In order to further our critical exploration of the current state of film criticism, the dynamic between critics and audiences and various other aspects associated with film-criticism, we present the our first discussion session. Is the critic merely a marketing tool? Why is there a divide between film-loving audiences and the critics? Has the critic a problem with integrity? These are some of the questions our discussion touches upon.
While this discussion can be read without having read the statements, we do recommend new readers to read these statements first as they form the basis for this discussion.
Discussion (Part 1)
Pieter-Jan Van Haecke: While it is clear from both our statements that we think that the film-critic needs to reassess his place within the film industry, it seems we have different perspectives on how he should change. This difference is partially caused by the fact we approached the current situation film-critics find themselves differently. One thing you wrote about this situation, an aspect I didn’t mention, is the fact that many film-critics are turning into mere marketing tools. Can you expand your views on this problem?
Niels Matthijs (Onderhond): Well, you already touched upon the same point I’m going to make. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that it’s just harder to be a profitable critic these days. As I see it, the internet has played a large part in that. On the one hand it’s much easier to keep up to date on the newest releases, so many people don’t need others to do that for them anymore. On the other hand there is so much more competition these days, because everyone is allowed and able voice their opinion online. If you can’t find what you’re looking for in a newspaper or on TV, you can just browse fan blogs or review aggregation sites until you find someone whose writing you like.
That’s nice for people like us, who don’t rely on our readership to pay our bills, but for professional film critics that means it has become a lot harder to keep up the air of authority, let alone keep readers engaged and informed, which is ultimately what they’re being paid for. And I think these are things that contribute heavily to the way many film reviews are written nowadays. It’s less an expression of opinion or exploration of a film, instead critics focus more on pandering to their readership. Don’t go against popular opinions too much, recommend what the readership is sure to like, pick films that are easily accessible and remain on the good side of the biggest distributors. The pressure to draw in as much readers as possible is of course ideal for the studios, to the point where many reviews are little more than free advertising for their biggest films.
It’s not a binary situation of course, I’m sure some of these things were also relevant in the past, but because the competition was less stiff and readers had way less options, it didn’t factor in as much.
Pieter-Jan Van Haecke: Even though you focus on pandering to their readership, I would also add pandering to directors and distributors as well. Of course, we do not need to explain that such pandering’s main aim is to generate revenue.
Nevertheless, we should not forget that the opposite is also present in the field of cinema-criticism. The situation where the consensus of the critics is opposite to the consensus of the general audience – see for example the reception of Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi (2017). The true problem is, in my opinion, not so much the pandering or the divide between audiences and critics as such, but the fact that audiences are not able accept this divide.
What I try to underline is the fact that, from the perspective of the audiences, movie critics are losing their integrity. Within this globalized world, the movie critic has a fundamental problem with his integrity. Readers feel it. Many comments on reviews reveal nothing other. Readers feel that movie-critics have no strong philosophy anymore or that they are willing, whenever it is needed (for revenue or to becoming profitable)to betray their principles. For example, I once heard about the possibility of an exclusive partnership between a certain Asian-cinema website and a Japanese publisher. If such a partnership would have been realized – luckily it didn’t, each reviewer or critic would’ve been forced, regardless of their own opinion/philosophy, to review said publisher’s movies positively. How can one take a critic seriously if money can sway his opinion?
This loss of integrity of course results that film critics have lost their credibility. The word of the critic has lost its worth, his voice has lost its authority. The critic has, due to limits imposed on him by publishers, failed to retain his relevance.
Niels Matthijs (Onderhond): When you put it like that, I guess it was somewhat inevitable that this would happen. It’s definitely not just film critics being faced with the extra pressure of a globalizing world, where there’s a surplus of information and people are given so more choice about how, what, where and when to consume information. Suddenly you are competing with the entire world, which must be pretty stressful when your livelihood depends on it. In the long run making concessions may undermine your own business, but in short-term it brings food on the table.
I’m generally speaking an optimistic guy though, so I guess things will find a way to normalize. Studios have been exploiting this weakness for a while and audiences have been taking it willfully, but there will come a point where the pendulum swings back and new voices of authority will stand up and fill the current void. I’m not quite sure how and when this will happen, but I’m hopeful that somehow we’ll find a way to give a platform to a broader range of voices.
Pieter-Jan Van Haecke: I also want to be an optimistic guy. In my opinion, our analysis on why this void has come into being is a first step – even though it is a very small step – in the right direction. If nobody becomes conscious of the dynamics of the fundamental misunderstanding between critics and audience then nothing will change. The critics will keep on writing with an authority they do not receive and the audience, sensing no real difference between the critic and themselves, will keep on tearing the critic apart.
I hope our this discussion and our future discussions can be a seed that will lead to a revolution of movie-criticism in the future. Only a true love for cinema will change the course of movie-criticism.