So far this year, eleven films have opened in theatres without screen for critics first. That’s up from just two films by this time last year. These are films which the studios decided would do better without the critics lambasting them on opening weekend. The studios were right about the critic’s reaction: the films were roundly panned when they were reviewed later in the week (the average Rotten Tomatoes score is 11%). But about half the time, they were also right about the audience’s reaction: four of the films (Madea’s Family Reunion, When a Stranger Calls, Larry the Cable Guy and Phat Girlz) made back at least double their budget, with Madea grossing a total of $63 million on an estimated budget of $6 million. Underworld: Evolution, Benchwarmers, and Date Movie posted respectable numbers between $48 and $62 million (I don’t have budget information on these). Of the eleven films, only four of them were outright flops. And it’s recently been announced that the greatly anticipated Snakes on a Plane will join the ranks of “critic-proof” films.
In addition to these films which the studios have determined will do fine without critics, there’s an ever-growing mound of evidence that audiences don’t listen to critics anyway. Critics largely hated The Da Vinci Code, which has grossed over $215 million. The same is true of Pirates of the Caribbean 2, which has a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 53% despite breaking box office records worldwide.
Have critics become irrelevant?
Jeff Jarvis of the Buzz Machine has been blogging about this on and off for a while now. Jarvis has worked for many high-profile magazine and newspaper companies as critic, editor, publisher, and media consultant, and he often has very astute things to say. This morning, he posted an excerpt from an article he wrote recently for the UK’s Guardian. Here’s a quote from it:
In 1990, I created Entertainment Weekly, a magazine of pop cultural criticism in the US, because I saw an explosion of entertainment choice thanks to cable and the VCR (little did I know what would come next). And so I said we needed critics to help us find the good stuff. But if I started EW today, Iâ€™d create it online and Iâ€™d try to find ways to gather the taste of the crowds regarding far more entertainment: let sci-fi fans help you hunt the best sci-fi; debate the literary merit, if any, of Harry Potter; argue with Woody Allen fans over whether he has his mojo back. Mind you, Iâ€™d be loath to end up with the worldâ€™s largest focus group or most uninformative online poll. Instead, Iâ€™d hope this would be a salon of salons, where you could find the discussions and people you like and with them, the entertainment you want.
Would I have critics? Yes, but their roles would change. They still should give their views and set art in context. But rather than issuing pronouncements and bon mots, unchallenged, from the screening room, Iâ€™d want them to spark the discussion about entertainment: find the good voices, pinpoint the arguments, even referee debates among artists and critics. A great critic should be a magnet for fascinating discussion. Take the debate around politics at the Guardianâ€™s Comment is Free and imagine similar discussion over the arts, with critics acting not as pontificators but as opinionated moderators, even generous hosts.
I think he’s quite right. I know people don’t listen to critics anymore, at least not in the sense of “let me read what so-and-so thought of it before I decide to go see it”, because they tell me so. Most everyone I know has told me at one time or another that critics “always hate everything” and “never like anything.” Or that they never agree with critics. When I was seventeen, I took a college-credit class in film appreciation, and the teacher was surprised to find out that almost none of the students read reviews of films before they went to see them. I was among those students. But Owen Glieberman of Entertainment Weekly changed my mind. Not because his reviews are always right, or because he’s the best critic ever. Entertainment Weekly ran a sidebar for a while called “Ask the Critic” (or something like that–I don’t know if they still run it or not), and one week a question was “why do critics hate everything except weird artsy and foreign films?” Glieberman’s answer was obvious in retrospect, but illuminating at the time. Here’s my memory-filtered expansion of his answer.
