How Has the Role of Film Critic Changed Over the Years?

How has the role of a film critic changed in the last twenty years? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Thelma Adams, author of The Last Woman Standingfilm critic, on Quora:

The role of professional film critics over the past 20 years has been vastly altered. The arrival of the internet, the waning of traditional print media, the continued rise of the critic-proof blockbuster and the aggregating of reviews by sites like Rotten Tomatoes have all changed the field. Additionally, corporate consolidation of media has had a major negative impact on criticism - for example, Rupert Murdoch (now retired) owns the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal as well Fox News, 20th Century Fox and Fox Television. The original idea of synergy has increased the pressure on critics - not just at Murdoch's publications - to become part of the publicity arm as opposed to standing objectively on the side. The rise of celebrity culture has also had an impact - if you want to get that big cover conversation with Ben Affleck can you slam his Batman V Superman elsewhere in your publication? The demand for click bait, which results in critics writing about trailers, and the fact that a cute cat will get more traffic than a curmudgeonly critic, has made a difference: fuzzy feline or baldy critic, you choose. The line between criticism as a form of entertainment journalism and film publicity and marketing has narrowed.

So, in sum, there has been a diminishing power. The once-mighty Vincent Canby at the New York Times has given way to less influential critics who frequently don't act as the critical barometer of a Canby or a Pauline Kael or an Andrew Sarris once did. When I began, there were critics I looked to when I was wondering whether to see a movie (Sarris was one) and then those that were negative barometers. If they loved a movie, I stayed away.

Simultaneously, there has been a rise in access for younger critics taking advantage of the expansion of the internet. For readers, this has led to some confusion: who to trust? Who to follow? Hence the rise of Rotten Tomatoes, which samples a relatively wide variety of critics in one place, and pasteurizes their opinions into the thumbs up or thumbs down, fresh or rotten simplicity. Another problem in this new economy, in contrast to the old model, is how to monetize the work of the internet critics. One reason that there has been a rise in coverage of the Oscars and the Awards season is that there is a clear ad revenue stream attached.

In short: everybody is a critic, but not everybody gets paid a living wage to offer their opinions on contemporary films. Many people want to write; few are articulate, compelling and film literate.

There is also another surprising issue that has not improved as much as I anticipated when I entered the field twenty years ago when I joined the New York Post (following the critic Jami Bernard who has since left the field.). After an initial rejection, I gained a spot in the male-dominated New York Film Critics Circle. I believed that by now, with my help, and that of my sisters, there would be many more powerful women in film criticism, continuing to encourage strong female-driven movies and supporting female directors, cinematographers, screenwriters and the like. Instead, as the researcher Martha Lauzen has shown, equity between male and female critics has lagged dramatically. In her latest report Center for the Study of Women in Television in Film [1], basically men outnumber women among critics three to one. And that ratio isn't changing anytime soon. Many senior female film critics have been downsized or disappeared from major publications.

In part because of this dynamic, and my desire to see more female-driven fiction, I continued to write stories even as I reviewed films and expanded my journalism to interviewing, op-eds, and reporting, in print and online. I write the stories I want to see. In the new economy, flexibility is an advantage in the new economy. The marble print pedestal is gone along with the once revered critic who was relatively free to voice opinions from on high.

Footnotes

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