In Slate, Erik Lundegaard purports to make the case that we need movie reviewers. But although I’m generally in favor of more criticism, I don’t find his case persuasive in the least.
Here’s how he starts:
It’s almost a given these days that movie critics are elitist, while moviegoers are populist. When the highest-grossing films get panned by critics, what good are critics? As publishers across the country dump their reviewers, this is not exactly a rhetorical question.
True enough. The problem, though, is that, despite this opening, he never bothers to explain why publishers ought to keep movie critics on their payroll. Instead, he frames his piece as an argument that, if one makes some clever adjustments of the box-office numbers, films that do better critically also make more money. That might be a reason for studios to play nice with critics and continue to invest in PR firms to promote their films, run advance screenings, and the like. But it doesn’t provide much reason for publishers — the people who make the actual hiring and firing decisions — to keep critics on staff.
That’s especially true since Lundegaard isn’t making the argument that individual critics matter; the influence he argues for only exists in aggregate. And despite the slimming of the critical ranks, there’s very little danger that movie criticism will simply disappear. So, at the margins, Lundegaard provides basically no reason why, say, a publisher in a medium-sized city like St. Louis or Orlando shouldn’t cut a critic from the staff (which is just what’s happening).
In addition, Lundegaard fails to establish that any films actually do better because of reviews. He’s got some correlation, but no causation. At best, he establishes that when in cases where there are two similarly positioned and themed films with relatively equal marketing budgets (huge caveats, obviously), the better reviewed film will probably make more money. But is that because of the reviews? Or is it just that audiences tend to like quality films — the type of films likely to score higher, in aggregate, amongst critics — a little more and thus give them better word of mouth and repeat business? I’d guess (and hope!) that reviews play some part, but that they are the less influential factor.
So, is there a reason to keep critics on staff at newspapers? I think so, though it has nothing to do with Lundegaard’s thesis. At the margins, there’s very little direct value to any particular story in a paper. Whether or not a general interest paper runs a story on this city council meeting or that one, on this neighborhood trend or another, reviews this restaurant or that, isn’t likely to make much impact on sales, circulation, or ad revenue. Most narrow coverage will have a similarly narrow appeal; the majority of readers won’t personally connect with a lot of the stories.
Movies, however, remain, along with television, the country’s most pervasive pop cultural medium. Stories about movies — blockbusters and star vehicles, especially — will be of at least passing interest to a pretty substantial number of readers. There’s a universal aspect to big studio film that, I think, makes movie coverage a smart bet for publishers and editors. On the other hand, that’s still not a reason to keep a lot of local, regional critics; medium-sized cities have very little reason to keep their critics on staff when they could syndicate reviews from larger publications.
And what will happen to those local critics? Well, certainly, some of them will simply disappear, find jobs teaching or doing press work for corporate interests. But I also suspect the next decade will see a rise in niche publications which will cover film with far more depth and curiosity than most general-interest local papers could. Web outfits like The House Next Door and Reverse Shot are already pioneering this approach. This will, in some cases, make it more difficult to find full time work as a critic. On the other hand, I suspect that we’ll end up seeing more criticism, more ideas, more interesting individual voices, not less, and that the most important function of criticism — to keep alive the debates and push forward with the narratives about what our culture means, what it is, and what it should be — will survive, and even flourish.