Gregg Goldstein’s Hollywood Reporter article about the decrease in the number of reviews of indie films and documentaries in major print publications has set off an interesting debate about the relative status of print and online reviews of films. Goldstein notes that when Alex Gibney’s Oscar-winning documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, opened in New York on January 18, it didn’t even merit single-paragraph reviews in either the New York Post or the Daily News, and while it would be unfair to attribute Taxi’s disappointing box office to this lack of critical attention, Anthony Kaufman looks at the film’s numbers and worries that non-fiction film may be doing some “serious backtracking” when it comes to theatrical attendance (that being said, one of Anthony’s commenters does question the idea that Oscars provide a box office “bump” for documentaries). What does seem clear, however, is that while there are a number of high-quality indie films and documentaries, the competition for theatrical space has become even more intense. At the same time, newspapers and other major print publications are frequently cutting staff, leading newspapers to rely on stringers or wire service reviews of indie films and documentaries, which raises some interesting questions about the role of unaffiliated critics writing in blogs and in other non-print sources in promoting independent and documentary films.
I want to be clear in saying that I don’t think the box office of a single film or genre can be attributed to one factor, much less one that is as hard to measure as the impact of a film critic or group of critics, so I’ll leave that question to others. In fact, it’s possible, sadly, that Gibney’s film was the victim of Iraq War fatigue or that other indie films were crowded out of screen space by pseudo-indies such as Juno. But I think this debate has raised some interesting questions about the role of film commentary in culture at large and about the “authority” of print and non-print publications. Both Kim Voynar and A.J. Schnack have used Goldstein’s article to ask whether their readers place more weight on print or online reviews, implicitly if not explicitly asking whether print critics “matter” when it comes to the ways in which audiences discover independent films and documentaries. Voynar, in particular, concludes that the acceptance of online critics is, to some extent, generational, with younger moviegoers more likely to accept the views of online reviews. I’d add that there is probably a slight distinction between the more professional online criticism associated with sources such as Cinematical, Salon.com, and Pop Matters and “amateur” criticism done on blogs (and I mean “amateur” in the best possible sense of someone who writes about a topic out of sheer love). Even though Cinematical and Pop Matters may be online, their reviews essentially function like magazine reviews. That being said, blogs duplicate–and even amplify–the “word-of-mouth” marketing that has taken place for decades. Living outside of a city center, I now benefit enormously from bloggers who have a chance to see films weeks or months before I do (even if I have to wait for the film to appear on DVD). There will be gradual, if grudging, acceptance of online criticism, especially as more and more print-based critics migrate to online venues, such as the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.
That being said, I think our public discourse is weakened when newspapers are cutting back on critics or on staff in general. Sean P. Means, a film writer for the Salt Lake City Tribune, has an interesting article on what the cuts in newspaper staffs mean to the place of film critics in local newspapers, noting recent staff cuts at Newsday and The San Jose Mercury News, as well as past cuts in major papers across the country where film critics have been cut from the staff. In fact, I recall a similar conversation about these issues taking place less than a year ago, and as I mentioned at the time, I do think something is lost when print publications increasingly turn to wire service reviews that may lack the distinct voice of a writer based in the local community. And while there is a tremendous diversity of critics on the web, the cuts in print-based film journalists may have the effect of diminishing that diversity, at least in widely-circulated print publications, as Nell Minow asserts in her AWFJ column. At the same time, as A.J. and others have noted, it is quite often independent and documentary films that are left out when it comes to getting reviews in print publications, exacerbating the problems of films such as Taxi to the Dark Side.
Of course, at least one print critic, Lou Lumenick, has asserted that few readers have complained about the lack of reviews of indies and docs, arguing that “we haven’t had a single complaint from readers, only from distributors and publicists.” That may be true. As A.J. suggests, however, that’s no excuse for failing to review an Oscar-winning documentary, much less one that offers such a powerful indictment of the Bush administration and of the use of torture in interrogating prisoners in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and in Afghanistan. Perhaps one of the things that needs to happen, then, is that readers should “complain,” or should at least let these newspapers know that the voices of their movie critics matter and that moviegoers need local reviewers to make us aware of the independent films that don’t have massive marketing budgets behind them. In fact, many of these blockbusters come “pre-reviewed,” even before critics get a chance to see them, because of all of the publicity they receive through advertising, theatrical trailers, and publicity interviews, making it more crucial for indie films to benefit from the attention of a thoughtful review. Obviously print publications carry a lot of weight when it comes to promoting independent films, and if enough readers complain, then perhaps the editorial decision to devote more space to these films will follow.