Film Critics Give the Lowdown on Movie Reviews

Digital HollywoodFilm critics’ reviews remain both influential and controversial despite the magazine industry’s decline–but the review process has always been something of a mystery. Movie and celebrity publicists and others who wondered about the dynamics of film criticism got some clues during a panel at the Digital Hollywood conference in New York on Thursday.

Film critics from Entertainment Weekly, The New Yorker and Criticwire opened up about the impact of digital, their approach to film selection and the challenges they face. Here are our key takeaways:

In the current film review landscape, everyone’s a critic. Owen Gleiberman, film critic at Entertainment Weekly, expressed mixed feelings about the web’s impact. Overall, he said the internet has been a positive. “The practice of film criticism is energized by the outpouring of opinions on the web.” Still, he mentioned a big downside: “The web has led to a multiplicity of voices, but that breeds consensus thinking and it’s harder for any one voice to come through. There can be a pack mentality among critics.”

Digital shortens the review process. The increased prevalence of online movie reviews has added pressure to review films quickly. Critic Matt Singer of Criticwire said, “I attended a press screening last night but it’s tough to turn a review around overnight. It’s not like The New York Times restaurant review policy that requires four restaurant visits.” Gleiberman agreed, saying “There’s less time to mull movies over, and I want to nail my feelings about a film.”

Video on Demand/VOD expands movie distribution to wider audiences. “VOD is very important since it allows people from all over access to movies, including indie, foreign films and film festival movies,” emphasized Richard Brody, critic at The New Yorker.” VOD made niche films–previously released only in urban centers–easily accessible to viewers worldwide.

Critics take a democratic approach to film selection. The panelists insisted they’re just as open to reviewing commercial movies as independent films. In fact, Gleiberman explained that EW’s policy is to review everything, saying “Quality can come from anywhere.”

Brody summarized his dilemma: “You can’t tell ahead if a movie that’s being marketed as brilliant is really that great. Some commercial big budget films are also works of art, and there’s no monopoly on virtue among independent films.”

Critiques of the critics abound. For Gleiberman, the bottom line is the end result, more than the filmmaking effort. He said Harvey Weinstein once assailed him for a negative review by pointing out how hard the filmmakers had worked. Gleiberman’s reaction: “You can’t be thinking about that, since no one ever tried to make a bad film. As a critic, you should be humane, but you’re being nice by serving the truth.”

Critic-proof movies are a misnomer. Critic-proof films are those with such a loyal following that bad reviews don’t matter. Gleiberman’s view: “The culture now is tempted to treat some movies as critic-proof, but there’s no such thing as critic-proof movies.”