The Demise of the Film Critic

As Resources Dwindle, Newspapers Send Their Dedicated Film Critics Packing











Steven Josh, Margaret Christine Perkins, and Luke Ayoub,

St. Edwards University


The opinion of a film critic was once one of the strongest factors in determining the success of a movie. Today, those professional opinions may be completely irrelevant to average moviegoers.  Before the advent of the Internet and the over-saturation of film reviews that came with it, It was a safe bet that a film receiving critical praise had as about much pull at the box-office as say a trailer premiering during the Super Bowl does now. However, these days a good review is not an accurate predictor of a film’s financial success. In fact there appears to be no correlation between critical praise and financial success.  In the past weekend alone the top two grossing films at the box office ‘Immortals’ and ‘Jack and Jill’ were considered financial successes despite being critical failures.

Then there are films that have received positive reviews from both critics and audiences alike such as ‘Drive’, ‘Warrior’ and ‘50/50’, however that also did not correlate to box-office success.What this suggests is that financial success for a movie is about as random as winning the lottery, or maybe it’s not. Today, even poorly reviewed movies can make it big at the box office, and critically acclaimed films flounder.  Consumers have begun to rely heavily on the opinion of the ‘man on the street’, and often consider the film critic to be too ‘high-brow’ or ‘out of touch’ with current popular trends and tastes.  The dwindling influence of the film critic has many wondering if film criticism is yesterday’s news.

It has been suggested that the in-depth analysis offered by professional critiques, while relevant to film buffs and students, are overly complex and too specialized to appeal to the mainstream. Originally welcomed and respected by the general public, deeper analysis is now seen as over-analyzing by some.  Discussion such as the techniques directors employ to portray deep symbolism–that “black tree in the backyard” theory– is somewhat lost on, or of little interest to, the average moviegoer.

Movie Review shows, such as the popular and long-running Siskel and Ebert, and later, Roeper, At the Movies, were created to wade through scores of releases to share with audiences films with, or without, broad appeal.  Once upon a time, the filmgoer relied on the critics’ opinion, whether they agreed with it or not, to indicate that movie upon which they spent their recreational dollar.  Sometimes it was because a certain critic gave rave reviews, and sometimes, in spite of it.

Today, audiences are using the internet as a forum for ferreting out that decision.  Sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, or Fandango offer a popular forum for the opinion of the thousand ‘common joe’s’ with a keyboard and a limited vocabulary to share a movie’s relative ‘awesomeness’.  Combine that with a well-directed “wow” of a movie trailer  and you have all that is required of an attention-deficited audience whose 2 precious minutes can best be attracted.

As the rise of other opinion sources come, we are seeing a decline in the ranks of professional film critics. Many newspapers, like our own Austin American Statesman, no longer employ full-time critics.  Most recently, Roger Ebert publicized that his movie review television show, At The Movies, is in danger of cancellation due to lack of funding.  Could this lack of funding be the effect of lack of interest?

As more readers substitute online sources for the content previously obtained from their local newspapers, revenue has been drastically reduced.  Newspapers have fought to embrace new business models to remain solvent.

In a move to focus dwindling resources and trim expenses in a way that offers unique content to ensure relevance to the reader, papers are sharpening their focus on local topics with a clear connection to the community to compete with online news sites.

Since 2007, newspapers in Tampa, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Denver, Dallas, and Houston have all released their film critic staff, opting to use wire reviews, the Associated Press, and other national news organizations for content that covers the national film scene, while spreading their editorial staff to cover film news of local significance.  For example, Rich Copley, who covers film as part of his job as culture writer at the Herald-Leader in Lexington, Kentucky, (will cover a George Clooney film, because Lexington is) Clooney’s birthplace. In fact, although Lexington may not spring to mind when most people think of movie capitals, the city is a good example of the reach that film can have in Middle America: Copley also closely tracks Johnny Depp and Ashley Judd, two stars with Kentucky roots, as well as former state gubernatorial candidate Bruce Lunsford, whose production company helped finance Sundance Audience Award-winner “Grace is Gone.”

For several years, Copley has followed the work of Jason Epperson, who appeared on the Fox reality show and filmmaking competition “On the Lot” this summer.

“You have to keep an eye out for local talent,” Copley says. “And when a film like ‘Seabiscuit,’ which is about thoroughbred racing and where they spent a month here filming, comes along, there is tremendous interest here,” he notes.   The End of the Affair, American Journalism Review, September 2007

While the trend, historically, has been that good reviews equal good box office, neither the professional critic, nor the opinion of the citizen/consumer presently has as clear a correlation.

There is one thing that can certainly be agreed upon. The films that have the greatest financial success are the ones that are generally well-advertised and liked by both critics and audiences alike. For instance, the upcoming film ‘The Adventures of Tin Tin’ is sure to be a smashing success at the box-office due to its wide- reaching advertising campaign, positive reviews overseas, with a story that’s well-known and has far-reaching appeal. Throw a big-name director like Steven Spielberg into the mix and you’re sure to have a huge box-office success on your hands.

If this is the case, then it is safe to assume the reliance upon opinion of the critic has severely diminished over the past few decades.  However, there is still an important place for critics during the months of November to January.  It is Oscar time, and major award-contenders begin to be released in bunches. Mass appeal of critically acclaimed films are at their highest.  In this way,  critics are at their most effective;  bringing people to the box-office during the holiday season and giving Oscar contenders an oftentime needed extra push.


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