ReelThoughts: April 21, 2008

"The Death of the Print Critic"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


The rumors of this death, sadly, have not been exaggerated...

I can remember as a child seeing my father sitting at the kitchen table in the morning, drinking a cup of coffee and reading the newspaper. I have similar memories of my grandfather when I would stay with my grandparents for a week during the summer, except that he would sit in an easy chair after breakfast and go through the entirety of Ihe New York Times. Most children today won't have recollections like that. Newspapers are slowly, inexorably becoming obsolete. They are already artifacts, struggling to stay afloat by providing on-line versions. Circulation is dropping. As older readers die off, they are not being replaced by younger ones. A generation or two from now, it's hard to imagine the newspaper as being anything more than a curiosity.

I am occasionally asked why I haven't pursued employment as a newspaper or magazine critic. There are two reasons for this. The first is that I like the freedom afforded by not having an editor to answer to. I have written for print publications on occasion and find the restrictions stifling. A feature I wrote for The Chicago Sun-Times was sliced and diced for space reasons (and because I had some nice things to say about the late Gene Siskel, who had been employed by the rival Chicago Tribune). A review I wrote of Blade for Playboy ran afoul of the magazine's desire to put the movie in the best possible light. It goes to show that you should understand exactly what you're being asked to write before writing it. I got paid by Playboy but the review never saw the light of day, except on this website where the magazine graciously allowed me to post it. They had wanted a "puff piece" to go alongside their 20 Questions with Wesley Snipes, and the review was deemed to be "too negative." Sorry about that.

The second and more cogent reason for not pursuing a position in the more "respected" field of print journalism is that there aren't any to be had. With newspaper circulation down, belt-tightening is taking place, and some of the first casualties are film critics. Those that retire are not being replaced. Others are being unceremoniously dumped. The average age of the print film critic must be in the range of 50-60 years old. There are young film critics, but they're mostly working in "new media." For many newspapers, an in-house film critic is an unaffordable luxury. So they resort to syndicated reviews or assign a general entertainment reporter to cover movies.

Film criticism has undergone a major shift in the last 20 years, due in no small part to the emergence of the Internet. Reviews are now designed more for popular consumption than for cineastes. I'm not going to pass judgment on whether this is good or bad; it simply is. The majority of movie-goers would prefer to read 500-700 words about a movie than a lengthy, detailed essay that's four or five times that length. They want to know if they might like the movie and a little of what it's about, not a comprehensive discourse on its cinematic virtues. The marketplace dictates the writing. Those who gripe about this change are the same individuals who complain how great things were "in the good old days." Film critics must adopt an "adapt or die" attitude. It's journalistic Dawinism. Survival of the fittest. Those who don't change to fit the new culture will perish. It is perhaps regrettable, but that's life. Fairness never comes into it.

Movies are making more money than ever before, but those who see them are increasingly cinematically illiterate. For the critic who seeks to teach and enlighten, there is a place to do it: The Internet. Not a magazine or a newspaper. On-line, you can write whatever you want: old school, in-depth criticism or less detailed, consumer-oriented reviews. Newspapers don't have a choice in the matter. They must cater to the "unwashed masses." In an era of blurbs and sound bytes, five columns cannot be devoted to the analysis of an art film, no matter how worthy it may be of such analysis.

When I first started writing reviews, there was no such thing as an "Internet critic." I can recall trying to explain "who I wrote for" to the studios when applying for accreditation. I was one of the first Internet critics to receive that benison, but it took five years of phone calls and letters (this was before e-mail was a widely accepted means of communication) and, in the end, I'm not sure the studios still understood what I did. (In the end, print-outs of 1000 reviews convinced them I wasn't some fly-by-night individual just trying to see free movies.) I was also one of the first critics accredited at the Toronto International Film Festival - and that probably wouldn't have happened if Roger Ebert hadn't gone to bat for me in 1997. Back then, "prestige" came from writing for a newspaper or magazine. Writing for an on-line site wasn't only new, it was regarded with skepticism and, in some cases, contempt. Ever had someone look down their nose at you? I got that a lot in the mid- and late-'90s.

Times have changed. Ten years later, on-line critics have made inroads into defining themselves as legitimate journalists. Print criticism has lost its sheen. It's not quite a dinosaur yet, but the extinction event is growing ever closer. It's no longer an embarrassment to admit to being an "Internet critic." People don't silently react with the mental comment: "Oh, so you're not good enough to write for a newspaper." I recognized long ago that aspiring to be a print critic was a dead-end goal. 20 years from now, being an Internet critic may be old fashioned but, for now, it's where there's vitality and variety to be found. Criticism has never been more lively than it is today, provided you know where to look. And that place is not in print.


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