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The Changing Face of Movie Criticism – The Nick Blog
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The Changing Face of Movie Criticism

(Editor’s Note: This long form feature was submitted as my Masters’ capstone while attending the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in December 2009.)

UPDATE: On December 6th 2012, I was contacted by Edward Champion of Reluctant Habits with a small clarification about the picture he used and I referenced of former CHUD editor Devin Faraci. He used it as a spoof, and it was created as a result of a Harry Potter 7 viral poster campaign sweeping the internet at the time. Here’s what he had to say:

Nicholas:

Thanks for including my piece on Devin Faraci in your lengthy essay on movie criticism. However, there is one minor error. The picture of Faraci (“UNDESIRABLE NO 1”) was intended as irony. People have continued to believe that I created the graphic out of malice. Not the case at all. It all came from Faraci’s site, as all my examples did.

Thanks and all best,
Ed

In order to trim the fat off their budgets during this emerging digital age of journalism, many newspapers across the country have replaced their movie critics with inexpensive syndication alternatives.

The list of exiled critics reads like an all-star roster of reviewers – – Nathan Lee of the Village Voice, David Ansen of Newsweek, Jack Matthews and Jami Bernard of New York Daily News, Gene Seymour and Jan Stuart from New York Newsday and Michael Wilmington from the Chicago Tribune have all faced the chopping block within the last year and a half.

As this trend reaches critical mass, many movie writers confront a monumental career decision. “Movie critics who lose their job end up in either two places,” said Leah Rozen, a film critic at People Magazine. “They either say goodbye to it, or they end up starting their own website.”

(EN: Ironically enough, since this article’s original publication, Leah Rozen left People Magazine and started her own review/Hollywood buzz column on the news website “The Wrap”.)

To maintain their careers, many former print reviewers have swarmed onto the web, slowly morphing traditional movie reviewing into a combination of print criticism, embedded interactive content like slideshows and YouTube videos and near instant feedback from readers hailing from all over the world.

Harry Knowles, founder of Ain't it Cool News. Photo: Harry Cabluck/AP

Harry Knowles, founder of Ain't it Cool News. Photo: Harry Cabluck/AP

But, they weren’t the first to explore this new digital publishing frontier. Their new-found online neighbors are homegrown fan review sites like Ain’t It Cool News, Dark Horizons and CHUD, where do-it-yourself movie critics flourish and thrive – – and fans numbering in the millions hang on their every word, according to web traffic tracker Quancast.

This new freedom has turned movie criticism on its head: online reviewers publish anything and everything on their web pages, incorporate fans into their pool of critical resources and throw away the formalities of classic journalism in favor of a more colloquial style of writing.

Those still surviving in the print world, as well as their exiled former brethren, see this trend as the weakening of the craft – and the Internet as a new battleground for the advancing ronin of banished print critics and the heavily entrenched editorial overlords of online homegrown fan-sites.

“It used to be that if you were the critic for the newspaper, you were the voice of your town,” Rozen said. “And certain critics who worked for national magazines and national newspapers were an authoritative voice for the whole country. But what the web has done is democratized things. Anyone can write a movie review now. And does.”

Many print critics agree that editors of these upstart fan sites lack the proper qualifications to review films. What makes Ain’t It Cool News’ founder Harry Knowles, a comic book collector and horror movie buff, a more reliable reviewer than the renowned Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times? Why should the public listen to the critical opinion of CHUD’s lead critic Devin Faraci over Entertainment Weekly’s film review veteran Owen Gleiberman?

(EN: Since the original publication of this article, Devin Faraci left CHUD and created his own review website called Badass Digest. Nevertheless, he still seems to make “friends” with every post he publishes.)

“It’s not just about understanding ‘The Bicycle Thief’ or Akira Kurosowa or the grind techniques of film,” said Patrik Henry Bass, a senior editor and critic at Essence Magazine. “A critic has to understand sociology, economics. A critic has to understand philosophy, psychology. You have to have a broad depth or breadth of knowledge.”

Blogger Henry Stewart, a reviewer for The L Magazine, said that he understands the fan appeal of grassroots critics – – and sees the reasons why print critics are so up in arms. “There’s a skepticism and distrust of intellectualism,” Stewart said. “The reason critics were the first to go at struggling print institutions is that management sees them as expendable because the population sees them as expendable.”

He added, “We want our movie critics to be the guy at the water cooler.”

***

Public Enemy No. 1 Faraci, according to Edward Champion of Reluctant Habits.  Credit: Reluctant Habits.

