What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

November 30, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

You get asked that question a lot as a kid. When I was little - by that, I mean four or five years old - I wanted to be a construction worker. At the time, the town was doing some major work on the dead-end street where my family lived and I spent the better part of the summer outside, watching the men in the scoops and front-end loaders. I even got to know one of them - I think his name was Art. I played with my Tonka trucks in the sand pile, moving around earth and creating my own roads in between expeditions into the woods to catch toads or pick blackberries. But my flirtation with having a future as a manual laborer only lasted the course of that summer. After that, I became interested in more sophisticated things like astronomy, paleontology, and engineering. I wanted to go to the moon or dig up a dinosaur or bring picturephones into every home. I can guarantee that at no time before 1991 did I ever envision becoming a movie critic. And, even after I started writing reviews, it was strictly an avocation, not a vocation. In 1993, it held equal status with attending Phillies games. Every Friday and Saturday during the spring and summer: game in the evening followed by a midnight movie.

When did it change? It's hard to say. It was probably around 1995 when I sold my first piece. That's when I began wondering if there could be a career in writing reviews. I started to put out feelers to see whether any newspapers or magazines were hiring. They weren't (at least not for full-time or staff positions), but I was still able to do the occasional freelance job. In total, I wrote for about a half-dozen newspapers (some big, some small) and Playboy magazine. This gave me a sense of legitimacy because, as everyone knew in 1995, real critics wrote for newspapers. What was the Internet? A lot of people didn't know the term and many who did considered it to be a "fad" or something only for computer geeks. The concept of being an "on-line film critic" was met with poorly disguised smirks and behind-the-back snarky comments. Clearly, since I was writing on-line, I wasn't a "real" film critic.

The trajectory of film criticism during the last 15 years has been mapped by bitter irony. In the mid-'90s, the path to validation came through being hired by a newspaper. That was the way to get the studios and their publicist offspring to provide recognition. It was a way to get paid for one's efforts. However, had I achieved my goal of getting a position as a newspaper critic, things would be much different today. I would never have obtained the on-line exposure I got through the late '90s and early '00s and I most likely would have lost whatever post I might have as a newspaper film critic. When papers cut staff, that's one of the first positions to go.

Right now, the only critics who want to be newspaper critics are those who currently hold those positions. Print - newspapers, magazines - are dying. It's a slow, painful death, but it's an inevitable one. Most newspaper readers are over age 50. Forty years from now, most of those men and women will be dead and it's unlikely that newspapers will be able to cultivate a solid reader base from those who are raised in an information age when the concept of reading about something the next day is obsolete. Gone are the days when men like my grandfather would spend their entire Sunday mornings perusing The New York Times while sipping cups of coffee. I read the newspaper, but I rely on the on-line version. I don't like to have all that paper cluttering my house and I don't like getting newsprint on my fingers. (I'm fastidious in that way - when I used a manual typewriter, I hated getting ink from the ribbon on my fingers, although that was inevitable.) I'm okay sitting at my computer in the morning with a cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal as I surf from one site to the next, only one stop of which is the local daily paper.

The short-term future of film criticism is on-line. Being a critic at a major paper is still a prestige position, but that won't be the case for much longer. Already, the dominos are falling. No longer is it just unknowns who are getting the ax. Some big names have been let go and there are even bigger names to follow. Many recognized critics are transitioning to the Internet. It's a way to ensure that their voices are still heard even if they aren't getting paid anything close to the level of their previous compensation. The most successful newspaper critics are those who have had the foresight to broaden their bases.

Further in the future, however, I wonder if there will even be a place for criticism on-line. The direction in which society is heading is away from serious writing about film or any other pop phenomenon. People love numerical ratings and stars because such things can be absorbed instantly, with little or no thought. Forget trying to get readers to click on ads - it's a big enough struggle to get them to do more than look at the star rating and move on. Roughly 1/3 of those who visit the site actually read a review. This is marked improvement over that ratio a year ago, when it was one in five. Of course, traffic is down since then - an indication, to me, that there are other ways to get the star rating without having to visit my site. (Aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes and MRQE are excellent for these purposes.) I fully expect my traffic to decline by about 25% during 2009 but, by the end of the year, more than 50% of those visiting the site will stay long enough to read a review or a ReelThought. Now, it's more important to consolidate a base of loyal readers than it is to increase traffic.

If we look 25 or 30 years into the future, will people care about thoughtful reviews, or will they be looking for 50-word capsules? Is that that future of film criticism? Will sites like this cease to exist because too few people will value them to keep them afloat? 50 years ago, with the country enmeshed in the Cold War and some of the biggest names in film criticism just beginning to make their names, it seemed that the newspaper's reign would never falter. Like Bethlehem Steel, AT&T, and General Motors, The New York Times was an unassailable name that could be trusted to be around forever. Now, Bethlehem Steel is dead, its name unknown to anyone under 30. AT&T has been picked apart, re-assembled, and exists as a shadow of its former self (it was actually absorbed by one of its offspring - all that really remains is the name). As for GM - anyone who follows the news knows what's happening there. Meanwhile, The New York Times watches its once-titanic subscriber base erode (daily circulation is down nearly 20% from its early 1990s peak). And there's nothing that can be done to stop it. So, while one might consider it to be absurd that film criticism (and perhaps all criticism) will be archaic in another half-century, consider the many bedrocks of society that have shattered in the past 50 years.