Film critics see five-seven films per week, and write reviews on most of them. Granted, they like watching movies or they wouldn’t have chosen this job, but still, when you have write a review of something, you look at it differently than if you’re watching two or three films a week for pure enjoyment. Add in the fact that most critics that you’re reading in high-profile magazine or newspapers have been doing this for years, and realize that they’ve probably seen tens of thousands of films. There’s not that much originality in mainstream film these days–nearly everything has been done before, and when you’ve seen tens of thousands of films, you’ve probably seen it before. And written about it. This is why critics tend to like offbeat, quirky, unusual films that may seem bizarre and overly strange to you. As for why they like foreign films…foreign countries export like 5% of their top films to the US, so we’re getting the cream of the crop. If you skip foreign films just because they’re foreign, you’re denying yourself some of the top films in the world. That’s by-the-by, though.
Another thing Glieberman didn’t mention, but I think is worth considering, is what “average” means. When a film critic gives a film a *** out of *****, or a C on a A-F grading scale, that means “average.” That does not mean “bad.” Most films are average. That’s what average means. If it’s a sci-fi film, and you like sci-fi films, and a critic rates it “average,” you’ll probably like the film. If you hate sci-fi, you probably won’t. The critic is not there to tell you what you’ll like. He’s there to tell you how good the film is…and that usually ends up being how good it is compared to other films of similar genre and type. He’s there to tell you that no matter how much you may like action movies with lots of explosions, Domino is still a crapfest and you probably won’t enjoy it. He’s there to tell you that even if you don’t care for WWII dramas, Downfall is worth checking out. And he’s there to tell you that if you like somewhat juvenile buddy comedies, you’ll probably fare fine with the relatively average Wedding Crashers. Just remember that the critic is looking for “good” films, and you’re probably looking for something you’ll enjoy watching. Those aren’t always the same thing.
I’ve been speaking of reviewing, as is Jarvis above. There’s a distinction to be made between film reviews and film criticism, I think, that we miss because we usually refer to reviewers as “critics.” Reviews in weekly newspapers and magazines that come out just before a film is released are meant to steer audiences as they decide whether or not to go see a given film. Criticism, as I think of it, is meant to help aid understanding films already seen. Criticism tends to be more academic, sometimes painfully so, but I don’t think it has to be. I just finished reading Robin Wood’s book Hitchcock’s Films, which is extremely insightful and extremely accessible. I believe that reviews are becoming obsolete as studios more and more dispense with pre-release screenings for critics, and as more and more people rely on word of mouth via their friends and the internet than on traditional critics. But Jarvis’ idea above is perfectly suited to the reclaiming of criticism for the mainstream, away from stuffy academia.
The thing that critics bring to the party is not that they are all-knowing media gods who can tell you exactly what you’ll like and what you should see. The thing they contribute is years and years of experience watching films critically, thousands of films seen, and a knowledge of the history of cinema and criticism that only the most devoted amateurs achieve. I consider myself a devoted amateur, and whenever I read good criticism, I’m astounded by the amount of film knowledge I simply don’t have. It takes a film critic to know that Far From Heaven is a homage to the work of 1950s filmmaker Douglas Sirk, and be able to draw out what that means. It takes a film critic to note the similarities between the Odessa Step sequence in Potemkin and the baby-carriage-falling-down-the-steps sequence in The Untouchables. Now, is it required to have such knowledge to enjoy Far From Heaven or The Untouchables? Of course not. But it gives an added depth and level of appreciation, and I for one would hate to risk losing the critic’s ability to “set art in context.” I find Jarvis’ concept of the critic as an “opinionated moderator” and a “magnet for fascinating discussion” very compelling…just as I find professors who teach that way very compelling.
Another point brought up by Cinematical a long time ago (don’t have a link to the post anymore, sorry) is that while critics may no longer be effective at turning audiences away from mediocre and bad mainstream films, they can do a lot to bring lesser-known and less-publicized films into the limelight. From personal experience, I can say that if I want to see a film, bad reviews don’t always turn me away from it. But good reviews of a film I haven’t heard of will almost always make me check it out.
And if you still really think that the critics you’re reading are always negative and you never agree with them…dump them and find different ones. There’s no shortage of film critics out there. Or take their disagreement as a challenge–some of my best thinking and writing has been as a result of disagreeing with some critic or other and hashing out with myself why I disagree with them and why my position is more tenable than theirs. Disagreement is good for the mind. ;)