbyists around.)
Many bloggers have a code or standard they follow, which ranges from the type of film covered (some only review silent film, some blockbusters, some independent) to a formalized style guide, but few follow traditional journalism’s ethical standards. Blogging for hits is a primary method of business for some and, in many cases, standards are thrown out the window. Again, an argument can be made for both sides of the coin: not having imposed restrictions can free a writer to publish something revolutionary, but writing without oversight or guidance can result in poor work and discourse.
Across all media, blogging has had a major impact. News outlets rush to get stories out before they hit Twitter and Facebook — a near-impossibility in the age of the smartphone — to the detriment of factual reporting. Television broadcasting has moved to a complementary position, filling in and adding coverage to already published pieces online. Film criticism has followed suit, with one notable exception: specificity.
In an age where there’s a 24-hour news cycle running on multiple mediums at all times, the onus is on getting more of the facts, analyzing them in-depth and (sometimes) positioning the event in our daily culture. Film criticism has taken the opposite route, distilling itself down to its simplest, most basic opinion, a binary equation that answers the question: “is this worth 90 minutes of my time and $15?” Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and even IMDB have basic rating scales that allow users to determine at a glance if something is worth their time. The ubiquity of opinion — the deafening number of voices — has created a world where a single critic’s voice no longer matters; it matters in aggregate or it doesn’t matter at all.
Blogging’s effect on film writing has also been overwhelmingly negative, from a business point of view. With so many willing to do it, and the level of writing being generally above-average, a number of high-profile websites have shut down because their models were no longer sustainable. Advertisers are simply unwilling to pay high enough rates for online advertising, which leaves online outlets scrambling to find the cash to pay the bills, let alone writers.
In early 2014, Entertainment Weekly (EW) fired much of its writing staff, in favour of a “contributor network” that positions readers as writers. While EW has said that some writers will be compensated, primarily these writers are “paid” by being associated with the website and its Sirius XM Radio show. Some argued that this allowed the website to explore “new” and “exciting” opinions, while others observed that this was simply a means to generate content without paying for it.
With the quality of Hollywood films — the most accessible product to the average moviegoer — diminishing, and increasingly catering directly to an already vocal Internet demographic, Netflix and Amazon using metadata to tell you what to watch and when, and the overall lowering of critical film discourse, it’s no wonder that the collective cry of “film criticism is dead” is getting increasingly louder.
It’s Always Darkest Before the Dawn
Bloggers will continue to dive deep into their singular fascinations with film elements, while the number of those pieces will continue to grow, making them increasingly difficult for interested readers to find. Film reviews will continue to decline in complexity, until no one reads them at all. The situation, from a critical standpoint, looks hopeless. But is it really or is the future of film criticism a new beast we have yet to discover and are currently creating?
The answer is complex. Readers continue to accept less from the media in general. Reductive reviews, celebrity gossip and numbered lists have become the most consumed film content on the Internet. Readers looking for in-depth pieces on film subjects that interest them are struggling to find quality offerings in the deafening noise of millions of film blogs.
If film criticism is to survive, oversight needs to be employed. To combat the chaos of the lawless blog frontier, many online outlets are returning to traditional standards of journalism to set themselves apart. A number are employing editors and/or copyeditors, placing focus not just on the ideas presented, but the quality of that presentation and their execution. While bloggers often bicker amongst themselves about the merit of an opinion, fragile egos prevent discussion of the quality of writing. The community is not self-policing.
For example, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics discusses seeking truth and reporting it, minimizing harm, acting independently and being transparent. The Blogger’s Code of Conduct discusses how comments are to be handled and prizes respectful discussion over all else. The International Bloggers’ Association does not have a public code of ethics, instead focusing on how they can assist in marketing activities for their members. It is little wonder that bloggers have had problems being taken seriously in professional writing circles.
Those who have found work for paying websites, print outlets or television are taking the standards set there back to their personal blogs, creating a modern traditionalist fusion that elevates them above the masses. This leaves hobbyists out in the cold, continuing to work as they always have.
The point is simply that while the independence of a blogger should be celebrated, they are easily ignored, leading major studios to hear only the loudest voices (usually those yelling about superheroes) and assume that is where the money is. Creating quality critical work, stubbornly in the face of whether or not it will trend, is one of the most effective (and challenging) ways to stand apart from the Internet click-bait hordes.
The Undiscovered Country
Whatever your position on film blogging and criticism, one thing is clear: the old gods are dead. However, while their teachings may have become less important and practiced, they have not been forgotten. We live in a time of transition between mediums, between how people critique, create and consume. “The future is not set,” to borrow Sarah Connor’s iconic, self-determinist phrase. Film bloggers are not predestined to descend into a morass of lowest common denominator drivel spewed by whoever can scream the loudest. “There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.” So let’s make it something to be proud of.