A Talent Campus panel discussion with film critics Nick James, David Thompson, and Stephanie Zacharek
Just a week ago the New York Times reported that “after three decades, At the Movies, the ABC syndicated television program that introduced many viewers to film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, as well as to film criticism in all its thorny and contentious glory, will cease production this summer (2010).” Two weeks before, on March 8, Variety’s magazine and website fired its long-time chief critic Todd McCarthy, thinking he would be “much cheaper for them if he were freelance,” according to Sennhauser’s Filmblog.
Film critics James, Thompson and Zacharek discussed the uncertain future of their profession. Sixty critics have lost their jobs in the U.S. recently and many others have turned into whimpering wimps who, fearing to lose their jobs, are afraid to give a true opinion. Over the last ten years 76% of the critics approved of the top 100 films. Today 90% approve. There is a movement to make criticism “nice,” possibly since newspapers are dying and editors will do anything to appease readers and advertisers alike. Still, critics are the last defence between big studios and marketing and should not turn into studios’ PR managers.
The internet attracts wannabe critics called “fan boys.” These nerdy types watch films online all day and blog opinions. They have neither the background nor an editor with strict guidelines. On the other hand, young people who write daily will hopefully improve their skills. Criticism is as natural as breathing. The advantage to online reviewing, as done by Zachareck, is that there are instant responses. She can blast a film and there are rebuttals within seconds.
A “real” critic should have a real life beyond the computer screen in order to have different perspectives. It is helpful to draw from several disciplines in order to write criticism well. According to Alistair Macaulay in the New York Times, “I am a critic because I have criteria and I use them: different criteria on some occasions, but serious criteria to me.” Do critics have to have studied film making? It helps to have had some background in order to “judge well, to look for certain things, to see where the camera is going.” David Thompson studied film making before he became a critic.
Real critics don’t have to worry about 80% of the main stream films. Transformers 2 will get blogged by the fan boys and if one is stuck with writing up Transformers 2, “there are intelligent ways to write about crap.” These three critics said they have the duty to seek out quality films – to “follow their noses.”
They also said:
One of the great myths of today is that films are terrible. This is not so.
American TV is better than it’s ever been.
Martin Scorsese started to go down hill a long time ago. (Thompson)
Intelligent people don’t read reviews before they go to the movie; they read them afterwards.
In press conferences one should ask questions of the directors, not the actors; actors are not articulate.
Everybody hates their own film culture with one exception: the Americans.
Cinema shapes our view of the world to kids who know nothing.
Nick James was Chief Editor of the British Film Institute’s renowned magazine Sight & Sound. He worked as a film journalist at the London listings magazine City Limits and is the author of Heat, a book on Michael Mann’s film. In 2003 he was the presenter of the BBC4 documentary “British Cinema: The End of the Affair.”
David Thompson is a U.S.-based British film critic and historian, the author of more than 20 books including the updated version of his The New Bibliographical Dictionary of Film. This is like having www.imdb.com in print. He contributes to newspapers such as The New York Times, Film Comment and Salon. He has scripted the award-winning documentary The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind. (See also page...)
Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer and film critic for www.Salon.com. Her articles on books and pop cultures have also appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Entertainment, Weekly, Rolling Stone, New York Magazine and Sight & Sound. She is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the national Society of Film Critics. She was one of eight major film critics who mentored young people during the Talent Campus as they covered the Berlinale for three websites: www.talentpress.org, the Goethe Institute and FIPRESCI.