The Incredible Shrinking (Expanding?) Film Critic Profession @ SXSW, March 14, 2009

Originally posted March 23rd, 2009

The Incredible Shrinking (Expanding?) Film Critic Profession
SXSW Film Festival
Austin Convention Center, Austin, TX
Saturday, March 14th, 2009

Moderator:
Gerald Peary, Director: For The Love Of Movies, Film Critic for The Boston Phoenix

Panelists:
Marjorie Baumgarten, Senior Film Editor/Critic, Austin Chronicle
Shawn Levy, Film Critic, The Oregonian
Karina Longworth, Spout.com
Scott Weinberg, Cinematical, FEARnet

“What is the current state of film criticism?” Is the question moderator Gerald Peary sought to answer in this panel. He opened the panel by saying:

“It’s in the best shape that it’s ever been in, because there’s so many critics, critics for every taste. There are more good critics now than at any point in American history, but at least in the print world, there are critics getting kicked off right and left. It’s a shrinking, shrinking world in which many critics who have had their jobs for many years are being laid off, and the papers are disappearing, all part of being the end of the print world.”

Peary recalled the story of a “art film” distributor calling him, ranting that “ten, fifteen years ago, every major city had a solid critic who everyone trusted. A “soft critic” who liked art films. Nowadays, the critics are writing for other critics, and not the general public, and web people have no influence at all.”

Scott Weinberg commented that if the distributor had to rely on reviews to sell their movies, that they were probably not a very good distributor, then added:

“The question that irritates me is, “What is an art film? Is Benjamin Button an ‘Art Film?’ Is Slumdog Millionaire an ‘Art Film’? Guess what? Friday the 13th is an ‘Art Film’! Some people created it, it’s a piece of art. I don’t get these designations.”

Much of the panel was devoted to the impact of the web on film criticism.

Both Weinberg and Karina Longworth responded to the distributor’s rant that web critics lack relevance by mentioning that filmmakers actually want to have their films reviewed by bloggers like themselves, if mainly for publicity. Longworth stated that she was often “drowning” in requests for reviews.

In the past, it was much more difficult to obtain press credentials, due to the lack of legitimacy of blogs and irresponsible web reviewers.

“A lot of times, people are writing reviews to get invited to the next junket. Those sites I have a problem with–the sites that are only helping the marketing along without any honest insight or negativity,” Weinberg said.

With more festivals and events willing to let bloggers in, Karina Longworth has seen the status of the web critic improve over time. “That was a big problem, in like, 2005. Now, not so much. Cannes is the only one that won’t give me press credentials as a blogger.”

Weinberg mentioned that “What I think is cool about the blog world is that the more CNN mentions a blog, the more people like Karina and my fellow bloggers earn more respect as columnists, bloggers, and writers. Right now, I think it’s still anybody in in the basement with a keyboard can write, “I LOVE The Watchmen, LOL.”

Yet the future is a little more bleak for print critics: Shawn Levy, Marjorie Baumgarten, and Peary all commented on the shrinking size of their reviews: they used to be able to print 800 to 1,000 word reviews; now they’re lucky to print 500. Peary pointed out that as newspaper critics have cut their staff, film critics are often among the first to be cut. Peary cited an article from Variety that mentioned that 28 Critics have lost their jobs over the past several years.

Even with the opportunity of everyone and anyone to review a movie on the web, Longworth and Weinberg do not feel threatened.

“It’s not just anybody writing,” Longworth stated. “There’s a difference between going to the movies casually, and writing a blog post about it, and someone who is dedicated, whether it’s something they do in their free time, or as a profession. There’s a process of natural selection: people who have something to contribute become a major part of the discussion very quickly.”

Overall, they concluded that the presence of film critics can help stimulate the conversation on films, especially ones that don’t get wide releases. Critics have a breadth of knowledge on the subject they’re writing about, and at their best, can function as a Consumer Reports for the potential ticket buyer (or badge holder).

As Karina Longworth established: “Our goal is to get comments. Our goal is to get people talking.”

Natasha Vargas-Cooper: I’m a film critic for eonline.com. I have a question that we all get asked: Do you watch movies twice?

Baumgarten: Hardly ever. There’s never the opportunity. Sometimes I’ll watch a movie Tuesday Night, and have a review in by 10:30 the next morning.

Vargas-Cooper: Sometimes I get a comment like, “You need to see the movie again!”

Baumgarten: I’m not the Pauline Kael type of “I don’t want to see it a second time. I don’t need to.”

Weinberg: There are so many films I haven’t seen, so if I’m going to pop in, like Nightmare on Elm Street again, why not watch Peeping Tom again?

Q: I would like any of you to address the question of availability for audiences. You go to a film festival. You see ten good films, but if I don’t live in a major city, or if the film is not released on DVD, your review may sound great, but I may take no action because I can’t see it.

Weinberg: If you really like a film, we want you to be frustrated. We want you to send e-mails to the filmmaker and pester them and ask, “When can I see it?” We don’t want to literally frustrate you, but if there’s an independent film I love that might not go anywhere, I’ll treat it like There Will Be Blood.

Longworth: I’m kind of in the habit of pestering people I know in distribution, so I yell at them about movies.

Q: In the last few election cycles, I have seen a maturation of political blogs. Some are hybrid, some are print and web, and some have been just web. But in the last four years, the blog of record has become a reality, as far as who’s available to the sources, what sources make themselves available to them, and also being read regularly, I’m wondering where film criticism stands in its evolution.

Peary: I just talked to Michael Barker from Sony Classics, where he’s going to places like The Huffington Post into having a film critic, which they don’t have right now.

Longworth: They don’t have their own freelancers. They don’t pay anybody.

Weinberg: I was reviewing for like, six years before anyone paid me. I figured I was paying my dues, I was honing my craft.

Q: For the better part of 30 years, Americans had Siskel and Ebert on their television screens every week. You have political shows, you have sports shows, and every other sort of panel show. Why do you think we’re living in an era right now where there are only two shows devoted to film criticism, and both of them feature members of the Lyons Family?

Peary: We live in a very philistine, very anti-intellectual culture, and that’s impacted our film criticism. Film critics are looked on too suspiciously by most of the public: “Why don’t you like movies? Can’t you just enjoy a movie? Why do you have to criticize it?”

Levy: I don’t think that it’s a natural thing for television to have criticism.

Q: But sports shows have it all the time!

Longworth: That’s an argument, that’s not criticism.

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