ReelThoughts: November 10, 2011

"The Porn Analogy"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


I'm about to make a connection between porn and film criticism... and it has nothing to do with the boobs, pussies, and asses in both areas.

When I started reviewing movies in 1992, making money was the farthest thing from my mind. Calling it an avocation at that time may even have been an exaggeration. It was a writing exercise and a way to eat up time; I never imagined I would be doing it 20 years later. Posting the reviews was an interesting and innovative thing to do back in those early, heady days of the Internet. At the very least, it gave me a wider audience than the two-dozen regulars in my office who checked out the reviews on the company BBS where they resided throughout 1992.

For years, I absorbed all the costs associated with reviewing. Tickets, parking, and bridge tolls came out of my pocket (with an average cost of about $30 per week). There were no free screenings although, starting in 1997, Colossus subsidized the website costs. (Who remembers "movie-reviews.colossus.net"?) 1997 was a big year. Not only did it mark the time when the studios acknowledged me through accreditation (something that came after about a year of frustrating lobbying), but I received public and private recognition by Roger Ebert. It was then, in the late summer, as I prepared for my first trip to the Toronto Film Festival, that I asked the question of whether I could turn this hobby into a career.

For about three years, it looked like it might be possible. The route to transforming my brand of amateur film criticism into a vocation was to get a print job, since the revenue implications of on-line reviewing were not good (or so I thought). Two opportunities came along - a newspaper in Phoenix and another in California. I didn't pursue the latter because the editor cooled off considerably when he discovered I had never written for a "real paper." He was interested in someone established in print, not someone who did their thing "on-line." I'm not sure he knew what that was - ignorance of the Internet was still common in the late '90s. The Phoenix opportunity got as far as a phone interview. Roger recommended me for the position and they were eager to hire me. But there was a major stumbling block. They wanted me to relocate. That would mean giving up my lucrative engineering job and moving across country (after having just purchased a house). Ultimately, it was money that made the decision. Unwilling to cut my annual pay by two-thirds, I stayed where I was - both figuratively and literally. I continued to post on-line for love of movies, for love of writing reviews, and maybe to feed my ego a little.

Then the Internet started killing newspapers.

Today, film criticism is not what it once was. It is no longer the province of academics and joint film/journalism majors. Many publications devoted to serious discussion of film have gone under. Most newspapers are filling "film critic" positions with general entertainment reporters or using syndicated sources. Breaking into the print side of things as a movie reviewer is next-to-impossible unless you're willing to do it for free. On-line critics can make a little money ($50 per review is common), but not enough to support a mortgage or a family. In 2011, if you want to enter film criticism as a career, you'd better have another source of income or not be tied down by any large or long-term financial obligations.

The big names can still attract the big bucks to an extent, but those big names are approaching retirement age and they are not being replaced by employees of the same pedigree. Film criticism is a dying vocation and it will most likely be dead as a paying job within a generation (if not less). As a hobby, however, it is thriving like never before. That's not to say everything being called "film criticism" is of high quality (detractors - rightly or wrongly - have labeled me as an unimaginative, uninformed hack with no true appreciation of movies as art). Some blogs pander to the least common denominator. They don't write reviews; they write tributes. (People, I have learned, love reading a review that exactly reflects their opinion.) But there is a lot of quality writing out there, and much of it is being produced either for free or for a small payment.

The bottom line: Why pay for something when you can get it for free? Why subscribe to an erudite website or magazine when reviews aplenty are available all over the web. Just go to Rotten Tomatoes and click. An argument can be made that a majority of the "free" reviews don't approach the intelligence or insight of the "pay" ones, but that is becoming increasingly less true. The short-lived dream I once held of becoming a paid film critic has given way to reality. I guess I was born ten years too late.

Now for the porn analogy...

The early days of the Internet were great times for porn. Pay sites popped up left and right. For a "small" fee, you could get a month's access to all the site had to offer. In the early and mid-1990s, premium on-line porn content consisted primarily of pictures but, as technology expanded, video replaced stills, and high quality video replaced regular video. Then the "tube" sites started to spring into existence.

Back in the day, you needed a credit card in order to see anything of great interest. It served both as a proof of age and a means to pay. Now, anyone with the right URL or a basic ability to use Google, can get unlimited porn with a few clicks. And it's mostly free. It's unclear to me how much being offered by the X-rated tube sites is illegal (pirated/copyright infringement), but they are so ubiquitous that eliminating them is a potentially impossible task. Kill one and two spring up in its place. In order to get top quality porn, you still need to subscribe to a site, but if you aren't picky about video that's blurred or underlit, you need not pay a dime. The porn industry, which once hailed the Internet as the next great step in enjoying adult entertainment, is being killed by it.

Why pay for something when you can get it for free? Reviews and porn are in the same boat, and it's sinking. What's more, Hollywood is floating alongside in an equally leaky boat. The minute any movie is released in any country on DVD or Blu-Ray, you can find a copy of it on-line. Yes, such a download is illegal, but it is happening and it is eroding studio profits. The crusade against movie piracy has been dialed down recently, in large part because Hollywood determined it was a losing battle. But they haven't come up with a solution. And the prevailing sentiment among the tech-savvy segments of society is simple: Why pay for something when you can get it for free? Part of it may be that we don't value movies the way we once did. They are seen not as screen treasures but as disposable entertainment.

If making money was my objective in reviewing films, I'd be doing something else. Stagnation is death in the on-line world. Go a week without anything new and readership will drop. Go a month and I may never recover. I read a study somewhere about the three-visit rule. People will go to a site three times and, if there isn't anything fresh by the third visit, the chance of them returning for a fourth is less than 50%.

Over the years, I have lost readers. My current readership is about half of what it was at the height of the site's popularity. I wish now I had been soliciting ads back around 2000, when the on-line market was booming. I could have made a fortune. Then, however, I was proudly trumpeting ReelViews as "the largest non-commercial movie review site on the 'net." That's because I was thinking about selling the site to a commercial entity and moving into print. And I lost hundreds of thousands of dollars by not doing what I eventually ended up doing in a declining market: selling ad space.

The trend is unavoidably downward. Without divulging real numbers, I will make about 55% this year what I made two years ago. Next year, I expect to lose another 10-20%. Recent tweaks to ad sizes and placement are designed to slow the bleeding but not stop it. Ultimately, however, I will be faced with a simple question: Do I love writing reviews enough to do it gratis, or for a minimal compensation that will keep me from going deep into the red? 20 years ago, that would have been an easy question to answer. Now, things are different.

I love free content as much as the next person, especially if it's good quality free content. But I rarely stop to think what it requires to bring that content to me. A lot of what I read and consume on-line is the result of love and sacrifice. And perhaps that's where the porn analogy falls apart. With porn, there's still a viable business model. With reviews, that's no longer the case.


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