Perhaps there is irony in selecting the print medium to explore the criticism of film criticism and the rise of cyber film critics, armchair bloggers and tweeters that might be leading to its alleged demise. And while this debate is hardly news, the emotion and passion was never more heated than after the sold-out Cannes screening of Life Itself, the Roger Ebert documentary that I attended in May.
Full disclosure: I've had my share of negative reviews from film critics; and yes, I often warm myself with words once imparted to me by the actress Tyne Daley on a flight from Los Angeles: "Barry, a film critic is someone who never actually goes to the battle, yet who afterwards comes out shooting the wounded." Or my personal favourite from comedian David Steinberg: "Critics are like piano players at a gang bang."
But I would be lying as a filmmaker if I denied the power, art and emotion of film criticism and the anticipation of opening the paper next day to see if I need a picture frame for a review or fish to wrap it in.
In Cannes, after the screening, several of us met to toast Roger and discuss whether there remains an audience for informed film criticism, and if reviews still have the power to influence the box office or an artist's career as they did in the halcyon days of the best practitioners, such as Pauline Kael (The New Yorker), Andrew Sarris (Village Voice), André Bazin (Cahiers du Cinéma) and Stanley Kauffmann (The New Republic). It was Kael who wrote: "The critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising."
In the Ebert documentary, Time Magazine's film critic Richard Corliss is forced to apologize to Ebert for his attack in a 1990 essay in Film Comment. Possibly driven by self-importance, Corliss labelled Ebert as a "television evangelist" and "junk food" peddler arguing that the "well-turned phrase has been replaced by a gaggle of thumbs." Ebert responded passionately: "I am the bridge between audiences and foreign, independent and documentary films." Ebert attributed the malaise of film journalism to studio-driven marketing campaigns targeting "a star-obsessed public with choreography that puts a star on the cover of Vanity Fair and robotic appearances on a swarm of talk shows."
Almost 25 years after Corliss's essay, when I took the debate to a few current practitioners and influencers, the response was heated and enthusiastic.
Director Atom Egoyan, just back from Cannes, argued that critics still have a huge impact on creating awareness for new filmmakers and indie work, but "a new generation of cinephiles is less interested in following 'guru' critics and are looking for online aggregate scores. … There is a glut of film critics and it's very tough to be discerning and to follow someone the way you used to follow Sarris or [The Times's Vincent] Canby."
"I remember when you walked out of a movie and read the blow-up review in the lobby to tell you why you loved the movie," says Michael Barker, co-founder of Sony Classics, one of the most enduring indie film distributors.
Robert Verini, a regular contributor to Variety, observes: "Critics have the power to shape the commercial destiny of independent films in both mainstream outlets or on popular sites where Beasts of the Southern Wild or Winter's Bone can get attention."
Veteran Toronto Star critic Peter Howell argues that "readers expect critics to be consistent and also to give honest opinions, not just ones designed to impress other critics."
While critics can influence indie films, Verini says, they have "much less power to shape the destiny of Hollywood product." He references the power of social media – especially within small friend groups that can "largely determine which big studio films or gross-out comedies will smash or crash." And he points to the online review aggregator, Rotten Tomatoes: "If all critics are aligned against a movie, its freshness factor will be low and the pic will likely tank, but individuals' powerful words have little or no impact."
The Globe and Mail's Liam Lacey argues that "there were only ever a very few film critics that could be singled out as having a significant influence on moviegoers' buying habits."
TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey agrees with Lacey but is more emphatic: Critics never had "absolute power to shape any film's destiny." Bailey points to a demographic shift: "Millennials simply aren't as interested in being told what's good and what's not. They've grown up curating all the music, movies, TV shows, books and games in their life, and figure they can decide for themselves."
Hot Docs's head honcho Chris McDonald is even more discouraged: "The ivory tower of film criticism has been infiltrated by the great unwashed. We live in an age where the average filmgoer is more interested in Rotten Tomatoes than The New York Times."
Michael Barker argues, however, that "with 25 films opening every Friday, the public needs guidance, especially with indie films. There are too many choices." He adds that "there's still a premium on thoughtful commentary, and most of that you're still likely to find in print. However, we have less time for them."
"'Olympian' doesn't work well any more," observes Vanity Fair's David Margolick. "We're more skeptical: A.O. Scott, senior film critic for The New York Times, is much less influential than Vincent Canby, just as Thomas Friedman will never have the influence of a Walter Lippmann or James Reston." He warns that critics have to be more courageous: "They're afraid of offending editors or friends or film-industry moguls – they don't."
Lacey agrees: "I think newspaper film reviewers, me included, still aspire to a kind of snappy condescension and irony that had an anti-establishment appeal but now feels trite. …" And he adds: "If you ever write any phrase that can be used for a studio pull-quote followed by many exclamation marks, you're a lost soul."
A.O. Scott of The Times says: "I'm not convinced that film critics ever had much power over a film's immediate commercial fate, and plenty of moviegoers have always been happy to ignore what critics write." Scott is passionate about the enemies of print, as was Ebert so many years ago: "I think advertisers, publishers and those who don't see much of a purpose in the independent-minded assessment of film and other art forms use this as an excuse to abandon it."
Adds Lacey: "Advertising dollars have shrunk and news editors feel more comfortable with objective Monday-morning box-office reports than subjective reviews."
When I asked producer Harvey Weinstein, the subject of one of my documentary films and a man who easily used the power of reviews to shape iconic film campaigns, he took another position. "There's no question that in the age of social media, anyone and everyone can be a film critic of sorts. However, I think those types of DIY movie reviews are only effective on the basis of quantity, not quality. It's about that singular, powerful opinion that belongs to a known and trusted cinephile" he says.
And Weinstein has advice for film critics: "It's not enough to just love movies, critics have to embrace the digital age."
Richard Crouse, a critic who covers every possible medium in film criticism from television to print and online to radio, agrees. "Mini-reviews are often posted on Twitter before the end credits have stopped rolling, and for big critic-proof movies like Transformers: Age of Extinction, good or bad, those comments generate audience engagement."
So is film criticism actually at death's door or just moved to another medium? "Criticism as a profession is in some trouble, but criticism as an activity is an intrinsic and essential part of the life of any art form," says Scott, who adds, "For the smaller number who are interested in criticism – as something to read and, increasingly, as a conversation to join – the influence and variety of criticism has never been greater."
Roger Ebert had the last word before he died: "Those that still care about film criticism will always read film criticism." Long live the film critics.
Barry Avrich is a Toronto-based director, producer, author and marketing executive. His films include The Last Mogul and Unauthorized: The Harvey Weinstein Project.