Public Enemy No. 1 Faraci, according to Edward Champion of Reluctant Habits. Credit: Reluctant Habits.

For the most part, fans seemingly flock to the upstart grassroots websites because they crave critics who talk to them about films, not at them. They populate fan sites ran by devoted Trekkers, Japanese anime buffs and video game aficionados, to mightily fill the void left by the often off-putting and haughty style of print criticism. Also, online content is not restricted to a select, regionally based critical authority that the movie going laity looks to for guidance – – the Internet affords the public a near infinite catalog of critical choices.

And the variety of voices is astounding. Star Wars enthusiasts share server space with French film cinephiles and horror movie junkies – – each with a unique, engaging and often differing opinion on the same film.

Further, fan reviewers’ enthusiasm draws in the public. Some jaded print critics, entrenched in the same position for decades, attend major screenings unenthusiastically only to blast the public with lackluster post-mortem reviews. Most online critics, however, review films with a rabid passion – – likely due to their fan-based background. This critical zeal bleeds over into their final product, whether it’s positive or negative in tone.

The viral nature of fan sites also contributes to their success. Most online reviewers begin as fans of a film genre or franchise with strong viewpoints but nowhere to express them. They start up a webpage or blog that gets picked up by search engines like Google and aggregators like Digg if the content is unique and attractive. Followers that started on the ground floor then introduce friends, co-workers and family members to this fresh take on movies and the author’s audience grows.

While this newly formed community expands, so does the possibility of generating a revenue stream through advertising and merchandise. And once fan sites become a viable commodity, movie studios grant them more access to film stars, producers and directors, which adds even more credibility to once upstart and unknown movie reviewers.

Take Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News for instance. He created his website in 1996 as a small newsgroup for Internet rumors and gossip, using information gained from inside industry sources as the basis for his daily updates. Today, AICN is a pop-culture haven, a near mainstream website filled with news and reviews for film, television shows, comic books and video games.

Willis (r.) and Stallone also headlined The Expendables panel at San Diego Comic Con in 2010.  Credit: Wikipedia

Willis (r.) and Stallone also headlined The Expendables panel at San Diego Comic Con in 2010. Credit: Wikipedia

Because of the site’s popularity within target demographics, film stars like Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis flocked to Knowles when they needed an opening day boost at the box office. Stallone’s participation went beyond normal public relations campaigns before the release of “Rocky Balboa” – he and Knowles created the “AICNers Ask” series, a Q&A session with Ain’t It Cool News fans who ask questions about a star’s career, personal life and cinematic influences.

After answering 20 rounds of questions, he also debuted his latest script treatment for the Rambo franchise (which pitted the Vietnam Vet against a genetically altered super-soldier gone wild in the Pacific Northwest) on the website and shared exclusive behind the scenes video and pictures from his forthcoming film “The Expendables.”

And not to be outdone, Willis took the pseudonym “Walter B” and interacted with the site’s “talkbackers” (the name given to fans who instantly react via comment boxes embedded below published news articles) on a regular basis before participating in the following year’s Q&A edition leading up to the release of 2007’s “Live Free or Die Hard.”

But, what really makes Ain’t It Cool News intriguing and entertaining is the “Headgeek” himself (it’s the nickname Harry uses on the site.) Knowles uses a truly unorthodox, layman’s style of writing to review a film: he employs a mix of pop-cultural references, informal vernacular and often self-effacing personal experiences in order to describe his movie-going experience.

In his review of the fall disaster flick “2012”, Knowles employed all three techniques as he illustrated the over-the-top special effects incorporated in the movie. “Now, I know a lot about buffets,” said Knowles, who is battling a weight condition. “Haven’t been to one since the lapband, just doesn’t quite work for me anymore.”

Who wrote the better review for John Cusack’s disaster film 2012? Corliss or Knowles?

“But have you ever walked into a buffet place that simply had TOO MANY OPTIONS? Where they not only had potatoes, but 40 different types? Now, imagine spending nearly 3 hours looking at and trying to identify all of the ingredients while constantly cutting away to a mind-blowing scene of destruction at a scale far beyond anything we’ve ever seen on film.”

The “Headgeek’s” stream of consciousness style can also be as blunt as an ax-handle. “Character development is nearly non-existent,” Knowles said of “2012.” “And I know – it’s crazy to say CUT THE AMAZING F**KING EFFECTS – but dammit – I just can’t help but think if this film was told exclusively from the point of view of John Cusack and his struggle to save his estranged family, not knowing about the various steps that had been taken by a secret government.”

