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 and 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 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.


Anonymous said...

Uniquely interesting blog; a good read.

Mark said...

I think I have to disagree with you on this one, Jason.

Fact is, "ignoring for the moment the conversation about what newspapers should be" isn't an option. That's exactly the conversation, and since it's the newspapers that are paying the critics' salaries and the newspapers truly are struggling, no joke, just to stay in business, finding ways to keep costs down is huge.

In my mind, what newspapers should be, foremost, is a reflection, informer and watchdog of its community. Part of that reflection includes the movies and other entertainment, for sure, but of all the arts film is probably the most commoditized right now. As you say, a blockbuster (or an art film, for that matter) is the same in Manhattan as it is in Nowhere. As a publisher, I can save money and, not incidentally, almost always provide my readers better film coverage by picking up the NYT wire or some other syndicated critic. So why not?

It's ironic, you say, that this change in newspapers is coinciding with the rise of smart criticism online. I don't see that as strange at all. I know I'd much rather read your blog than my local newspaper film critics, so if I'm the guy paying those critics I have to ask myself, why?

Sadly, most local critics -- at least the ones around here -- aren't doing much to protect their turf. Newspaper critics, stuck in old patterns, are by and large slow to embrace the Internet as a way to enhance their coverage or engage their readers.

I take your point about film criticism as an unpaid avocation. Drag, no doubt. But that too will change, I think, especially as papers start letting their critics go. Now is the time, it seems to me, for the best of the online critics and bloggers to offer their services for freelance sale or syndication to local papers. Financially that's a gain for all parties (other than the laid off newspaper critics) and my guess is that the readers would come out ahead too.

No, these jobs, like almost all others this side of the Supreme Court, aren't guaranteed for life, nor should they be. For a good young critic hoping to break into the club, this is a golden time.

You, Jason, should be at the front of that line.

withnail said...

I think Mark is on the right track. It's not "ironic" that film criticism is seeing a rebirth as the internet gains prominence over paid newspaper critics. In many endeavors we are seeing the staid, pampered and protected old-guard being usurped by a hungrier, more passionate and often higher quality pool of talent drawn from all walks of life. Podcasts are often sharper and more interesting than radio shows. Political blogs are more prolific and insightful than paid columnists. Talent is crawling out the woodwork thanks to the internet. I'm sorry that some good people are losing their job, but other than that, I don't see much to lament.

Jason Bellamy said...

Mark: Thanks for the comments! I'm a huge fan of thoughtful debate, so I'm glad to see it at The Cooler. Trouble is, I'm not sure how much we actually disagree.

Though I tried to avoid the "what newspapers should be" conversation, I did point out some of the reasons that wire copy makes sense for cash-strapped newspapers. Based on those financial realities, I don't fault editors/publishers coming to the conclusion that a local critic is expendable. You're right: if you can get better copy for less money, why not? The quick argument against that would be that one of the ways newspapers stand to attract and maintain readers is by employing thoughtful, entertaining voices. But I can counter that counter by remembering that there's no reason Roger Ebert (based in Chicago) can't be the thoughtful, entertaining voice for a reader in Idaho (heck, just look at the nationwide power of his thumb on TV!).

As for the rise of blogs: The part that surprises me is that it hasn't inspired newspapers to attempt change. You're right: many newspapers critics (and their editors) are stuck in old patterns. I've seen people attempt to analyze the problem in passionate debates on the Internet. Some say that many of the "critics" are talentless hacks who don't know the difference between criticism and "reviewing" (lazy plot recapping). Some contend that many lackluster critics would be genuine critics if not for demands from editors that force them into the bland plot-recap mold. Some complain that editors are too focused on the weekly big release to see the actual cinema news right in front of them.

Whatever the reason, I can understand why an editor or publisher would look and find better quality criticism in the blogosphere and wonder, "What am I paying for?" But while it makes good business sense to pick and choose your battles (local news coverage will always be more vital to a newspaper than film criticism from any source), it's surprising that newspapers aren't seizing this obvious opportunity to do what they do better. Maybe it's unrealistic for, say, the Spokesman Review, but I don't know what's stopping the Washington Post (which employs Stephen Hunter, Ann Hornaday and Desson Thomson) from embracing elements of the Web model that could bring them new and regular readers.

Regardless, we both agree that local critics are on the way out. But while I thank you for your compliments, I'm skeptical that new voices are going to be plucked from obscurity off the Web, even if a blogger like me were to actively market his services. In the end, a paper's decision will still come down to Blogger Nobody Knows vs. National Voice People Recognize. Or it'll come down to Copy I Need To Edit vs. Wire Copy That's Ready To Go. I see paid criticism jobs potentially becoming as rare as network national news anchor jobs.

For the average reader, this is probably just fine; that's yet another reason it makes sense as a business model. Exchanges over the years in Roger Ebert's "Movie Answer Man" column have demonstrated that many (if not most) readers care more about the number of stars awarded to a picture than the actual analysis of the film. But for those of us who love film criticism this stands to be a loss. I certainly don't mean for my original post or this comment to sound like sour grapes from a guy who feels he should be making a living writing about movies (it would be fun, sure, but that's not the point of this post). The reality that I see is that a paid critic should produce better material than an unpaid critic in the long run. I hate to think that I'm going to spend the coming years discovering unpaid critics on blogs and thinking, "Wow, this is great! I wonder what it could be if he/she didn't have a day job..."

That brings me to the comment of Withnail (Welcome to The Cooler!): I'm not going through boxes of Kleenex for the critics ("old guard") hitting the unemployment line. I have natural sympathy for them, sure. But some of the critics who have lost their jobs are losing them for good reason, no doubt. Same with the critics who will lose their jobs in the future. I do love to see the "talent crawling out the woodwork," I just wish that when that talent was discovered it could be rewarded in some way that would encourage its growth for the sake of the growth of criticism. I hate to think of all the talent that might disappear just as quickly as it arrived because the unpaid critic has got to give up his/her passionate hobby to pay the rent.

Good points, both of you. Thanks for your comments! Keep 'em coming.

Mark said...

Did you see David Carr took up this topic in today's NYT?

I usually like Carr's stuff, but he doesn't add nearly as much to this discussion as The Cooler.

Jason Bellamy said...

Via The House Next Door today, I read this take from The Brooklyn Rail on the death of the movie critic. A good recap of where the situation is now (a few months since my post) and of the larger conversation.