Is social media killing the professional critic? Experts weigh in

By , on December 30, 2014


TORONTO—It seems the adage “Everyone’s a critic” has never been more true than now.

Between Twitter, Facebook and blogs, online opinions are becoming just as prominent as those of professional reviewers, raising the question: where does the role of the expert critic stand in the social media age?

“I think the role of the critic has been very diminished, because you get a lot of people who set themselves up as critics by having a website where it says that they’re a critic,” says filmmaker David Cronenberg. “Even now if you go to Rotten Tomatoes, you have critics and then you have ‘Top Critics’, and what that really means is that there are legitimate critics who have actually paid their dues and worked hard and are in a legitimate website connected perhaps with a newspaper or perhaps not.

“Then there are all these other people who just say they’re critics and you read their writing and they can’t write, or they can write and their writing reveals that they’re quite stupid and ignorant. … Some voices have emerged that are actually quite good who never would have emerged before, so that’s the upside of that. But I think it means that it’s diluted the effective critics.”

Film reviewer Richard Crouse agrees, noting there are fewer people making a living as critics these days—and those who are making a living at it generally don’t have the cachet of those such as the late Roger Ebert, Jay Scott or Pauline Kael.

“Do critics still have the same kind of clout that they once did? I don’t think so, and it’s strictly because I think it’s been democratized,” says Crouse, a journalist, author and radio host.

“There is so much noise out there right now in terms of the amount of words that are written about films, unlike 30, 40 years ago when there were a handful of people that you could build a relationship with, you could trust. Even if you disagreed with them, you went and read them and you went on your way and you took their advice. Now I think it’s much different. I think that people skim through the blogs and Twitter and everything else and make up their own minds there, by and large, and look at star ratings.”

Jesse Wente, director of film programs at TIFF Bell Lightbox, says he doesn’t “even know if film criticism is a career anymore.” At the same time, he feels “real critical authority is actually more needed and more valuable now, because you do need something to cut through what is this large amount of reaction to films.”

The issue of the changing role of the critic came to the fore in Toronto recently when Factory Theatre announced it was going to “experiment” with media coverage of its shows. Instead of inviting working members of the media to opening night, as is typical in the theatre world, the company said it had decided to offer complimentary tickets to them three performances after that.

Factory Theatre says it made the move “with the unanimous support from this season’s partners.” The idea was to “support and celebrate the work of” its theatre creators “by giving general audiences the first chance to respond” to its shows “and to be at the forefront of the conversation,” said a statement.

But headlines swirled over whether the company was trying to sideline critics and build positive social media buzz first before any potential negative reviews came out.

Factory Theatre artistic director Nina Lee Aquino says that’s not “true at all.” She notes it was a “collaborative” decision that she didn’t think “was groundbreaking or controversial.” “It was an experiment, and we’re still changing. There was no set-in-stone media night.”

“The intention was never to ban,” she adds. “There’s this big idea that we were banning critics or excluding them. If that was the case, then why have a media night at all? If critics wanted to come earlier than said media night, they were more than welcome to but they need to buy their own ticket for that, which some of them did during (The Art of Building a Bunker).”

Crouse says his personal mandate for when reviews should be able to run is “the first time an audience can see it and pays for it, that’s fair game.”

“There is nothing that will get a critic’s back up any more than being told, ‘Oh, you can’t see this when everybody else sees it.’ For me, the idea of a critic is that if people are paying money to see something, we should be able to write our opinion about it.”

Aquino notes she does “love critics” and feels professional reviews are an important part of the “emotional journey as an artist.” But she does believe the power of social media will influence “a shifting or an evolution of what the critic will be in the digital world.”

“I don’t know what that is but I don’t think we’ll get rid of that profession any time soon. They’re going to exist but probably in a different shape, form, or maybe the content will change a little bit.”

Aquino hopes critical content will change in a way that will offer more “open-ended” reviews that “give people the power to ultimately decide” on whether they should attend a show.

“I feel like the star system continues to be more appropriate for film, at least in the world of Hollywood,” she says. “But for theatre it’s different, and to put stars on a certain show, especially in something as organic as theatre, is I think limiting people’s preconceived notions of what a show is, because it’s not the same.”

Evan Goldberg, co-director and co-writer of the new film “The Interview,” says he would like to see reviews become “a much more organic, flowing river of debate as opposed to, ‘And now on Friday or Sunday, this specific edition of this paper comes out and I will read the criticisms of the films by these nine people.’”

“What I would personally like to see is the critic says what they say and then the filmmakers respond and then the critics respond and then the filmmakers respond,” he adds. “I feel like that’s where things should go. I feel like the critic needs to evolve to be someone who’s a conversation, not just a comment.”

Crouse notes the star system of ratings in the film world is a phenomenon that wasn’t used by reviewers of the Kael generation, “because they wanted people to actually read the review rather than just go, ‘Oh, it’s three out of five so it must be OK’ and not read the review.”

Filmmaker Jake Paltrow, writer-director of the recent dystopian water-shortage drama “Young Ones,” says audiences’ reliance upon the star system and the “splat vs. tomato” summations on online aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes is “dangerous” and “pretty scary.”

“We live faster now and that’s a fast way of getting a consensus on a movie, so it’s not wrong, it’s just not nuanced in a way that I think we used to check in with the same reviewers and you could develop a sense of their taste,” he says. “That still exists to a degree. I think it’s very strong still at the New York Times and I think they work hard to keep that tradition alive. So it’s not dead, it’s just changed, I guess.”

Wente also thinks there’s a “danger” in the “need for an immediate reaction to a work” on social media these days.

“When I was a critic I would at least have the blessing of some time for consideration before actually putting my review or my ideas into the rest of the world,” he says, noting he often viewed films twice before writing his review. “I think what Twitter and Facebook and the digital age has meant is, there’s this real demand to react instantly to something without the time for actual deep consideration.”

Crouse predicts the professional critic will start to specialize more.

“You’ll find critics that specialize in writing hard-core academic kind of pieces that will run in the equivalent of literary magazines for film, or you’ll find critics that just go completely populist and essentially give you a synopsis of who is in the movie and a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. I don’t know that there’s going to be a whole lot in between, professionally,” says Crouse.

“I cannot tell you how many people get in touch with me every single week and say, ‘I’ve always thought that I would want to be a film critic. Can you tell me how I can get started, can you give me advice?’

“The advice that I have for them is pretty grim. It’s like: ‘Get a job doing something else and do this as a hobby.’”

With files from Canadian Press reporter Lauren La Rose.