Hell hath no self-pity like a filmmaker with poor reviews.
See, for example: Alex Kurtzman, who responded to negative reception of “The Mummy” by saying, “We made a film for audiences, not critics.” Or David Ayer, the “Suicide Squad” maestro who expressed his disregard in a tweet: “Made it for the fans.” And while “Batman v Superman” director Zack Snyder reacted to pans with an even-keeled “it is what it is,” his cast went further. “None of us are making the movies for the critics,” Amy Adams said. “What is really going to matter, I believe, is what the audience says,” Henry Cavill retorted.
Artists spurning those who critique their work is an age-old battle. But with public reactions a mere Google search or Twitter scroll away, this erroneous divide between “fans” and “critics” has become magnified within American movie culture.
Making a movie ― or any type of commercial art ― can be thankless. You spend years with a project, breathing life into ideas that once existed only on pages and in Hollywood boardrooms. You find the right collaborators, spend laborious months shooting it and supervising its editing, and sometimes just as long enduring the grueling media cycle that accompanies its release. Then the reviews hit, adjudicating whether all that grind was worth it.
It’s a vulnerable thing, making something for mainstream consumption. To see your name next to a pitiful Rotten Tomatoes score must be heartbreaking. There go years of your life, forever emblazoned with a “nice try” sticker. But bitter directors treating critics ― that is, those paid to comment on culture for credible outlets ― like enemies occupying holier-than-thou ivory towers undercuts their own work.
The “this is for fans, not critics” reasoning is a fatuous reduction. Critics are fans. More precisely, we are disciples. We want nothing more than to see accomplished films, hear fantastic albums, read articulate books, binge interesting shows. Writing a bad review can be fun in practice, sure, but never do we say, “I take pleasure in this failure.” Especially when films boast hundreds of million of dollars’ worth of resources, we want you to succeed and create something worthwhile, just as much as you want the glory that comes with widespread praise.
Still, we get it: Harsh reviews sting harshly, and what’s “bad” to one person is heaven to another. More than anything, it is perfectly fine to disagree with the critical consensus ― many bona fide classics (and cult favorites) weren’t appreciated upon debut. What these directors and actors don’t realize is that they’re not actually uplifting the fans. Really, they’re insulting them. They’re saying fans are endlessly forgiving, that they’re not capable of discerning quality, that storytellers can do whatever they want as long as the result is full of spectacle and good intent.
These comments also risk implying that appreciation must be calculated in metrics. Discounting reviews as a marker of success leaves, first and foremost, box office receipts. But “people liked it ― look at how much money it made” would be a brainless conclusion. Hollywood’s current franchise market exists because devotees are expected to show up, no questions asked. That doesn’t guarantee they’ll appreciate what they see. Only skill and merit ― or, at least, an attempt at something inventive ― can invite admiration. And that makes Kurtzman’s sentiments about “The Mummy” especially foolish, given the movie’s piss-poor performance in North America. What do you do when critics are revolted and audiences are disinterested?
Part of this conversation stems from the commercialization of movie reviews, perpetuated by letter grades, star ratings and “two thumbs up” pull-quotes. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel breathed a lot of life into film criticism with their weekly TV show, which debuted in 1975 and ran for more than three decades. But turning criticism into digestible tidbits exchanges thoughtful commentary for Consumer Reports. The see-this-but-skip-that mentality now exists primarily on Rotten Tomatoes, where movies are scored according to “fresh” or “rotten” aggregates. While entertaining and effective, this practice loses the nuance that comes with a finely sculpted review, meant to unpack a piece in terms of broader artistic, technical and sociopolitical contexts.
Nowadays, Rotten Tomatoes is a marketing tool. “Get Out” and “Wonder Woman,” for example, ran ads touting their near-perfect scores. Filmmakers who can’t claim such a victory are left out of the party, and some place blame anywhere but themselves or the studios that intercepted their work.
Here’s an especially embarrassing example: Responding to disdain about last month’s “Baywatch” reboot, which has suffered mediocre box office returns, Dwayne Johnson implied that critics aren’t people.
This, in turn, implies that everyday moviegoers who disliked “Baywatch,” or who were’t interested in seeing “Baywatch” in the first place, aren’t people either. You’re only a person if you like the product Johnson created.
A further irony underlies the entire phenomenon. One can assume that Kurtzman or Ayer or Cavill or Johnson will frolic through whatever future adulation they receive from professional critics. Who wouldn’t? But if you lash out at the bad, you don’t get to revel in the good. No one is guaranteed a lifetime of triumph, just as one misfire needn’t define an artist’s entire résumé.
Of course, there’s a lot to be said about the state of arts criticism in general. (This column also assumes the aforementioned artists expected to make something of quality, which may not be the case. In Hollywood, sometimes you just need a paycheck.) It’s not the norm, but reviews can be unfair hit jobs, filtered through the lens of one individual. Most critics probably wish they could go back and tame or reframe some of their more biting world choices, like former Entertainment Weekly writer Owen Gleiberman, who later retracted some of the venom he unleashed upon “Pretty Woman” at the time of its release. And if public figures do a quick scroll through social media or comment boards, they’ll find more vitriol than any human should ever consume.
Putting one’s guards up, even being ready to defend oneself, is necessary in our contemporary internet climate, especially for passionate artists whose work could be misinterpreted or undervalued. But dismissing negative reception by saying “well, I didn’t make this for you anyway” is misguided. Critics are on your team ― we want you to succeed; in many cases, we’re your biggest fans. It’s why we sought to do this for a living. But we’re also hyper-conscious of the corporatization of Hollywood and the many hands that go into making a movie. Just look at the reports surrounding Tom Cruise’s interference on “The Mummy” or Warner Bros.′ hefty control on “Suicide Squad.” Critics consider all of those factors, and more.
Reviews implicate more than a director’s fragile ego. And if nothing else, filmmakers opted to work in a system that invites scrutiny and exegesis. Don’t court critics’ affection and then rebuff their appraisals. You insult your entire audience when you do.
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