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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“I was 15 when I first watched Sally Hardesty escape into the back of a pickup truck, covered in blood and cackling like a goddamn witch. All of her friends were dead. She had been kidnapped, tortured and even forced to feed her own blood to her cannibalistic captors’ impossibly shriveled patriarch. Being new to the horror genre, I was sure she was going to die. It had been a few months since I survived a violent sexual assault, where I subsequently ran from my assailant, tripped, fell and fought like hell. I crawled home with bloody knees, makeup-stained cheeks and a new void in both my mind and heart. My sense of safety, my ability to trust others, my willingness to form new relationships and my love of spending time with people I cared about were all taken from me. It wasn’t until I found the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre that something clicked. It was Sally’s strength, and her resilience. It was watching her survive blows to the head from a hammer. It was watching her break free from her bonds and burst through a glass window. It was watching her get back up after she’d been stabbed. It was watching her crawl into the back of a truck, laughing as it drove away from Leatherface. She was the last one to confront the killer, and live. I remember sitting in front of the TV and thinking, There I am. That’s me.”
~ Lauren Milici On “The Final Girl”

“‘Thriller’ enforced its own reality principle; it was there, part of the every commute, a serenade to every errand, a referent to every purchase, a fact of every life. You didn’t have to like it, you only had to acknowledge it. By July 6, 1984, when the Jacksons played the first show of their ‘Victory’ tour, in Kansas City, Missouri, Jacksonism had produced a system of commodification so complete that whatever and whoever was admitted to it instantly became a new commodity. People were no longer comsuming commodities as such things are conventionally understood (records, videos, posters, books, magazines, key rings, earrings necklaces pins buttons wigs voice-altering devices Pepsis t-shirts underwear hats scarves gloves jackets – and why were there no jeans called Bille Jeans?); they were consuming their own gestures of consumption. That is, they were consuming not a Tayloristic Michael Jackson, or any licensed facsimile, but themselves. Riding a Mobius strip of pure capitalism, that was the transubstantiation.”
~ Greil Marcus On Michael Jackson