Wired News: Invasion of
the Web Film Critics
February 28, 2004
the Web Film Critics
Originally posted on www.wired.com
by Jason Silverman
James Berardinelli estimates that a hundred or so filmgoers read his first online review -- of the 1993 film Scent of a Woman -- when he posted it at a newsgroup. This week, Berardinelli guesses that about 100,000 readers will click on his The Passion of the Christ review.
The readership at Berardinelli's site ReelViews now rivals that of a small weekly newspaper. So Berardinelli has arrived as a film critic, right?
Not in the eyes of movie publicists, he said. He and other online film critics continue to struggle for respect.
Though their readership is growing, online film critics remain at the bottom of the movie-publicity food chain -- far below daily newspaper critics, magazine writers and broadcast reporters. They are the last to be invited for preview screenings, are seldom quoted in movie ads and remain largely off the radar for Hollywood studios.
"Online critics have nowhere near the kind of respect that is given to other journalists," said David Edelstein of Slate, who also is the film critic for National Public Radio's Fresh Air and a frequent contributor to The New York Times. "Variety doesn't take them seriously, skipping them when it samples critics. The New York Film Critics Circle doesn't allow onliners in. I write for a publication with between 5 (million) and 6 million readers, but most studio publicists make no distinctions between it and any other website."
Edelstein said he hasn't seen much improvement in the treatment of online critics in the six years he's been writing for Slate. But Gordon Paddison, the executive vice president of integrated marketing at New Line Cinema, believes online critics are more valued by the studios than they were even two years ago.
During the Internet explosion, he said, the online activity was happening so fast and furiously that the studios couldn't keep up. Recently, however, publicists and marketing executives -- some who may have been a bit slow to pick up on the potential of the Web -- have begun to sort out who is who online.
"There's simply not as much clutter, not as much noise," Paddison said. "The real journalists and critics are the ones who have been left standing -- they are the ones with the talent, the passion and the voice."
Paddison also said his research indicates the Internet is the preferred way for filmgoers 18 to 35 years old to research films.
"I think, absolutely, online journalists will receive more awareness, power and credibility as time goes on," Paddison said.
Berardinelli, too, believes that online critics will begin to receive more respect. With newspapers in eclipse, he said, more readers are heading online for film-related information.
"I think in 10 years the majority of critics will be online," he said. "If anyone asks me how to become a film critic, my advice is to write online, not to go after a newspaper job."
Certainly, writing online has its advantages. Online critics can file their stories later, develop a dialogue with readers and correct the embarrassing errors that are inevitable for writers on deadline.
For most, however, writing reviews primarily for online publication remains a hobby or second job. Even as eyeballs are heading online, money remains tied up in print publications. Berardinelli's paychecks come from his job as an engineer. Harvey Karten, another active reviewer, is a retired public-school teacher.
Only a handful of critics -- including Stephanie Zacharek and Charles Taylor of Salon, and Edelstein -- earn their living writing for online publications, even though an online presence is increasingly a necessity for the professional film critic.
"If you are not on the Web, you don't exist for a significant number of people," said David Poland of Movie City News, a film industry news site. An example, he said, was the Los Angeles Times critic Manhola Dargis, who had begun to build a large international fan base until the newspaper switched to a subscription-based website.
Certainly, readers seem responsive to the new world of online film criticism. Most look far beyond what their local newspaper critic has to say. The de rigueur sites for film buffs include Metacritic.com and Rotten Tomatoes, both of which offer numeric ratings and one-sentence excerpts from dozens of reviews.
Critics, too, are embracing the Internet's possibilities. Slate's Movie Club, a year-end conversation between five prominent critics, is far more lively and contentious than printed roundtables, and more thoughtful than TV panel discussions.
What's more, the online critics have begun to organize themselves. The Online Film Critics Society, which includes 115 writers, announced its year-end awards on Jan. 5. (Lord of the Rings was the big winner with nine awards; Andy Serkis, as the animated Gollum, received an acting nomination.)
The OFCS, Berardinelli said, "separates the wheat from the chaff. There are thousands of people writing out there, and many of their reviews are pretty puerile."
But an online critics group can only do so much, according to Karten, who founded the OFCS in 1997 and the New York Film Critics Online last year.
"We are still in the dumps," he said of online critics. "The publicists are living in the pre-Internet times -- they aren't sure what to make of the onliners. I know we have more influence at the box office than any studio gives us credit for."