Thursday, November 1, 2012

Leeching Off the Critics: The Diagnosis for Film Criticism in the Digital Age

Ever since the formation of the motion picture industry in the early 20th century, there has been a role for film critics. Early critics were in charge of setting the precedent for the profession, or, in the words of Alistair Cooke (as cited in Miller, 2012), could “define the movies with no more misgivings than Aristotle defined tragedy.” Over time, film criticism emerged as a respected journalistic pursuit and became entrenched in popular culture through the work of critics such as Pauline Kael, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. The advent of the Internet has signalled a shift in the traditional model of film criticism. Now, films can be downloaded illegally on peer-to-peer file sharing protocols such as BitTorrent. This means that anyone with an Internet connection can download a film before a qualified critic attends a screening of it. The immediacy of this technology places film critics at risk of becoming redundant, as people may be less inclined to read a review if they are not being charged to watch a film. The rise of online film criticism has created much conjecture over the validity of published content, considering plenty of it is unpaid and independently-produced. It is worth considering if a tweet is as informative as a review, and if top 10 lists are as newsworthy as thorough analysis. This golden age of citizen journalism could spell the death of print critics, as those looking for an opinion of a film can wade through a morass of online content without having to peruse the Sunday paper.

Traditionally, film critics who work in print are paid to see and critique a movie just before it is released to the general public. These reviews are published in newspapers, magazines and even academic journals, just in time for film enthusiasts to weigh up the pros and cons of an upcoming attraction. Peer-to-peer file sharing protocols, while completely legal as a technology, are frequently used for illegal purposes. One of these purposes is the distribution of copyrighted films. It is common for a film to be released on a different date in several countries, and this has a major implication for the discipline of film criticism. A film may be released on DVD in the United States two months before it is given a theatrical release in Australia. Anyone in the United States with the adequate technology can rip this DVD and upload it to a BitTorrent index such as isoHunt. A person in Australia can perform a search for this film on isoHunt, and can download it once they find it. They may be too impatient to wait for its theatrical release, forgoing the insight of a seasoned critic in order to be immediately sated. Once this person has watched the film they have downloaded, they have the opportunity to share their thoughts on it through a personal blog site or even something as minuscule as a tweet. In this scenario, the established Australian print critic is not the first person to present the verdict on the film. The professional has been usurped by the everyday citizen who has obtained the film via illegal means. This should not deter that citizen from checking his or her facts, as "speed comes at a price and quality; clarity and creativity are oftentimes the currency." (Brannon, 2008, p. 109). The eagerness of a reviewer to get their opinion out into the blogosphere first may jeopardise how insightful their review is. Not only are people resorting to illegal downloads for purposes of immediacy, but consumers of filmic information are turning to the Internet for this same quick fix. Nick James (2009) does not believe that amateur bloggers are to blame for the downgraded importance of the commercially-influential print critic. Rather, he champions the view that saturation marketing is responsible for this shift in authority. It is the countless viral marketing campaigns, fan sites and extensive festival reportage that “makes much professional consumer guidance seem dispensable.” (James, 2009). The contemporary film buff is attuned to a culture where information is readily available as the result of a quick Google search.  Considering the vast amount of films being made and released each year, and the numerous platforms they can be viewed on, it is hardly surprising that newspapers and magazines are no longer the first port of call for film enthusiasts. It is simply a case of print critics not adjusting to the rapidity and reach of the digital age.

It is not only the channels of dissemination that have changed over the years, but also the type of content being produced. Print critics write to fill a designated space in a newspaper or magazine, whereas online critics are given more lenience. In the case of independent bloggers, the individual has complete creative control. With more autonomy over what is written, a critic can lose sight of what a film review should accomplish. Critic Giles Hardie (2012) believes the two key qualities of a good film critic are perspective and explanation. Thus, a person who shares their opinion of a film via a tweet is not providing the same thoroughness as critics who judge the worth of a film by arguing a particular viewpoint. In the digital age, opinion is not enough. It is informed opinion that will stand out amongst the swath of pithy judgements. According to Taylor (2011), a dichotomy exists between film critics. The traditional print critics view online adherents as “amateurs, fanboys, and obscurantists,” while those who have made the transition herald our time as the golden age of film criticism, and label print critics as guilty of “jealousy, resentment, and Ludditism.” Taylor (2011) observes that many young (and often male) web critics write for each other instead of informing an uneducated public. These novice critics write “articles that analyze sequences in terms of lighting and editing and even shot length,” and present them with the “deadly seriousness of a doctoral dissertation.” Hence, they are straying from the traditional convention of writing as though the reader is unfamiliar with the facts. The duties of a film critic have long been debated, and while each individual critic may bring their subjective goals to the profession, there are several features of film criticism that are championed by both traditional and contemporary critics. Nick James (2009) contends that a film critic has eight distinct roles: 

(1) saying if a film is worth seeing, (2) championing good unknown work, (3) giving a wider historical perspective, (4) offering the insights of technical knowledge, (5) conferring useful prestige and kudos upon producers of good cinema, (6) earmarking the best works for future historians, (7) counteracting marketing untruths, and (8) opposing the retrograde.

