Movie Mom

Movie Mom

Do Movie Critics Matter?

posted by Nell Minow

In 2006, Time asked whether movie critics still mattered. Since then, more than 30 major national critics have retired or been laid off and there has been a lot of commentary about the pros and cons of the democratization of movie reviews. The internet has erased the boundaries between professional and amateur critics as well as the boundaries of geography and outlet. You don’t have to live in Chicago to read Roger Ebert and you don’t have to be Roger Ebert to be read.
As one of the beneficiaries of the new outlets made available on the internet (I was one of the very first critics to post online, 13 years ago this month), I have mixed feelings. I am delighted with the way that the internet has made it possible to read such a wide range of reviews. I especially love Rotten Tomatoes, the best place to read all the critics, which is now celebrating its 10th anniversary. But I am sorry that some of our wisest, most knowledgeable, most insightful, and most graceful writers are disappearing from the conversation. The bloggers who contributed to the loss of MSM critics have documented and even lamented this decimation of the ranks.thumbs down col.gif
With a bit of gallows humor, Patrick Goldstein of the L.A. Times, which covers Hollywood the way the Wall Street Journal covers stocks, calls producer Avi Lerner his favorite critic. Few professional critics would disagree with his assessment of The Love Guru: “The worst movie I’ve seen in my life. It was so stupid I wanted to cry.” And this from the producer of such classics as “Shark Attack” and Rambo. With more than a bit of glee, the producers of the execrable Norbit pointed out that it received reviews from professional critics that ranged from disgusted to horrified and managed to make more than $150 million.
But critics are about more than telling people which movies are good and which are bad. Critics who understand the medium can help audiences understand what makes them good or bad and can provide background and context and their own insight and wit. A good review of a bad movie can be a pleasure to read. When movies are good, critics are very, very good, but when they’re bad, we’re better.
Slate’s Erik Lundegaard (note, an expert on business, not movies) writes that on a per-screen basis, movies recommended by critics make more money. “Critically acclaimed films average about $2,000 more per screen than critically lambasted films…Percentagewise, the critic effect is less pronounced for the supposedly critic-proof blockbusters, but it’s still there.”
I like Lundegaard’s idea of publishing brief non-spoiler reviews the date of release and longer, more thoughtful reviews on message boards a few weeks later, inviting audiences to participate in the discussion. Slate’s “spoiler” podcast is a variation. They are separate reviews intended for people who have already seen the movie, and I really enjoy them.
But what I like best in Lundegaard’s essay is his conclusion, which fits with my sense of, well, fitness and my belief in efficient markets (over the long term) in both of my careers: “[T]he main point of all of this is something obvious yet little-heard in our bottom-line culture: Quality matters. Yes, it even matters in the ledger books.”

  • Mike

    I don’t think the business is going away, but I would think from some of the critics now retiring or taking buy out packages (Stephen Hunter, Desson Thompson, etc.), age may be catching up to them. It is nice to see newer critics out there, some people have their own methods of rating movies. Personally, I like the full price, matinee, or rental scale. Matinee can get taken one step further, at least with AMC, since they offer $6 showings Fri/Sat/Sun mornings, which when multiplied by 2 or more people plus food/drink, can save a lot of money. What does bother me is when critics don’t put some type of grade (Yes, Washington Post, I am talking to you) because I wouldn’t want to read the entire review to potentially be spoiled (trailers do a good enough job of that).
    13 years posting online, that is a long time.

  • jestrfyl

    We are all critics. Our credibility is based on how accurately our reviews match people’s experience of films. So published critics are measured by the same standard. We have a local critic who openly admits they do not like kids films – yet the editor keeps expecting this critic t review them. So I dismiss or simply ignore that critics reviews of kids films. However, the critic is good with “art house” films. So I read those reviews.
    I respect Nell’s reviews because she is fairly forthright about her orientation and expectations. With that context, her reviews are very appropriate.
    There was one reviewer who was chastised for liking everything. He did this so his name – and his paper’s name – got in every movie ad. But his credibility was zip. So now he does other critiques – and I dismiss and ignore him as much now as I did then.

  • Laura

    One can presume that people who read a movie critic’s blog are going to vote in favor of critics! Specifically, Nell’s readers are those who seek specific information about what films are appropriate or inappropriate for children, and why. I also enjoy her insights about conversations to have with my kids about the movies.
    For sheer reading pleasure, though, there’s nothing like a scathing review where the writer dipped his or her pen in vitriol! Even though I don’t watch television I often read Tom Shales’ column in the Washington Post, for this reason.
    P.S. Nell, we did finally watch “National Velvet” and the cranky 13-year-old grudgingly admitted that it was a good movie.

  • jestrfyl

    I never met a link I didn’t like…
    Have you read Crunchy Con’s (Ron Dreher) thread on Wall-e & Aristotle? His is an interesting commentary on the film – the kind of thoughtful critique that makes me want to see the film. This is the sort of commentary – whether i agree with him or not – that will ensure some sort of film commentary (“criticism” seems to ornery and negative and “review seems like a book report) will continue for a long while.

  • Alicia

    If I already think (from the previews) that a movie is going to be dreck, then the critics can influence me not to see it. Otherwise, I prefer reading the critics after I’ve seen a film, not before. I think I may be a critic at heart myself, so I love reading criticism. At best, I think, critics are teachers who communicate their love of a medium to others.

  • Nell Minow

    Thanks, jestrfyl — I did read it and my response will be up later this week.

  • Christian Toto

    I think the rules – and future – of film critics is still playing out across the country. The Internet is changing everything, but I don’t think we know exactly how. But, thankfully, there’s still a hunger out there for criticism, and the web makes gaining access to it easier every day.
    Good points made about ‘trusting’ critics. It’s crucial to form a bond with a particular critic. Some make you mad, others are more funny than accurate, but a trustworthy critic is (I hope) priceless.

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