An increasingly popular studio tactic -- not screening movies -- brings up the ''Do critics matter?'' question again, but Owen Gleiberman's not buying it

By Owen Gleiberman
Updated June 13, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

The problem with the ”Do critics matter?” debate

There’s been a bit of media chatter over the last month on the question of whether movie critics ”still matter.” Obviously, I have a vested interest in the subject — I confess! I really want to matter! — but what irks me is that whenever this issue comes up, which is every few years (generally in the midst of the summer season, when some mediocre blockbuster that all the reviewers hated becomes a big hit anyway), it leaves in its trail the same soggy residue of lazy analysis and historical half-truth about what critics do, why it should matter, and, if you look closely, still does.

In this case, the babble was touched off by an article in the Christian Science Monitor that uncovered the following shocking, are you sitting down? factoid: The number of films that the studios elect not to screen in advance for critics is going up. ”There have been 12 such movies so far this year,” writes Stephen Humphries in his April 21 feature, ”compared with three during the same period last year and two the year before. Some of the films — The Benchwarmers ($20 million opening weekend), Underworld: Evolution ($27 million), and Madea’s Family Reunion ($30 million) — scored impressive box office numbers.” Humphries adds, ”The movies not pre-screened tend to be youth-oriented: Horror films featuring inappropriate uses of chainsaws and slapstick comedies featuring inappropriate uses of that guy from Napoleon Dynamite.”

A noteworthy trend, I suppose. I have to say, though, that I didn’t lose any sleep over the fact that neither Silent Hill nor See No Evil was shown to me in advance, and I’m still not nursing any grudges over it. The lack of such screenings shouldn’t prejudice one, either. I gave a big raspberry to both of those horror films, but Madea’s Family Reunion, which I greatly enjoyed seeing in a theater on opening weekend along with an enthusiastic audience, only upped my respect for Tyler Perry. I have no idea why its studio, Lions Gate, chose not to screen it, but whether or not Madea’s Family Reunion was ”critic-proof,” it was certainly a movie that deserved to be written about, and so I did, albeit a week late.

In his article, Humphries argues that the ceaseless media din produced by technology (i.e., the Web) has the effect of drowning out the voices of individual critics. The same point has been echoed, in subsequent columns, by David Carr in the New York Times and Anne Thompson in the Hollywood Reporter, and there are other dire movements as well, notably a growing tendency by daily newspapers to get rid of established critics, who are perceived to be out of touch with the young demographic that now drives the movie industry.

It would be foolish to deny the reality of some of these trends. Yet if you read all of these columns (and others), what you’ll feel coursing through them is an insidious reductive formula, a kind of Myth of the Decline of the Critic. It goes something like this:

Back in the golden age of Pauline Kael and Vincent Canby, critics were giants, their lightning slashes of opinion striking readers and studio executives with equal fury. They could open or close a movie at the drop of a flashlight pen. Then the film industry changed. Star Wars and Jaws created the blockbuster era, and once that era got rolling, and it became conventional wisdom that fantasy epics and slasher movies and teen sex comedies and Lethal Weapon sequels were what ”the people” really wanted to see, critics, obsessed with quality, with all of that pointy-headed art stuff, gradually ceased to matter. Now, in the age of technology, when 15-year-old videogame freaks who are the industry’s demographic sweet spot learn everything they need to know about movies from ”buzz” sites on the Web, the influence of critics, those former powerhouses, has been reduced still further, to a state of daunting irrelevance.

Let’s start by dismantling the inaccuracy, the utter canard, that even a critic as seismic as Pauline Kael had a profound influence on the box office. In the 1970s, the era that Kael is most identified with, she championed the New Hollywood films that have rightly given that movie epoch the glow of a golden age. And yet, time and again, those ’70s film we remember as classics were not — repeat, not — hits. Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, as Kael pointed out, was dumped by its studio, Warner Bros., and ended up playing on the second half of double bills at drive-ins. Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye and Nashville, Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, Paul Mazurksy’s Blume in Love and Next Stop, Greenwich Village — these were not the films America at large was going to see. They were going to see The Towering Inferno and Earthquake and The Longest Yard and Walking Tall, movies that critics generally reviled. (Okay, they were also going to see The Godfather. But the most important American film since Citizen Kane is not a good movie to make an example of.)

More to the point, why on earth would a critic cease to matter simply because a movie that he or she didn’t like became a huge box office hit? I’ve been in more screening-room conversations than I can believe in which some critic I like and respect, speaking about the latest X-Men sequel or what-have-you, will say, with a rueful defeated chuckle, ”We’re irrelevant on this one!” My response is that we’re never more relevant than when people are going to see movies and doing it enthusiastically. The notion that a critic’s job begins and ends with our power to help films become hits is a specious one nurtured by marketing executives, and I’m always astonished when critics themselves buy into it.

Consider the comparable situation with, say, political pundits. Should an editorial columnist who was stauchly against the Iraq war, and had no discernible influence on either the Congress or political opinion at large, be considered ”irrelevant”? Was the war itself ”columnist-proof”?

My ultimate point, I guess, is that critics should matter not because we’re ticker-tape machines of judgment but because we are voices. As the articles cited above acknowledge, reviewers, speaking collectively, still carry a decisive influence over the fate of independent, foreign, and ”specialty” division films, from Capote to Caché to Hustle & Flow to Sideways. Yet even as I write that, I cringe slightly at the dichotomy, bred by the film industry itself, that we journalists now routinely embrace: the divison between ”indie” and ”mainstream,” between ”quality” and ”commercial,” between ”small” movies and ”big,” between Movies That Critics Like and Movies That the People Like.

The vast majority of movie critics I know are not snobs. We enjoy a vast range of films and help, in our non-godlike-power way, to guide readers to (or away from) them. What the ”Do critics matter?” question truly misses is that the heart and soul of our jobs is not merely to recommend. It is to take this popular art we all love and hold it up to the light, to absorb it and reflect it back to you, to enhance the experience of seeing a movie by serving, on the page, as a companionable guide, someone to bounce your own opinion off of, whether or not you happen to agree with that opinion. It’s that process, that exchange, that dialogue that matters — and will, as long as the movies themselves matter too.