This illustrates that the function of the film critic is no longer merely arbiter of good cinema. Critics are becoming more journalistic by not only critiquing films, but writing about the industry in general. Online critics need to distinguish themselves in a space where the amount of content is overwhelming. They are more likely to be successful if they discover obscure works, or, as Harris (2012) writes, if they are “truffle pigs, unearthing the undiscovered delights buried among the mass of mediocrity and rubbish.” Hence, we are moving towards an era of film criticism marked by acute analysis. Minute observations go unnoticed in an age where virtually anyone can voice an opinion.

While many of the journalists who work in online platforms are professionally qualified and paid for their work, film piracy can encourage web-based citizen journalists to emerge. While their reach may not be as profound as print critics or paid online critics, they can still be influential within certain circles on the Internet. Rosen (2006) describes citizen journalists as “the people formerly known as the audience,” which implies an evolving news dissemination model. A member of the public can write a letter to the editor in response to a print critic’s review, but if this letter is published in the following edition of the paper, readers may experience a sense of disconnect. They will see the response but not the review it is in reference to. Whereas, in an online setting, a user comment underneath a review can constitute citizen journalism (Lasica, 2003), with an added element of reciprocity that is lacking in print criticism. While print critics may exude a greater air of professionalism than their online counterparts, Doherty (2010) argues that unpaid online critics are “more independent, more honest, and more in sync with the mass audience than the jaded sexagenarians,” as they are free of distractions such as press junkets. It is interesting that independence is listed as a virtue of online critics, as the nature of the medium suggests opinion that is informed by a wide range of other sources. In her Master’s thesis, Online Journalism: The Transformation of the Film Review, Holopirek (2007) deduces that online citizen reviewers often fail to substantiate their views with any rationale, resulting in purely subjective reviews. Their goal is simply to tell the reader whether a film is worth seeing. For example, a review of Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale from the website Everyone’s a Critic ( illustrates the way subjective, declarative statements supplant thorough analysis. The reviewer writes “His [Daniel Craig’s] performance is the best we’ve seen since Sean Connery,” (trevor22, as cited in Holopirek, 2007) without making reference to a single scene in the film. Thus, while citizen critics can take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the Internet and cater to a niche audience, their expertise and knowledge of film history may not be as vast as critics who are paid for their work.   

The democratisation made possible by the Internet is undoubtedly posing a threat to the profession that is film criticism, and it is worth examining the consequences of the online shift and whether film criticism will eventually descend into a hobby instead of an occupation. Nick James (2009) notes that much of the discussion about the future of film criticism was sparked by the fact that, over a two-year period, American newspapers had culled over 30 film critics without replacing them. Between 2006 and 2009, Salt Lake Tribune critic Sean P. Means compiled a list of film critics who had lost their jobs at American print outlets. By the time of his last entry in May 2009, the list had amounted to 55 names (Matossian, 2011). The dwindling number of print critics does not necessarily signal the death of film criticism if quality work is being produced online. Roger Ebert (2010) believes we are in a golden age of film criticism, and that Means’ list does not account for the number of talented critics who are currently working online. He concedes that film criticism is no longer an occupation, but that it still functions as a profession (Ebert, 2010). If the lure of making money is not attached to the profession, it follows that those who write about film without being paid for it do so out of passion and enthusiasm. The distinction between ‘occupation’ and ‘profession’ is not the only one that needs to be made. The function of a critic is seen as different from that of a reviewer. Reviewers generally work for a weekly or monthly publication and offer their thoughts on a film so it is edifying for both acquainted and unacquainted readers (Bywater & Sobchack, 1989, p. 5). Critics, on the other hand, are more informed about the industry and critique films with greater perspective (Bywater & Sobchack, 1989, p. 5). Cardullo (as cited in Holopirek, 2007) views criticism as a “branch of scholarship” and reviewing as a “form of journalism.” Hence, new modes of film criticism have prompted reconsiderations of the profession’s requirements.

In conclusion, peer-to-peer file sharing platforms and the Internet in general are not forcing film critics into redundancy. Print media does not have a monopoly on the profession, and many online critics, both paid and unpaid, are producing quality content. Nevertheless, it is more difficult for this content to be noticed if so many people are contributing, which is why immediacy has become paramount in the digital age. The duties of the contemporary film critic (or reviewer) are as basic as recommending a film and as thorough as intensive, shot-by-shot analysis of one. Citizen journalists will naturally take advantage of the ease involved in setting up a blog and voicing an opinion. While some of these everyday film enthusiasts will reject objective critique procedures, their opinions are not attached to a company and they are not paid, resulting in more honest, passionate criticism. Print critics whose jobs are terminated do not signify a decline in criticism, despite sensationalistic reports. Many of these critics will resume work in the online field, and their opinions will still matter. 

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