Hot Button Archive for April, 2008

The End of An Era: Episode One – The Critics

David Ansen joins the parade of film critics heading out the Traditional Media door at 62.  He will, as Time’s Corliss and Schickel, remain in the game.  But unlike some outlets, Newsweek will surely establish a new critic, likely from their familiar gene pool. 

I’d be shocked if the answer they come up with is not someone like Dave Karger from EW, Rebecca Keegan from Time, their own Ramin Setoodeh or some other young, New York media savvy,
non-critic who has been around the industry for years.

The whole series of anti-criticism events demands a look at the bigger picture.  I was asked last week about whether I thought all of these firings (with plenty more to come) really hurt independent film.  And the answer is more complex than I would like it to be.  Let me start with the punch line and then go back to the detail work …

The weight of responsibility is now on exhibitors who want to be in the Indie business – and not just the Dependent business, which is rarely "indie" in any
real way these days – and the distributors and the publicists to find the new dynamic to get audiences to show up at "art house" movies.  The lack of as large a poll of critics to use as promotion to sell these films is a small issue compared to finding the screens around America to show these movies on and the uphill fight against scores of millions of dollars spent to sell "bigger" movies every weekend of the year.

Moreover, the studios have unthinkingly (with a few exceptions) conspired to turn even the critics who are keeping their jobs into worthless players.  On
the one side, you have a total whore like Peter Travers – when his name or that Rolling Stone logo on top of an ad now assures that a movie is suspect … which is a shame for the good movies he is quoted for – who has become about as valuable as David Manning because no one reads his full reviews and he is so shameless about quoting that no one wants to do so.  Doesn’t it occur to studio ad departments that the only people who care about critics’ reviews are the same people who know that Travers and Roeper are not remotely reliable?  (Roeper is not a quote whore … nor is his taste often horrible … but he adds little in terms of ideas to the mix and is still referred to as "that guy" in most conversations I wander into with people.)

It is, obviously, arguable that studios are not responsible for promoting new critical talent.  But at the same time, if they want critics as a truly valuable marketing tool, they need to make real choices about seeding the next generation.  However, the mind set remains, "quote from the biggest, most legitimate possible media outlet, regardless of who the critic is." 

When is the last time you saw a quote from The Baltimore Sun‘s Michael Sragow?  Well, it was likely either in The Baltimore Sun or in a national ad for a movie that got weak quotes from a dozen other outlets before they even turned to the list that Sragow was on.  And since Sragow – as an example here – doesn’t write to be quoted, they would probably
be adjusting his quote to make it hotter even in that situation, finding it easier to use a quote whore from the junket circuit who gave some mouth-breathing year’s best kind of praise.

The flip side is The Indies, whose system of releasing films relies heavily on New York, then Los Angeles, then Chicago, and then on to another dozen markets,
and then beyond, if things go well.  But Indie advertisers still have the mindset of majors … they want the biggest media outlets for quotes. 

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“All of the security, all of the waiters, all of the musicians … that’s 3,000 people!” The shopping required fifty tractor trailers. The are thirty gallons of cocktail sauce; 350 pounds of smoked salmon; 200 pounds of brussels sprouts, 250 pounds parmesan cheese; 3,600 eggs; 6,000 mini-brioche buns; five gallons of hot fudge; 20 pounds pickled ginger; 30 pounds edible gold dust; 7,000 miniature chocolate Oscars. There are 1,400 bottles of Piper-Heidsieck champagne and 2,200 bottles from Francis Ford Coppola’s winery. This will be served in and upon 13,000 glasses, 4,500 bamboo skewers, 4,800 ramekins and 6,000 cocktail forks.”
~ Wolfgang Puck Goes Oscar Dinner Shopping

“While these images seem to reveal all, they disclose nothing beneath the surface. All that we know is what we see onscreen and that Seberg’s face is delicate and lightly creased. She’s rarely shown smiling, although there are instances when she laughs emphatically, moments that feel uncomfortable and artificial, as if she were trying out an emotion she had forgotten. We know the texture of her skin; the patterns on the walls; the depth of field; the quality of the light; the contrast of the black-and-white film; the level of grain; the dowdiness of her clothes. She’s partial to granny dresses, or maybe they’re nightgowns, and when she stands in front of a window, the sunlight glows softly, creating a kind of ravishing halo effect: Saint Jean.”
~ Manohla Dargis On Philippe Garrel’s Les Hautes Solitudes