I’m glad to see the New York TImes‘ David Carr reporting on the war of attrition against movie critics, a trend that’s been apparent for at least a year, and one that I’ve weighed in on a few times at PopWatch. Carr notes that critic jobs are being eliminated at papers all over the country and even at national magazines (like Newsweek, where David Ansen, the movie critic there since 1977, just accepted a buyout offer). Over at the Village Voice, they’ve laid off Nathan Lee, leaving them with just one full-time movie critic (Carr’s own paper still has three), which has some independent/art-house distributors worried. The big studios don’t care much for critics and generally don’t need their help (or notice their hindrance) in generating big opening-weekend returns for action blockbusters, horror movies, and other fare that people will see regardless of the reviews, but the so-called specialty films (especially subtitled movies and documentaries) do need critics to champion them (Carr’s article cites last year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar winner The Lives of Others, pictured, as a movie that critics helped make a success). And since most of those films may open only in New York or Los Angeles before heading to DVD, they need critics like the Manhattan-based ones at the Voice, the Times, and Newsweek to review them in order to gain any word-of-mouth at all. Hundreds of films open in New York every year, more than any one person can cover, as EW critic Owen Gleiberman notes in Carr’s story.
There are a few points I wish Carr had addressed. One is that, for local papers to replace their hometown critics with wire service reviewers does a disservice to local communities, as shown by the recent flap in San Diego over a syndicated review of The Other Boleyn Girl. I don’t think syndication serves the papers well, either; why would you turn to the Hometown Tribune for movie reviews when you can read the same exact reviews online at a dozen other papers’ websites?
Finally, I’m not sure why Carr gives the last word to two Web-based movie pundits, even ones as knowledgeable as The Reeler‘s S.T. VanAirsdale and Movie City News‘David Poland, both of whom seem sanguine about the migration of filmcriticism from a few hundred professionals at print outlets tocountless amateur review sites on the Web. Yes, there are onlineamateurs whose criticism is as good as the best of the printprofessionals (and there are plenty of print professionals whose workis as hacky as the worst of the amateurs), but for now, print still hasthe cachet that the distributors seek in order to generate thepublicity they need to sell difficult movies; they generally don’t relysolely on Web outlets like The Reeler or MCN for blurbs, at least notyet. (After all, many readers still depend on the brand-name print critics.) Anyway, I don’t think the Web is going to kill print moviecriticism — not when self-inflicted wounds seem to be doing the jobjust fine.