In the movie business, those who can, do. Those who can't, critique. And those who can't critique, critique the critics.
That's one explanation for last month's jeremiad by Peter Bart, editor of the trade paper Variety, against movie reviewers. He couldn't understand why so many critics lambasted hits like 300, Wild Hogs and Norbit. "The situation underscores yet again the disconnect between the cinematic appetites of critics vs. those of the popcorn crowd," Bart wrote. "If the established media want to stay relevant, should their critics make a passing attempt to tune in to pop culture?" He suggested we take "a sabbatical until September," when Hollywood starts releasing artsy films in the pre-Oscar blitz.
To Bart, who once was a Paramount Pictures executive, and to other Hollywood sachems, the ascent of the fanboy critics must be like manna falling from above. They rose from the culture they speak to, they're as obsessed with horror films and special effects as the industry currently is, and they love nearly everything they see. Whereas the mainstream critics--they're so damn critical.
Implicit in Bart's argument is that a popular film is a good film, and vice versa. If critics can't validate that tautology, we're useless. That's why studios screen fewer and fewer of their films early, and if they do, they invite everyone but critics. Until the fall, that is, when they want their prestige releases on 10 Best lists. Those citations sell tickets and tip off the awards folks. In that sense, Hollywood uses us as heralds to our own constituency. We're the fanboy brigade for Oscar films.
No question, the industry pays little attention to critics these days. But it rarely did. In the '40s, when TIME's reviewers were two of the all-time greats, James Agee and Manny Farber, their critiques had zero impact on a film's earnings. Back then, Hollywood courted the gossip columnists and feature writers as assiduously as they woo fanboys and Jon Stewart now. Bart says we don't matter in making a film a hit? Yeah, well, get this, pal: we never mattered.
But we do tell you which movies matter. Instead of parroting the company line, we are the informed, independent voice amid the cacophony, the Consumer Reports or Rockefeller University of film. In a fragmented cultural landscape, we're the last generalists, fascinated with all kinds of movies, seeing everything, so you don't have to.
In print, and increasingly online, we help guide readers who might want to see a movie for a reason other than that a barrage of 30-sec. commercials told them to. Critical praise for Little Miss Sunshine and Pan's Labyrinth launched those films into the public conversation. Indeed, the reader feedback I get is less "Shame on you for dumping on that megahit" and more "Thanks for championing that 'little film' I might have missed."
Hollywood's marketers have become tremendously efficient at getting their core audience to see their big movies. They don't need critics for that. But critics have a larger utility: to put films in context, to offer an informed perspective, to educate, outrage, entertain. We're just trying to do what every other writer is doing: making sense of one part of your world.
So, dear reader: If our opinions on a movie don't coincide, I don't care, and neither should you. I'm not telling you what to think. I'm just asking that you do think.