ReelThoughts: December 06, 2011

"The Self-Serving Column"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


Initially, this ReelThought was going to be about the insane, must-be-first mindset that is driving film critics' groups to announce their end-of-the-year awards before they have seen the entire roster of 2011 films. It's the same mentality that is pushing 2012 presidential primaries nearly into 2011. Doesn't anyone remember the story of the hare and the tortoise? How can any critic consider his list to be complete without having seen Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close? Good film or not (and, as of this writing, no one knows because it hasn't been screened), it is being positioned as an Oscar contender by Warner Brothers and will be released in New York and Los Angeles before the year is over. It's one thing to ignore a movie that's unavailable on December 31, but quite another because the director is still tinkering with it on November 30. But I digress...

Occasionally, I change my plans for what I'm going to blog about based on e-mail volume. Apparently, my recent column, "The Porn Analogy," set off alarm bells. The intention of the piece was to illustrate how film criticism is no longer a viable career path - at least for those who see it as a primary means of generating revenue. Sure, if you're on your own and don't require anything more than a few basic needs, you can scrape together enough money from writing reviews to stay afloat. But it's not the way to go if you have a family to support and a mortgage to pay. Some readers, however, took this to mean I was on the verge of closing down ReelViews. Even my wife thought that; she commented to me that it would sadden her if our son didn't know his father as a film critic. Maybe it came across like that - what a writer writes is not always what a reader reads.

ReelViews has never provided my primary income, even when the advertisements were paying well (about four years ago). Let me make this emphatic statement to lay to rest concerns that have been flowing into my e-mail's in-box: I have no plans to disband ReelViews or to curtail writing reviews of new movies. I'd like to eventually return to reviewing older films, but I don't know when that will happen. I used to do a lot of writing at night, but I find that after exhausting myself during the course of a day between work and caring for my son, I don't have the mental acuity necessary to be coherent after about 8 p.m.

There has been a strong sentiment, at least as expressed via e-mail, for a "donation" button. Although I'm not fundamentally opposed to the idea, setting things up on my side requires some effort - not a lot of effort, but some (and that's really more than I want at this time). Adding a "donation" button could function as an interesting experiment, however. In the same column I referenced above, I argued that the main reason for the extinction of film criticism as a career is because people won't pay for something they can get for free. The use of a "donation" button (with no minimum or suggested amount) would give me an idea of how much (in a monetary sense) readers value ReelViews. I'm reminded of Radiohead's pay-what-you-want gambit in 2007 when they released an album on-line and allowed fans to decide how much it was worth to them. It was, by all accounts, successful, although it has not become the "standard" for new music (at least by major and/or established artists). Still, it's fascinating to consider the perceived value of something when paying is optional. Will I do it? Not now, but stay tuned. If I lose my day job (always a possibility in these times of corporate cost-cutting), the button will probably appear overnight. For now, however, that would be overplaying my hand.

In the absence of a "donation" button, there are other ways to contribute. Although I don't want to advocate random, dead-end clicking on ads, one might hope that at least some of the banners, buttons, and skyscrapers would be of sufficient interest to warrant the occasional click. If you're a Netflix member, clicking on a Netflix ad brings you directly into your queue rather than to some meaningless "join" page - try it some time. One of the reasons I recently reconfigured the ads was in an attempt to present more meaningful ones. I couldn't access the Netflix campaign without making the change. (I haven't gotten many complaints about the new, "blockier" ad style - maybe no one noticed.) Admittedly, clicking on ads - even interesting or relevant ones - is not normal behavior for a cautious web browser. I get it. I'll admit that most of the time when I click on ads, it's by accident or because the ad is deceptive. The avoidance of ads can be a game. Sometimes you sneak around them, sometimes they get you. I try not to provide those kinds of ads space on ReelViews, but it apparently happens in some regions of the world. Difficult to control what you don't directly see. If there's a U.K.-targeted ad that explodes to obscure an entire page, the only way I find out about it is by reader reports. Tracking it down to block it can be tough. But I try. The goal with ads is to generate income not alienate readers.

Another way to donate without donating is to use the Amazon.com links for purchases through Amazon.com. They're littered all around the site - see the VideoViews tab and also a button on the left side bar. The process is simple. When intending to buy something from Amazon.com, enter through ReelViews. This appends a code to any purchases you make. As long as you complete a purchase without exiting Amazon.com before it's done, I get a commission on the sale. It doesn't cost you anything extra and it benefits me (anywhere between 4% and 7% of the sale, depending on several factors). When I originally signed up for the Amazon.com affiliate program, I assumed it would generate a steady income, but that was foolishly optimistic. What I have since learned is that the number of readers who use the ReelViews links regularly is small. I'm a "power Amazon.com user," and I try as often as possible to click through from a site I admire when I make any purchase (can't click through on my own site - it's against the rules).

Another consideration to dispel is the possibility of ReelViews becoming a commercial site. A lot of interesting iterations have been proposed, including one in which the regular site would continue to be available to the general public, while those who pay a small fee (maybe $5 per month) would get access through a portal where there would be no ads, some special content, and early pre-publication reviews of movies. Although there's some merit to this approach, I don't see it as bringing in sufficient revenue to offset the overhead; it essentially requires that I manage two sites. The setup of collecting the money and setting up a password-protected portal to the second site would divert too much of my time and attention away from writing reviews to learning how to manage such things. (The site is not lucrative enough for me to hire a webmaster - I wish it was.)

For those who have read this far, here are some hard numbers. And, although some sound grim, there is a silver lining. The first full year in which I started collecting numbers was 2008 (I have some partials from 2007, after my divorce from Colossus was finalized). That was around the time when ReelViews was at its popularity peak. In January 2008, the average daily unique visitors to the site numbered around 18,000. Today, I'm lucky to get half that. Readership tumbled hard and fast during 2008 for reasons I have never been able to understand - by December, I was down to 9000 unique visitors per day. The annual average declined by about 10% between 2008 and 2009, then by 25% between 2009 and 2010. The "silver lining" is that readership increased by about 10% this year. So, while I'm not close to 2008 or 2009 levels, I have recovered from an abysmal 2010. Nevertheless, revenue continues to slip - but that's primarily a function of the advertising market. No one is paying as much for Internet ads. I know of sites that were making $250,000 in advertising in the early '00s that are struggling to get to six-figures today. Somewhere along the way, Madison Avenue figured out about "ad blindness" and it has changed the market. The New York Times went ahead with its subscription plan only after failing to realize enough revenue from advertising. Circumstances forced a change in their business plan.

I have reached my 20th anniversary reviewing films, and it has been an odyssey I never could have imagined when the whim first bestirred me. My first "official" review was of Star Trek VI, written in December 1991. The next three were Grand Canyon, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, and Fried Green Tomatoes. (Two of those three never made it on-line. The third, linked here, appears almost exactly as it was originally written, which provides a portal into how I started.) In the winter of 1992, the consideration of making money from my random scribblings about what I thought of movies was far from my mind. Today, with the economy so fragile, it has been elevated to a secondary concern. For me, film criticism is still about the writing. When I sit down to pen a review, it's just me, my thoughts, and the computer. I have an audience of one, at least until the review goes live. So, take heart, those who thought I was about to pack it in. Barring something traumatic or unforeseen, I'll likely be here a year from now, complaining that movies aren't what they used to be, revenue is down, and it costs $18 damn dollars to see a 3-D movie.

Now, it's time to talk a little about those ticket prices...


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