Every other month or so, I get an e-mail from a college or high school student asking for tips on making it as a professional movie critic. One always wants to encourage young talent, but — lately, anyway — a sound vote of “no confidence” just feels like the responsible thing to do.
I want to tell them: “Become a Somali pirate. Better pay. More longevity.”
Indeed, the near-universal plight of newspapers has thinned the critical herd considerably. Or is that just my ink-and-paper bias talking? Next week, the Phoenix Film Critics Society — of which I am a founding member — will announce the 2008 winners of its yearly movie awards. We started with 10 members back in 2000. Now we have 37.
For better or worse, richer or poorer, print or online, Valley residents have more sources for locally generated movie reviews than ever before.
Likewise, more Valley residents are claiming the title “movie reviewer” than ever before. What’s a discriminating film buff to think?
Naturally, we in the newspaper industry tend to fixate on newspapers when evaluating media trends, but the truth is, newspaper movie critics are vanishing. Likened to the proverbial canary in a coal mine by critic emeritus Roger Ebert, the movie reviewer is usually among the first wave of casualties when a daily newspaper is overwhelmed by toxic spills of unprofitability. They’re luxury items.
According to an unofficial list compiled by the Salt Lake City Tribune’s Sean P. Means, 44 full-time movie critic positions have been eliminated nationwide since early 2006. The Los Angeles Times, which once boasted four critics, is down to one — the indomitable Kenneth Turan.
Two critics at the Washington Post are gone. So’s Terry Lawson, the lone critic at the Detroit Free Press. And so on. (Full disclosure: I’m one of the “so ons” — the position at the Tribune was eliminated in June.)
It’s next to impossible to discuss the decline of newspapers without discussing the rise of the Internet — similarly, the decline of the newspaper critic is attended by a sharp rise in the number of Internet-based critics. We have a bunch of them here in town, including Stan Robinson (screenscene.org) and 20-something identical twin brothers Mike and Joel Massie, who run a site called gonewiththetwins.com. Colin Boyd, who once wrote for College Times, has shifted his critical heft to his popular getthebigpicture.net portal.
None of these sites existed eight years ago.
There are also scores of critics who write part time for smaller daily and weekly papers, or do review segments for TV or radio. And their number has also swelled since the first PFCS awards in 2000.
Is the shift from newspapers to electronic media good for you, the movie-review consumer? That’s been the topic of some debate in the critical community. Ebert, that old lion of the print products, sees a void that won’t be filled. On the other hand, former Salon editor Bill Wyman, in a recent blog post, opined: “For virtually everyone interested in film criticism, today’s state of affairs is great.”
And what of the PFCS awards? Does the almost fourfold increase in membership make the awards more valid, or less?
Though the society has no official ratings or circulation requirements for new members, president and founder David Ramsey, a longtime reviewer for KMLE (107.9 FM) and KPHO-TV (Channel 5) news, assures movie fans that the society doesn’t admit new members haphazardly.
(Internet-based critics must write for sites ranked in the top 200,000 by the tracking service alexa.com.)
“It has to be a legitimate publication,” he says. “You can’t just publish something in your backyard and call yourself a movie critic.”
More to the point, will the society’s increased membership bring the awards more into line with popular tastes? Or drive them more to the fringes of art-house, critically-oriented cinema? Find out when the awards are revealed on Tuesday.