Are Critics Necessary?

Appelo flaunts his Amazon bling!


Okay, we probably slept through the SIFF panel discussion that featured our esteemed former colleague, Tim Appelo. We're lucky to have the guy still contributing freelance stage reviews to SW, and we count him as a friend. The bone we pick is with his buddy Anne Thompson, with whom he's done a lot of mutual logrolling back during her days at The Hollywood Reporter. Now she's moved to Variety, where she devotes this week's column to a pair of SIFF panels. (Sorry no link; Variety is a pay site.) Whose invited participants included--yes, you guessed it--herself and Appelo, along with David Ansen (Newsweek), Jon Powers (Vogue), and some honcho from Amazon. Synergy! Thompson explains, "Appelo left his critic post at the Seattle Weekly for a more remunerative job as content editor at Amazon Unbox; he writes a blog that steers Amazon readers to his fave raves." Because this is where the movies are going, according to Thompson: Fiercely independent and trustworthy bloggers, untainted by commerce or the MSM, help sell digital content for friendly little mom-and-pops like Amazon; and in this way, they're now rivaling the importance of establishment film critics like Roger Ebert. Except when they don't, also according to Thompson. Confused? So am I.

First Thompson cites the self-distribution example of Four Eyed Monsters, a no-budget 2005 indie, as "the new-model Internet success story." This because it booked itself into a few markets, including Seattle, to earn some favorable critics' notices, which then help it sell via YouTube, Spout, IndieFlix, Withoutabox, and--you saw this one coming--Amazon Unbox. Because for filmmakers looking for publicity in a new-media world, Thompson argues, "They want the same things indies wanted a few decades ago: reviews from established critics." Really, you mean the indie-loving hipster demo is reading Newsweek and Vogue? Granted, Four Eyed Monsters picked up a capsule review in our New York sister publication The Village Voice. But its savvy marketers neglected to hold a press screening in Seattle prior to its four Thursday run at the Grand Illusion last September. Hence no reviews in the Times, P-I, or Weekly. (By which time Appelo had already left our paper, even if he'd wanted to review the movie.) Meaning almost no one saw the film in Seattle--hardly a great use of valuable local critics.

Then, clinging to her thesis about "the need for theater bookings and accompanying film reviews," Thompson reveals the startling insight that bloggers resent newspaper critics, considering them fossils of the dead-tree past, while old pros like Powers are now forced to grind it out in both domains--blogging daily, and reviewing on deadline. Which means those who are paid to write now do more work for the same paycheck, while their poor cyber cousins still mostly type for free. Thus, concludes Thompson, "As the pool of well-paid print critics shrinks in size, the next generation of film fans may come to trust critic/bloggers like Appelo" and others.

So critics won't matter so much in the future? And bloggers will? I'm still confused, because all the examples Thompson cites are well-paid professional bloggers like Appelo. The fact that his "more remunerative job" is for a giant retailer is conveniently ignored. He's no hack, mind you, and I would fight anybody who says otherwise. But anyone who writes for Amazon is essentially a hired copywriter. (A noble profession, but still.) And the situation is the same for anyone blogging for a dot-com content provider. Writing for the dominant trade publication of the movie biz, Thompson makes no distinction between critics or bloggers who are a part of that business and those who stand outside of that business. It all depends who signs your paycheck; either you're independent or not. Which filmmakers (and filmgoers) understand when they're looking for, or at, those still supposedly valuable reviews.

And, curiously, Thompson fails to mention the Web's biggest and most influential movie site: the Internet Movie Database (or IMDb), which links to gazillions of diverse reviews from pros and non-pros alike. And who owns that site, which also conveniently links to DVDs and downloads you can purchase? Oh, that's right: Amazon.

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