How perilous have things become for journalists paid handsomely to review movies?
Put it this way. The ongoing dismissal of full-time film critics, to which the name of Movieline’s Stephanie Zacharek can be officially added July 13, grew into such a somber death march that Movie City News’ David Poland stopped formally tracking the print side of the trend a year and a half ago. “It was so depressing,” he tells FishbowlLA, “but my guess is that we’re down to around 80 full-time print film critics in the U.S.”
Indiewire’s Matt Singer first broke the news of Zacharek’s tweeted dismissal, eliciting comments of condolence from such notables as Roger Ebert and David Edelstein. Poland says people typically skip over a critical big picture element when discussing the dumping of marquee critics. Namely, that daily newspapers never took them that seriously in the first place.
“I think the most overlooked element in all these conversations is how abusive print was to criticism,” Poland says. “That the attitude about film criticism from traditional media – for decades – was that they could move someone from the city or obits desk, anywhere, and make them a film critic.”
“A lot of the deteriorating value of film criticism comes from the fact that the big media outlets don’t respect film criticism,” he continues. “The people online who are doing it – mostly for no money or very little money – are much more passionate film critics than a significant percentage of print film critics, say, ten years ago. I think old media helped kill criticism as much as anything by being so willing to pull someone over from the Metro desk.”
Poland says there will always be spots for this reporting profession at big papers like the New York Times, LA Times and Wall Street Journal. Although even in some of those cases, reviewers such as Betsy Sharkey were moved over from another department.
With regards to Zacharek, Poland argues that it’s a simple matter of dollars and sense. “Like everybody else, Stephanie probably had some shrinkage in her pay [from Salon to Movieline], followed by the fact that there just wasn’t any financial uptick to it,” he suggests. “I think sadly, that’s the reality.”
“Is criticism a revenue producer for a website? As far as I can tell, the answer is pretty much no. Even on Roger Ebert’s website, you don’t see movie ads. It’s not because they’re unwilling to take them. It’s that the studios don’t necessarily want to advertise over our criticism, because they can’t control it.”
“In terms of [consumer] movie-oriented websites, there’s not of lot of other advertising,” Poland continues. “Everything else tends to be stuff that’s brokered, with very, very low CPM. The only window in terms of the film business that allows for “extra budget,” essentially, that’s not pure consumer sales budget during the release of a picture, is awards season… The reason you see so many people chasing Oscar is because there’s some money there.”