Critic or Webmaster?

April 20, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

Note: This should not be misconstrued as a plea for help. I'm far too anal to cede control of any part of my main website to someone else. These are merely reflections about how much more is involved in the management side of running the site than I considered when I started it.

When I started ReelViews 13 years ago, I never imagined it would evolve into what it has become. At the beginning, it was just a handy way to make reviews accessible to anyone with Internet access. In the '90s, the Internet was a new frontier - a great experiment. It was all about content, not about how content was framed. Look at captures of many of today's most popular sites from mid-'90s, and you may be shocked to recall how primitive everything appeared. Sure, ReelViews circa 1996 (when it was called "James Berardinelli's Movie Reviews" - the "ReelViews" name was not born until 1997) looked laughable, but to put it in perspective, take a peek at what IMDb looked like, or Google (which didn't start until 1998).

The upside of running the ReelViews website as well as writing the reviews is that I have total control over content and presentation. From time-to-time, I need a little help, but this is still essentially a one-person endeavor. The downside is that technical and mundane tasks related to upkeep infringe upon time that could be spent watching movies and writing reviews. I'm not sure how many full time reviewers maintain and upgrade their websites. I'd be willing to bet not many.

Every January, I come up with a "checklist" of things I want to accomplish with the website during the calendar year. A few years ago, the list included integrating ads - a "controversial" project that took some time to get right. My initial efforts were clumsy and betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of how to place ads without making them eyesores. Of course, at the opposite end of the spectrum from "eyesore" is the condition called ad blindness. The current manner in which ReelViews handles ads - segregating them into a left-handed (for the main pages) or right-handed column (for text) - makes for a less visually upsetting view (although I'll be the first to admit there is still some clutter), but it also makes it easy to ignore the ads. With a known, predictable position, the brain can discount them.

I have steadfastly avoided misleading ads. Some have argued that my occasional "clicking reminders" enter a gray area, but are casual mentions of this nature in ReelThoughts columns less ethical than ads that intentionally mislead readers into clicking on them? When it comes to picking and choosing ads, I keep my readers in mind. Two experiments - in-text contextual ads and pop-unders - were abandoned because of negative reactions. This weekend, I pulled the Jambo media player when the company announced it would no longer default to a "mute" setting. In an ideal world, the only ads supported by ReelViews would be the Google text ads (which, while contextually dubious at times are almost never visually awkward) and buttons. I like the ads because they're a good match for the site - people who visit ReelViews often buy DVDs - but it has not proven to be especially lucrative. It's a commission-based arrangement, so random click-throughs are meaningless.

My 2009 checklist listed four items and, as of April 19, all have been met. The first was to finish the re-design started in 2008. All the reviews are not in the database, but I am continuing to populate it and the site now runs smoothly. I remain grateful to the anonymous donor who provided free help in giving the site its current, balanced look. There are readers who remain unimpressed by how the site looks, but the weight of negative comments has decreased markedly since the revamped appearance (a.k.a. "ReelViews 2.5") debuted in January.

Item #2 on the checklist was some form of interaction. Static, one-way websites are quickly becoming a thing of the past, and I realized how few of them I visit on a regular basis. I'm a lurker, not a poster, but almost every site on my daily roster has some form of methodology by which readers can provide publicly viewable comments. After weighing various pros and cons, I decided to create the ReelViews forums. Those who read my past ruminations about this know I was concerned about the potential of uncivil posts and flame wars. Thankfully, none of those things have happened (at least not yet). There are over 1000 members as I write this and there have been no red-letter incidents. Disagreements have been handled maturely and intelligently, proving perhaps that not all Internet discussions spiral into least-common-denominator gutter brawls. As experiments go, the forums have exceeded my expectations. Their existence has also reduced the amount of e-mail I get.

Item #3 was the incorporation of movie trailers. This has just happened and is in its infancy. The ultimate goal is to have a widescreen trailer attached to every new review. At the moment, I do not have access to all trailers and most are either cropped or horizontally compressed to fit a 1:33:1 aspect ratio. (I hope to get this changed, but it may be a while.) The obvious reason for pairing trailers with reviews is to give readers a visual flavor of the movie they're reading about (more useful with obscure titles than well-recognized ones). The trailers are ad sponsored (although, as with almost all Google ads, they only "count" if they are clicked upon) and there are occasionally loading hiccups. (If a trailer does not play, refresh the page and click to play again.)

Item #4 was to increase video review content. Considering that there were only a handful of video reviews in 2008, it didn't take much to improve upon that, but the current '80s retrospective has provided a well-defined arena in which to focus my efforts. The '80s series will wrap at the end of August, by which time I will have posted more than 30 reviews of films released between 1980 and 1989. The next VideoViews project, which will begin in October (I'll take September off for the Toronto Film Festival) will feature the films of Humphrey Bogart. This should answer critics who think the '80s series isn't ambitious enough because the movies are too recent.

Where to go in 2010? I haven't thought much about that, although the idea of doing some kind of weekly audio/video segment has been suggested. At the moment, I have no plans of joining the Twitter universe. I don't think it would do much to improve traffic and Twitter has all the earmarks of a fad. I'll refrain from writing more here since that's a whole different ReelThought. Never say never, though. If Twitter proves to have legs, who knows? But I'll wait at least a year (or until there's a strong business case).

Once upon a time, running ReelViews simply meant seeing a movie, writing a review, editing the review, making some tweaks to convert it to html, and posting it. Ah, the good old days. Now, there are databases to manage, forums to moderate, spreadsheets to calculate ad revenue, and non-review content to control. Sometimes I wonder where I find the hours and minutes… but not too often and never for too long. After all, who has time for such idle musings? There's always another movie to see, another review to write, and another forum post to respond to.