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.
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.”