ReelThoughts: July 10, 2009

"Where the Links Are"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


How the Web has changed in just a few years…

I have noticed that e-mail is fast becoming passé. It takes some remembering to recall when it was the newest, hottest thing in communication. Now, it's often viewed as a step up from the telegraph. Personally, I tend to view e-mail as a necessary evil. It can't be ignored completely but I don't live and die with it the way I once did. There were times when I would check my In-Box nine, ten, eleven times per day and seek to respond to every message asap. Now, there are days when I check only once, and I typically respond to e-mails that require some sort of action. (Although I still read everything except the spam.) It used to be a big thing to acquire a personal e-mail account. Nowadays, the only reason many people have e-mail accounts is because they need the address to activate their social networking pages. E-mail, once viewed as a great innovation, has become ordinary. (I should note that without the magic of e-mail, I would not have met my wife - but that's looking back eight years.)

It has been brought to my attention by several readers that IMDb no longer links to my new reviews via their "External Reviews" pages. This issue first occurred when I made the change from text-based individual review pages to database stored reviews. IMDb's indexing system had trouble "decoding" the nomenclature I used to retrieve the reviews. After I alerted them to the problem about a year ago, it was fixed and things moved on normally - until two or three months ago, when IMDb once again became unable to locate reviews in the database. My latest missive to them about this received a "we're working on it" response, but there has been no evidence of improvement. I suspect I was sent that reply to pacify me and allow them to close a trouble ticket and that nothing is really being done. (Maybe I'm too cynical...)

Actually, I'm okay with that. While it is desirable for IMDb to link to my reviews, the importance of the website - the largest and most comprehensive movie-related site available in any form worldwide - has diminished when it comes to archiving review links. People go to IMDb for all sorts of things, but not so much for reviews. When readers want to check what critics think, they head to Rotten Tomatoes, MRQE, Yahoo! Movies, Google, etc. Before the latest snafu, less than 5% of all referrals to reelviews.net came from IMDb, compared to about 30% from Rotten Tomatoes and 22% from MRQE. It's also interesting to note that most of the IMDb-to-Reelviews referrals are for older movies.

Ten years ago, it was a major coup for me to be among the IMDb's top external reviewers, earning ReelViews a spot near the head of the list (right below Roger Ebert). But things move so quickly that what was once invaluable is no longer so. Having a web presence is all about adaptation. That's why ReelViews now uses a database instead of static reviews and why the site has been streamlined and compacted. It's also the reason why there's an RSS feed and a forum. And that brings me to Twitter.

I'm not the world's biggest fan of the micro-blogging website, and I find it hard to believe that anyone who loves language and writing would not share my dislike. Nevertheless, it's impossible to ignore the marketing potential of Twitter, whose tendrils reach deep into demographics that don't know the difference between ReelViews and View-Masters (if they have heard of either). A few ReelViews readers already know that I have set up a Twitter account for ReelViews: www.twitter.com/reelviews (mainly to reserve the name and keep away poachers). As yet, I haven't done any tweeting, but it's probably only a matter of time. I don't see myself posting any substantive Twitter entries - if there is such a thing - but I can announce new writings (reviews, ReelThoughts) and tease my opinions of movies before the review is available. This is actually a legitimate way to partially circumvent studio embargoes, which stipulate a date when reviews can be posted but say nothing about summary opinions. (From time-to-time, I post "one word reviews" on the ReelViews forums for titles where the review is embargoed.) Twitter will perhaps be most useful when I'm at the Toronto Film Festival. So go ahead and subscribe to the feed now and you'll start getting messages when I begin posting them.

Traffic for the website has been up this summer but, with the big movie season drawing to a close, it's beginning to fall back to its pre-May levels, which is expected. Overall, ReelViews has about 15% more readers than at this time last year, which is a good thing. Advertising revenue, however, is down close to 40%. Wow. I had hoped adding amazon.com links would plug the gap, but people are shifting more toward DVD/Blu-Ray rentals and the sales links are bringing me a paltry average of about 25 cents per day - an amount for which it's hard to justify maintaining them. It has been suggested that I add Fandango ticket purchase links but I'm afraid that wouldn't be very profitable and it would require additional overhead. I am also investigating a deal with Netflix that would be a revenue boost, but it would also require the return of pop-unders. Netflix pop-unders are fairly ubiquitous on movie-related sites, so there's no guesswork about how they would work for ReelViews. (And not just movie websites - I just realized there's one sitting on my desktop at the moment that came from mlb.com.) The one thing I can guarantee is that pop-unders generated by ReelViews will be Netflix only - no penis enlargement creams or Viagra-like substances.

Other than the possible addition of Netflix ads and Twitter feeds, I don't foresee any major changes between now and the Toronto Film Festival. But where is Video Views headed? The '80s are drawing to a close (we're already up to 1987). What's next?

I like the idea of a focused series. The point of doing a six month-long time trip back to the '80s was in part to fill in some gaps in my archives and in part to permit myself a dose of nostalgia. The accompanying ReelThoughts annual commentaries are unabashedly self-indulgent, but they are the kinds of things a lot of people enjoy reading. They are a way to craft a fragment of an autobiography while never losing sight of the movie element - even when it wasn't the biggest component of my life. I didn't start reviewing until the early '90s, yet it's amazing how many cinematic touchstones there were for me in the '80s. That feeling, I think, is universal. You don't have to be a movie devotee to be able to point to certain titles that have meaning. How many people remember the first film a father or mother took them to? How many went on a first date with their future spouse to a movie? How many remember the excitement in the eyes of a son or daughter the first time you walked with them into a multiplex?

Over the years, I received hundreds of requests for reviews of '80s movies. I have fulfilled many with this series, but there are titles that remain unreviewed. By the time the series is complete, there will be about 30 newly-minted '80s reviews on the website to go along with an equal number that were already there. This won't quash the requests I receive for '80s reviews but it will hopefully limit them. And, as I move from 1987 to 1988 and 1989, I find myself yearning to re-experience some older films, so that's where the focus will shift for the next few Video Views series.

Currently, I have four planned. The '80s series will conclude at the end of August, leaving me unburdened with video reviews as I head to Toronto. Beginning in early October, I will start my Best Picture Oscar series, in which I will post (on a weekly basis) reviews of the Best Picture winners from 1929 to 2010. This is less monumental than it sounds, since I have already reviewed about half (40) of those titles, including the winners over the last 19 years (the 1990 winner being the most recent Best Picture I have not reviewed). This will also give me a chance to watch the five Best Picture titles I have not previously seen. The series will take about 40 weeks to complete, so if I start it in October, it will finish in June 2010. After that, I'll spend two months (July/August 2010) with Humphrey Bogart (nine reviews), two months (October/November 2010) with John Wayne (eight reviews) , and three months (December 2010/January-February 2011) with Alfred Hitchcock (thirteen reviews). Beyond that, who knows? With the way the Web is evolving, it's imprudent to look too far afield.


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