Saturday, March 8, 2014

GUEST POST | Are film critics an endangered species in the new digital media ecosystem?

by Brandon Engel

Even though it’s a lucrative field for some, let’s face it -- there have always been but a few paid film critics in the world at any given time. In some ways, the internet is helping to propel professional film criticism closer to obsolescence. While the major studios used to pander to critics in the hopes of optimizing their presence in mass media outlets, social media has complicated this arena considerably.

While it would be foolish to suggest that critical opinion and popular opinion are always divided, it does seem fair to assert that when it comes to populist fare, the major studios are going to benefit the most from word-of-mouth spread by the general public, and not by film scholars.

Social media, and the ever expanding blogosphere itself, shares an interesting relationship with the film industry. Social media is helping to create a situation where members of the general public inadvertently serve as surrogate brand ambassadors for major corporate entities, and provide unofficial endorsements through their Tweets and status updates. This is as true of film distribution as it is anything else. And the studios love it! They’re saving money by cutting down the number of critic screenings held (and screener disks dispersed). All this boosts the value of focus-group driven pop cinema by devaluing the role of academics who have traditionally helped shape public discourse.

The major studios always held private screenings for critics, and in even more desperate situations, the studios would host press junkets, wherein the most influential members of the press are wined, dined, and maybe even put up for a night in a resort as part of the promotional campaign for the film. It was all glorified bribery.

However, if the studios were to further reduce their PR tours, it’s the student press that might be harmed the most significantly. Students in commercially vibrant, urban areas have historically had the distinct advantage of milking student publication connections to attend screenings and other press events for newly released films. This writer proudly recalls attending a Chicago screening of what was, at the time, the latest Sam Mendes film with maybe three other patrons present for the screening -- one of them was Rogert Ebert himself. Future generations of students may not be able to take full advantage of such opportunities in the future.

But this isn’t to say that social media hasn’t also provided film critics and scholars with an outlet. Roger Ebert tweeted fervently right up until his death, and now, his widow Chaz, who would frequently accompany him to screenings, and is herself something of an important figure in the contemporary film criticism world. A.O. Scott from the New York Times also uses his account to discuss everything from the films he’s reviewing, to other items circulating amongst critics.

And there are situations where the critics and the public do seem to see eye-to-eye. The social media monitoring tool ViralHeat reveals both the dissonance and the harmony between what the critics say versus what the general public says about new releases via their Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram feeds. For instance, opinion was clearly divided on Baz Luhrmann’s interpretation of The Great Gatsby. The social media data largely echoes the “freshness ratings” posted on RottenTomatoes -- 49 percent of critics liked it, as compared to 68 percent of the general viewing audience who liked it. For example, among the countless Twitter users who had nothing but praise for Luhrmann’s Gatsby was user @ShazGhaF, who tweeted:

This was obviously a sharp contrast from what countless other critics and public intellectuals said, including author Bret Easton Ellis who tweeted:

One film where we can easily see a smaller disparity is The Lego Movie. In this case, the Rotten Tomatoes “freshness meter” shows that the critical response was actually more favorable than the audience response, with 96 percent of critics liking the film as compared to 91 percent of general viewing audiences. User @Cynicbats tweeted:

The film also received warm praise from Bill Zwecker of the Chicago Sun-Times, who even went as far as to tweet a picture of himself wearing 3D glasses at a screening, and wrote:

The implications for mainstream cinema seem quite clear, but the real question now is: can the independents figure out how to harness social media in a way that gives greater visibility to independent cinema, or will the independants nestle into their own little echo chambers in the far corners of the internet? It will be interesting to see what the true long term consequences of social media are, not merely in terms of film criticism, but filmmaking itself.


  1. Interesting piece. There are two big questions that come up with it. Is it important to connect film critics with popular success? I don't think so, However, I recognize that the subject comes up when looking at the "value" of critics. It just seems to miss the interesting side of film criticism, at least for me.

    I do agree that the online world makes it trickier for anyone to become a professional critic and make a living out of it. Those jobs will keep becoming rarer every year. Even so, I expect the intellectual side will remain strong even if people are writing about movies for the pure joy of it.

    1. It is. And I agree with you - of course I'd love to make money out of writing about films but that's not my main goal at all.

    2. Interesting guest article! I really hope we bloggers can give greater visibility to independent cinema, and champion the films we admire. So it's not just mainstream movies that get seen. I'll have to settle for my place in the far corners of the internet for now :)

      I guess as the trailer ( ) for documentary PressPausePlay said, today everyone's a photographer/a filmmaker/a writer. This means a lot more crap to wade through, but nice that anyone can share their opinions.

    3. I appreciate that you enjoyed it - I hope Brandon reads your comment too!

      That's very true - there is more crap but also more great stuff that wouldn't have happened in another time.


Let the discussion begin!