Knowles has an innate ability to capture a moment in time through his powerful turns of phrase. His concise conclusion of his “2012” review reads like the perfect pull quote. “It just never felt sincere, compelling or absorbing,” he said. “I marvel at the spectacle, but regret the rest.”

In comparison, Richard Corliss of Time Magazine, who actually links to Knowles’ pre-release coverage of the popcorn film, both praised and torched “2012” in a more formal and staunch voice. “Any sentient viewer will be able to predict every lumpy twist of this ludicrous, fitfully enjoyable movie,” Corliss wrote. “Chugging laboriously on several parallel tracks . . . 2012 is a dead-serious hoot.”

Jason Perryman, a 10-year Ain’t It Cool News supporter, said that it’s Knowles’ creative freedom, mixed with his down to earth approach to movie reviewing, which makes the site invaluable and entertaining. “There’s no set restriction or edits to control the amount of content or conformity to stick to, like writing for a paper or a more formal periodical online,” he said. “This site lets these guys out of the pen to run free with their enthusiasms and expressions.”

The English-born actor and filmmaker added, “I think that’s what I like best about Ain’t It Cool News. They still write extraordinarily, but with one thing that many other writers don’t do as well or show an existence of having inside them – an expression of love for all things cinematic.”

“What many people fail to realize is that criticism is first and foremost writing,” Stewart said. “The best way for people to find ‘reliable’ reviews is to read a large variety of critics and find writers whose sensibilities they share, or at least with which they can potentially sympathize, as well as writers who are thoughtful.”

While it doesn’t generate traffic comparable to Ain’t It Cool – – Quantcast shows The L Magazine’ dot-com draws in over 200,000 visitors per year on average – – it services a strong and loyal audience with an intellectual and humorous slant on the arts.

“The Internet allows people to read a wider variety of critics,” he said. “And find ones who speak to them.”

***

The digital sandstorm engulfing the world of film criticism rages on as more and more critical upstarts create digital platforms for their critical viewpoints and more laid off print critics re-emerge on the web with the hopes of resurrecting their once lifeless careers.

In the middle of the fracas, magazines and newspapers acclimate to the changing digital climate by publishing web-based content similar to their print-based syndication equivalents, with the hopes of mounting a sustainable and competitive defense.

Marshal Fine, a former USA Today film critic turned online film reviewer, believes that when push comes to shove, people would stick with traditional resources for movie criticism. “I don’t believe that just because you post your opinion online, you’re a critic,” he said. “You’re just someone with an opinion and the wherewithal to post it.”

The “Hollywood and Fine” editor added, “It’s not enough to say something’s good or something’s bad. You have to explain why that is. Ultimately, I think the critic needs to be, sort of, watching and writing with the same passion and concentration that the people who created the movie had.”

Stewart disagrees and said the trend contributes to the overall globalization of the craft. “I think when discussing the topic we have to think about it in two different ways: the mainstream and the niche,” he said. “Film culture can easily become insular. By opening up access to the world of film criticism, the Web allows readers to be exposed to thinking from outside the hermeticism of their geographical boxes.”

It’s true: there’s a vast digital reviewer marketplace available to the public, where people of all walks of life can shop around for the brands that suit their palate. But, if the numbers are any indication, homegrown critics are triumphing while their traditional forefathers, who once dominated the discipline, are now just another choice in this smorgasbord of possibilities.

***

For Your Consideration: The Who’s Who of Online Movie Review Sites

Here are five popular review sites that are leaving their mark on the world of movie criticism – – for better or worse:

Ain’t It Cool News
Editor/Founder: Harry Knowles
Founded: 1996

The Skinny: Ain’t It Cool News publishes rumors and news about new and forthcoming films and television projects. Catering to enthusiasts of Star Trek, comic books and monster movies etc., it mixes editorial content, message boards and giveaways into a digital crock-pot, allows the ingredients to simmer and serves its patrons daily.

What’s Hot: The forums, nicknamed “The Phantom Zone,” house some of the brightest viewpoints on film from some of the site’s staunchest followers. And it’s a community of its own, an inviting place where “Zoners” play online games like Werewolf and Mafia, chat about the breaking movie news that’s dominating the web and even engage in script and fiction writing exercises.

What’s Not: Much of its content, including reviews, comes from unidentified inside sources that often use pseudonyms, forcing readers to take the information with a grain of salt. Sometimes, their movie news and reviews are too niche for a mainstream audience – – a factor that Knowles needs to address if he want to take the site to the next level.

