Traditional film criticism finds new platform online

With the rise of the digital age, it’s easy to say that traditional film criticism is dead. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook and myriad up-and-coming digital outlets have become the norm, pushing established film critics — many of whom started in print — out of the way.

But it’s too much of a generalization to say that Deadline Hollywood is in and the Los Angeles Times is out, or that bloggers have replaced established critics, such as Kenneth Turan, Leonard Maltin, Ella Taylor and Roger Ebert.

The issue is more complex than that, simply because film criticism will never go out of style. Moviegoers will always demand reviews; it’s not like they can trust million-dollar advertising campaigns to inform them as to whether they should see a film or not. Film lovers require unbiased critiques on new films.

What moviegoers need to address are the changes that online criticism has imposed on the craft: Film criticism is heading online, along with much of journalism in general, but it doesn’t mean film criticism is dead or dying.

Film lovers also need to look at the implications of these changes: Online outlets are creating a new platform for criticism to reach broader audiences and for emerging critics to find their own rhetorical space.

As a practice, film criticism hasn’t changed all that much over the years. For as long as film criticism has existed, the process has really just been see films, share thoughts with readers, repeat.

“I’ve read [critics] back from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s,” said Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan. “It doesn’t seem like what they were doing is very different from what I’m doing.”

But what is changing are the ways in which readers consume film reviews, which in turn affects the ways readers perceive film criticism.

Just take a look back at famed film critics Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael. Their reviews were part of the public discourse of the mid-to-late 20th century, and their opinions really mattered.

“People really talked about those reviews; it was part of the cultural conversation of that era, to read what Pauline said about this, to read what Sarris said about that,” said film critic/author/TV personality Leonard Maltin (Indiewire, Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, Entertainment Tonight).

But now, as the digital age continues to grow, the value of a film critic’s opinion seems to go unappreciated.

“The Internet has empowered everyone to become his or her own critic,” Maltin said.

And then there’s the lack of patience among many moviegoers who want answers quickly. They simply want to know whether a movie is “good” or “bad,”creating the demand for aggregator sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, which creates a general score for a film based on the perceived positivity or negativity of a review. For some, this creates a problem where the content of the review — including thoughtful analysis — fall in favor for blunt, easily digestible notions of quality.

“It’s a handy shorthand, but the problem is that many people only want to use critics as a consumer report. Is it good, is it bad? Thumbs up, thumbs down? What’s the score on the Tomatometer?” Maltin said.

Maltin brings up a good point: Though Rotten Tomatoes is a useful tool, when readers take away a film critic’s review in its entirety, they lose the knowledge and experience that has gone into making a compelling argument for or against a film.  Not to mention, they lose often-fascinating pieces of writing.

Mind you, that doesn’t mean that well-written, informed and interesting criticism ceases to exist. Nor does it mean that a blogger’s opinion is invalid. In fact, many bloggers are big-time film critics in the making who are rejuvenating the craft.

“You hear an awful lot from disgruntled film critics about the fact that there’s no good film criticism anymore, and I don’t really agree with that,” said film critic Ella Taylor, who currently works for NPR. “I think that the Internet has in some ways done wonders in bringing up new, young film critics who otherwise probably wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to be writing — but the vast majority of them are writing for free.”

The Internet is not the enemy. In fact, it has helped film criticism spread on all levels of media.

“Social media is mostly chatter among friends,” wrote Chicago Sun-Times film critic and TV personality Roger Ebert. “There is still enormous value in expert and experienced criticism. Because of the Internet (which offers much, much more than social media) I believe there is more good film criticism available than at any earlier time in history.”

And if the Internet is actually enabling criticism, then criticism isn’t a dying art — it’s merely going through a rough patch.

“I guess you’d have to say it’s suffering,” Turan said. “I mean, compared to the high point before they fired all the people it’s definitely worse. But is it on its deathbed? I don’t think so.”

Film criticism has survived transitioning into new mediums before (remember when it moved from print to television with Siskel & Ebert?) and it will surely change again, but it will always exist. As long as there are movies, there will always be a need for film criticism.

And once we figure out how to monetize criticism online, and put our faith and attention back in professional film critics, it will likely thrive again.


C. Molly Smith is a junior majoring in communication. Her column “Keepin’ It Reel” runs Wednesdays.