MOVIE REVIEW- Critical condition: Movie reviews a dying breed


Dear Reader,

Not so many years ago young people would come up to me and say, "How can I become a film critic? It seems like a cool job." I would reply, "Well, first you take a vow of poverty...," and they would laugh.

Now when a young person asks how they can become a film critic, I'm the one who laughs. The truth is, any of them has a better shot at longevity as a critic than I do, as long as they don't expect to be paid for their effort.

In 10 years there may be no professional film critics. As one of a vanishing breed I know how the dinosaurs felt. (Unless you subscribe to the asteroid theory, in which they didn't have time to think about it, assuming they were capable of thought... But I digress.)

Future archaeologists sifting through the rubble to discern what happened to film critics may find three forces at work:

1. The decline of the print media. As market forces, primarily the Internet, drive newspapers and magazines out of business due to declining readership and growing competition for advertising, the surviving media look for ways to cut expenses. Reviews are still popular with readers, but an increasing number of papers are using a decreasing number of syndicated reviewers or finding young locals who will work cheap for the experience.

2. The rise of the Internet. Throughout my career I've told people, "Mine is only one person's opinion. Your opinion is as valid as mine – more valid for you." Who knew my humility would become the basis for a revolution? There was a footnote about some opinions being better expressed and based on more knowledge than others, but that has become irrelevant as bloggers have taken over the profession. It doesn't matter that they don't know Herzog from Hertz Rent-a-car and haven't seen a film made before Star Wars. The audience they're writing for shares their frame of reference.

3. The studios are collaborating in our demise. They used to screen virtually all of their films well in advance for critics. The list of exceptions has been growing each year. They know when papers' deadlines are and intentionally screen the films too late to be reviewed, especially by weeklies. The symbiotic relationship between critics and publicists has become an adversarial one.

This week, for example, the studios expect you to be home sampling the new TV season; so they're clearing their shelves of movies for which they have low expectations. I'm frankly surprised to see Fame in that group, because it's had so much hype and seems like it would have a built-in audience. And Surrogates, a sci-fier with Bruce Willis, must be a real dog if it's not getting classier treatment. Pandorum doesn't sound like much, but if they'd shown it last week I'd have thought it could be a diamond in the rough.

None of these films was screened last week. Fame screens Wednesday night, Surrogates and Pandorum opposite each other on Thursday night. Like most of the major studio screenings (except during "Awards Season"), these are not primarily for critics. They're called "promo screenings" and they're for an audience of freeloaders in major cities who scored tickets from newspapers, radio stations and other outlets. To attend one of these screenings a critic must take a blood oath not to publish their opinion before opening day, even though the hundreds of amateur critics are free to Tweet their reviews on the way out of the theater.

The promo screenings have always been designed to stimulate positive word of mouth, on the premise that the average moviegoer will enjoy anything, especially if they get in free. Back in the day they were an adjunct to press screenings; usually the only movies they made us watch with an audience were comedies, because critics have no sense of humor and it's theoretically harder to keep a straight face when surrounded by mindless hyenas.

They still want our help when they make good movies but don't care that we have space to fill the rest of the time. If I left this page blank this week someone else would be filling it next week, but the studios don't care. Right now they're too busy pondering how much extra you're willing to pay for 3D glasses, having apparently gotten off the hook for helping theaters pay for the conversion to digital projectors; but perhaps they'll miss us when we're gone.

I hope you will too.

Jurasically yours,