Overall rating: B+

Rotten Tomatoes
Founder: Senh Duong
Started: 1998

The Skinny: Named after the old time practice of throwing rotten vegetables at horrible stage performers, Rotten Tomatoes.com aggregates movies and video game reviews from critics worldwide.

The site tabulates positive and negative reviews to determine a movie’s “freshness” level, which is displayed on the movie’s “Tomato-meter” for the world to see.

What’s Hot: Rotten Tomatoes compiles reviews from e-critics and fans alike. They also publish movie news, trailers and celebrity interviews, adding to their already in depth industry coverage.

What’s Not: The use of the “Tomato-meter” as their end-all tabulator of analysis discourages visitors from reading the featured reviewers’ often colorful and enlightening takes on film.

Overall rating: B

Metacritic
Editor/Founder: Marc Doyle
Founded: 1999

The Skinny: Metacritic.com follows a similar rating structure to Rotten Tomatoes: each movie, game, book and album featured on the site gets assigned a metascore. A metascore is determined after all of the individual critics of the movie, game, book or album that’s featured on the site weigh in. Scores are tabulated based on a scale from 0 to 100 – – the higher the better.

Metascores are also tagged according to a stop light color scheme, so visitors can get a quick take on how reviewers felt about the subject film: green, yellow or red.

What’s Hot: Metacritic’s webpage layout is very simplistic: their template resembles a horrid looking, barebones WordPress blog model. But, the uncomplicated structure doesn’t detract from its content – – in fact, the aesthetically un-invasive design actually accentuates Metacritic’s articles.

Also, the site’s aggregation model, though similar to Rotten Tomatoes, allows for visitors to see more verbiage from the foraged critical reviews. This makes for an environment that encourages information seekers to read the reviews featured, not just take Metacritic’s word for it.

What’s Not: Metacritic limits its pool of reviewer resources to only major publications, like the New York Times and Rolling Stone, and ignores self-published online reviewers and grassroots websites. This segregation prevents visitors from reading stellar insights and opinions on film that they would not necessarily encounter otherwise. Huge turn-off.

Overall Score: C+

CHUD
Founder: Nick Nunziata
Founded: 1997

The Skinny: Named after the 1984 American horror film “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller,” CHUD delivers fan-friendly industry news, movie, DVD and video game reviews and op-ed industry articles on a daily basis. Also, fans chime in on the site’s forums, nicknamed “The Sewer.”

What’s Hot: CHUD’s managing editor, Devin Faraci, wears many hats for the site – – he often generates a multitude of content in a variety of arenas, like his pop-culture op-ed column “The Devin’s Advocate” and his witty takes on the week’s theatrical releases. His thought-provoking contributions make for interesting reads – – and are essentially the backbone of the site.

What’s Not: Devin Faraci. Since Nunziata assigned Faraci to oversee CHUD’s editorial duties, the site mirrors his personality: brash, irreverent and often confrontational. His torrid, forums-based flame war with Hollywood producer Don Murphy is well-documented (and well-remembered by those who fought under both men’s digital banner.)

Also, his abrasive attitude permeates in the site’s message boards, where newcomers to the arena are bashed and ridiculed for their “noobness” instead of given a chance to integrate into the community.

Overall Score: C+

(Update: Since Faraci’s exit, CHUD has leveled off into a very strong movie news website, with a broad and extensive range of articles, reviewers and content. Way to right the ship, Mr. Nunziata. Revised Overall Grade: A-)

Heath Ledger as The Joker on Empire’s January 2008 cover.

Empire Magazine
Managing Editor (Online): James Dyer
Founded (magazine): 1989

The Skinny: Empire feels like the British version of Entertainment Weekly, though the magazine was launched a year earlier than EW in 1989. It covers everything EW does but with an English twist of humor and wit.

In 2008, Empire was incorporated in the online viral campaign for Warner Brothers’ superhero epic “The Dark Knight.” The magazine hosted an in-game scavenger puzzle whose prize was the first on-set picture of Heath Ledger as the Joker, which was also published in their January 2008 print issue.

What’s Hot: The Empire Daily Movie Quiz challenges readers’ trivia prowess through various games, like “The Birthday Game,” where visitors receive clues in order to guess the celebrity birthday, “Select Scenes” where players have to guess a film by its DVD chapter titles and “Role Call,” where victory comes from guessing a film by the named characters.

What’s Not: Empire’s forums resemble that of Ain’t It Cool News’ “Phantom Zone” but lacks the same pop – – it’s missing that strong “community” feel, even though the boards also retain a high level of intelligent contributors and variety of conversation topics.

Overall rating: B+

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