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Film Critics - do you listen?

Cameo-Screen1.jpgLately there's been a move by Hollywood to bypass the film critics and release their movies direct to the public without any press screenings. The critics and press are up in arms about this and strangely every film that is released without screenings turns out to receive negative reviews.

It all raises some larger questions, who are film critics and do the public really need them? Are those who review movies in a group that is destined for extinction? Who are the critics anyway, are they all that they are hyped up to be and do you really listen to them?

Film critic is a strange phrase and it means different things to different people. Some people say that anyone who writes about films are critics, some say only reviewers, and some say that they are a group of professional writers with intelligent insight to give on the Film Industry.

Recently, on a website of someone in my home city, I commented on a post she had written about her experience of seeing X-Men: The Last Stand (review). Her review was harsh, short, and accurate, as well as being extremely personal. I mentioned something about the movie to start a discussion and she responded and called me a film critic. I denied the allegation immediately and said that I just wrote about movies, and she firmly told me otherwise, you're a film critic she said.

That made me think, is that really true? Am I another one of those film critics? This led me to think about what critics really are to me, and I realised that the people who write about movies fall into several groups.

There are the film critics, those who write articles examining movies in great depth, looking at artistic merit and meaning, identifying subtext, subplots and hidden meanings, comparing the movie against others, looking at the process of making the movie as well as the state of the industry itself. These people are the top writers. These are people like Roger Ebert. They produce some excellent work, but are the reviews necessarily accessible by the general public? Are they the ones who make or break your decision to go and see a film?

Then there's a step down towards film journalists. These are people who write by commission and produce reviews for newspapers, online publications, etc. They create straightforward reviews and stories on the movie industry. They can so easily become what I would call institutionalised journalists, they see movies continuously, review continuously, and from what I've seen of them have a very jaded view of cinema. No longer do they walk into a cinema and feel the excitement of seeing a movie, and it must be hard to retain that feeling when you see so many movies. It becomes like a job.

Then there are the reviewers and general writers. This is a wide group moving from professionals through to those running their own online site. These people love cinema, they love the experience of going to the movies, and they review and write about cinema either for themselves or for targeted groups of people. This section can be filled with a swamp of poor writing, but it's also populated with extremely personal and superbly written stories and reviews which are easily accessible and identifiable by those that read them, the public.

Do you see these groups yourself? What do you think about film critics in general, is there a place for them? Do you hold court with a particular critic and why do you? Some people have said to me that they look around at reviews until they find someone they identify and agree with, and that's where a connection and a level of trust and respect grows, only then do they begin to trust that reviewers recommendations.

Others I've talked to will simply search for a number of reviews and make a judgement on a few of them, this can be particularly hit and miss because there's no real way to tell what type of reviewers these people are or if they are reviewing the film for any personal motive.

That's a very interesting point to consider as well, and it's an issue I've found when reviewing films I didn't really like. You see I'll say just that, although I will try and look for the positives in any movie and point them out, ultimately I'll be honest to myself and those reading it. That's gotten me into trouble a few times where I've been asked quite pointedly to bury my review.

With that kind of pressure, and the positive incentives on offer for strong reviews, as well as the potential return on those desired poster quotes, how do you know this is the critic you can trust for reviews?

Personally I think it's a minefield, and before I wrote reviews I fell fowl of the poorer side of reviewers a number of times. Now that I do reviews I see a completely different view. I've seen reviewers who don't turn up for the start of a movie, leave before the end, and other such generally poor behaviour.

I think there will always be a place for good critics and reviewers who stay true to what cinema is and what the audience wants. Perhaps the opening of the Internet and the giving of a voice to the personal, independent critic will help to whittle away those institutionalised and bored with the cinema.

So how do you decide who to trust? Do you read the reviewer and find one you trust and connect with? Do you search for multiple reviews and see what they say between them? Or do you just read a publication that has diffierent critics each time?

The bigger question is do you trust critics at all? Are there different types as I have written about above, and do you find they serve different audiences? Indeed do you think there's no longer a place for the critic? Is the personal Internet identity killing them off?



Richard, there's nothing strange about the fact that most of the films not screened for the press have gotten bad reviews.

They aren't screened for the press precisely because they're bad movies... and the studio knows it.

They want the movie to make as much money as possible before word gets out about how bad it is. In effect, studios are trying to bypass the press precisely because they believe critics DO influence audiences.

If they believed critics didn't influence audiences, then they'd bypass the press for good movies as often as bad ones. Why waste money on screening films to critics when their opinions don't matter?

Like your comment about instituionalized journalists. You're spot on about that. These are the people who show up to press screenings with their notepads and spend most of the movie writing about how much they hate it instead of actually watching it.

A couple of thoughts...

On the specific subject of critics bashing films that aren't screened for the press, Josh is absolutely right. These films aren't screened for the press because they are rubbish and the producers know it. Instead, they rely on mountains of hype and a huge opening weekend to see a return on their investment. These are the films that open massively and are forgotten about two weeks later.

Where I think critics do have value is with lower budget, less hyped films that don't have the sort of marketing budget that gets their entire audience into a cinema in a single weekend. There are some very good films being made that do rely on a positive press in order to (often slowly) build an audience.

As to who to trust, I tend to find that I keep going back to the critics (Mark Kermode and Kim Newman spring to mind) that seem to get the same things out of the same fims that I do.

