Thursday, March 27, 2008
The Last Paid Picture Watchers?
It’s not quite an inconvenient truth, but it’s certainly an unfortunate one: The era of the paid local film critic is crumbling like an Antarctic ice shelf. This week at movie commentary sites like The House Next Door, Scanners and The Reeler, writers, bloggers and readers have been responding to news that critic Nathan Lee was let go by the Village Voice, after only 18 months of employment, for what Lee said were “economic reasons.”
The discussion of Lee’s dismissal (and I highly recommend you check out the above links) has rarely been about Lee himself but about what his ousting represents: a growing trend. Earlier this year the Detroit Free Press became “the most highly circulated newspaper in the country without a full-time in-house film critic” when it decided to buy out and then not replace Terry Lawson. The Freep and other newspapers nationwide have instead decided to run national wire copy from the likes of Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times and Roger Moore of the Orlando Sentinel, among others.
With newspapers across the country struggling to stay afloat, it’s somewhat difficult to fault the publishers. A blockbuster released in Manhattan is the same one that hits theaters in Nowhere, Kansas, so why not use wire copy? It’s available and it comes edited and ready for print. If magazines like the New Yorker can offer film criticism that’s as worthwhile for folks in Maine as folks in New Mexico, why can’t someone in Idaho get movie reviews in newsprint from a critic based in Florida? If a newspaper wants nothing more than to simply fill column inches it’s a poor business model to pay for original material.
Still, ignoring for the moment the conversation about what newspapers should be, this is a disappointing trend for those of us who enjoy reading thoughtful, well-crafted film criticism. Sites like metacritic.com and rottentomatoes.com have made it quick and easy to read critics from across the country on any given movie. But, the way things look now, in 10 years or so there might only be a handful of voices left to choose from.
The irony is that this is happening at a time when film criticism is enjoying a sort of renaissance thanks to the blogosphere. Just over two years ago, I wasn’t reading any movie blogs. Now I follow several of them daily. And I agree with a comment Matt Zoller Seitz made in the discussion over at The House Next Door: “I find these days that I'm more likely to find lively writing and original viewpoints on blogs than in print outlets.” But the movie blog universe has some obstacles, the most obvious being that there’s no great way to find new and exciting bloggers. Surely right now there’s an outstanding film criticism blog somewhere that I’ve never seen, and I get irritated wondering how long it will take before I discover it.
On top of that, criticism as unpaid avocation isn’t ideal. Sure, bloggers have the freedom to say whatever they want however they want and let their readership decide what’s appropriate, which has enormous potential value (along with potential danger). But your average movie blogger probably has a day job. If layman criticism becomes the norm, it stands to reason that criticism will lose something: depth, expertise, perspective, access and, one would hope, quality. My argument isn’t that professional critics need to have a PhD in film studies, it’s that someone making a living watching and writing about movies should be able to produce better material than someone squeezing it in on the side.
As someone who has been employed to write about sports, I know what it is to have one of those cool jobs that many people would sacrifice a limb for. But what’s interesting to me is that paid sports commentary seems to be increasing even though TV packages and the Internet have made straight sports news reporting almost obsolete. No one picks up the Sports page for the Who, What, When, Where, and Why anymore, because they know those details already. They pick up the Sports page or read online sports columnists or listen to sports talk radio for the Who Cares.
At a time when ESPN.com is hiring writers away from newspapers, sometimes to do little more than provide niche content, how is it that a publication like Entertainment Weekly hasn’t made a push to become the go-to outlet for film criticism? Is it a lack of competition? Is it a lack of initiative? Please don’t tell me it’s a lack of vision! Because the potential benefits seem obvious: Imagine several prominent film critics writing under the same masthead. Imagine these critics not having to waste their talents by writing reviews of three lousy February releases for the same Friday. Imagine being able to read your favorite critic as he/she dips back into the vault to write about films past. Imagine, in essence, if someone combined the best elements of paid criticism with the qualities of the best film blogs.
Can’t this happen? And can’t it provide money for the publisher daring enough to try it and provide a tremendous boost to film criticism for those of us who wish to read it? I think so. I can imagine that. What I can’t imagine given the current state of things is the paid local critic rebounding according to the existing model, and that’s disheartening. I used to tell people that being a paid movie critic was a tough gig to get because it’s the kind of job you hold onto until you die. Now, sadly, the jobs are dying faster than the critics.