Ultimately, I really think the question of whether or not people listen to critics is kind of irrelevant.

By asking it, you're basically saying that the only reason people watch/read/listen to film critics is so that they can be told what to think. That's not the case. I think most people pay attention to film critics just because they like hearing other opinions, they like the discussion it generates, and they just like talking about and being talked to about movies they are interested in.

Whether or not people "listen: to film critics in the sense that this is how they decide if they see movies or not, is to me irrelevant from the film critic's perspective. It's only relevant from the studio's perspective, since they're looking for ways to manipulate people into seeing their film.

I read many reviews of the films I am interested, but no review can change the fact I am interested in that films.

And therefore, no matter what, I will watch them. Examples? Roger Ebert (he is mentioned and I respect him) critizises Superman Returns without pity. So what?

One parent of mine says about critics: they watch films, I watch films, what´s the difference?

The difference is one and only: a reviewer or a critic has had the chance to watch much more films than I may have. That can be useful: we can learn that some innovations are not so innovative.

But I only trust critics who assume their opinions are changeable, flexible, and subjective things. One view is not enough and there is no absolute truth. Some good films may seem boring at the first view.

The highest achievement a critic can get is to enlighten our own view about the movies, so that after reading the review, we want to watch the movie again under the new approach.

I remember one night, watching "Intolerance" at TV (in the days TV did these things). The introduction was carried away by Orson Welles. He said: "so many things have been written about me, they even credit me for things I never invented! Thus guy, Griffith, can be credited for whatever you can imagine. Some films are old today. This film could be new tomorrow"


I read reviews from a number of sources - largely press, where experience has told me which reviewers have similar taste to mine - but also on certain blogs. I like to look at different reviews of the same film, to get a feel for the movie.

I am not sure that I differentiate between reviewers and critics.

Of course, we are all critics - that is why word of mouth is such a great promotional tool; and blogs enable word of mouth to reach a greater audience.

Reviewers and critics are valuable to me: there are simply too many films out there to ignore someone else's help to sort through the dross.

My answer is yes and no.

Yes, I listen to a review if I hardly know anything about the film/genre. I would then have to have a certain degree of trust with that person writing his review, in this case, Richard's review of films I wouldnt normally watch is spot on. I have gone out of my way to see a film or buy a DVD out of the review he has written and so far I couldnt complain, at least not yet! ;-)

I dont listen to reviews/critics when regardless of what they say about the film, I have already decided that I will watch it. In the case of Da Vinci Code, very many negative reviews were floating about but I was still bent on seeing it, and now I wish I had listened. But in most cases, I am my own judge of films, my sister who is a movie buff, and a good friend who is a big cinema fan like myself but oftentimes I allow a few reviewers like Richard here and Harry Knowles arouse my interest, or not.

Josh & Paul have hit the nail on the head for me.

One thing that's very personal, Rich, is the line you have -
"ultimately I'll be honest to myself and those reading it."

If you don't like a film, then say so. It's your opinion. By writing about your opinion you are not, reapeat not, forcing others to make the same choice based exclusively on your work. How many times have wee been to the cinema together, compared notes, and one has liked it more than the other, got more than the other, saw differently to the other? And with other films come out exactly the same?

The point is, taste is an individual trait. Even when tastes are closely matched there will be some differences. So trusting a critic (or reviewer, or whatever) should never been done blindly, the decision is exclusively for the individual to make.

Saying that, I do firmly believe there is a market for the reviewers and critics alkie. And with that should come the freedom Richard strives for. If an author only scorns over movies, then you're soon going to stop reading because they'll obviously hate it before it's made. Likewise, if they only write favourably you know a film will be 5* rating before it's got a production budget. If there's honesty from a personal level you can trust the sentiment behind it, then reserve judgement for yourself for when you see the film as to whether or not you like it.

Talking about reviewers, I have today bought a Spanish film magazine of my taste, and they talk about summer movies (here). To summarize:

-Pirates of the Caribbean: A piece of crap (confirming my suspicions)

-Superman Returns: A very good, yet not perfect movie (more than enough to me).

-Cars: Another Pixar piece of art (I doubt it, Ratatouille will be much better).

-United 93: They had special words towards this movie. It really was an interesting read. They say it´s the best movie of the year, by far, and they explain why.

If I had any doubt about this last one, it´s clear now.

I've come late to this one, but will say this much. A friend of mine is one of the more prominent film critics in this country, and one night I found myself looking this person up on Google for some reason. I was actually quite taken aback by the vituperation she seemed to attract with her reviews and comments, people seemed to take them really personally, as if she'd insulted them directly or something.
In a way I suppose it was kind of reassuring. As someone who reviews films on radio himself, I often wonder what exactly is the point of what I'm doing, does anyone actually care what I think and am I really going to influence anyone's decision to see or not to see a given film. You have some dark existential moments when you look at the latest Big Movie, and you come to the conclusion that it's no damn good, and you realise there is absolutely nothing you can say against the thing because it's going to attract an audience irrespective of you.* And yet, when I look at some of the bilespitting I referenced above, it has to be said that people must've found the reviews in question worth reading and complaining about. And from my own experience, I recall one listener last year who was sufficiently moved by a review of my own to write in and complain about it. If he didn't take it with some degree of seriousness, he wouldn't have gone to that much trouble.

* On the other hand, of course, Paul is entirely right in what he says about critics championing smaller films.

dont see bad films


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