Now on the Endangered Species List: Movie Critics in Print

by Eric Melin on April 3, 2008

in Blogs

I have mixed feelings about this article, which appeared Tuesday in The New York Times. Yes, the film criticism world is losing ‘serious’ critics at a rapid pace. Yes, it’s partially because of people like me. But…while J.D. and I may nowhere near the literary background of someone like, say, J. Hoberman, we take what we do very seriously and try to add to the mature dialogue of the art of film rather than engage in glad-handing, gossip, and petty Hollywood celebrity news. Analyzing where a film is going with a sure sense of where film came from and how it relates to our current culture is always at the forefront of my mind when I’m discussing a movie.

We also don’t get paid for doing Scene-Stealers. We do this because we love it. After three years of taking this seriously, it would be nice to get paid, but that is a fundamental difference between us and them. They go home every night after a hard day’s paid work in front of the computer. I write and attend screenings in my spare time when I’m not at my day job.

And technically, when prints something of mine in their Deadwood Edition, I go from being a scrubby online critic who makes his own movie review videos to a becoming ‘serious’ print critic. The change is instantaneous. My ears don’t burn (because nobody’s actually talking about me), but I do feel a respectable tingle in my chest that causes my pride to swell briefly. And, every now and then, a small pittance appears in my mailbox. (Ironically, that comes from anything other than a movie review.)

Anyway, movie criticism in general is going downhill. Don’t believe me? Check this out.

Now on the Endangered Species List: Movie Critics in Print

Published: April 1, 2008 

The continual drumbeat of news that film critics are being laid off at daily and weekly newspapers across the country has kicked up some quotable reviews. 

“A dire situation!” Scott Rudin, independent film producer.

“A terrible loss!” Tom Bernard, Sony Pictures Classics.

“Puts serious movies at risk!” Mark Urman, ThinkFilm.

Those men were not actually speaking in exclamation points — the blurb genre engenders a certain license — but they were upset by the departures of movie critics. Nathan Lee, one of The Village Voice’s two full-time critics, was laid off last week by Village Voice Media, a large chain of alternative weeklies that has been cutting down the number of critics it employs across the country.

The week before, two longtime critics at Newsday — Jan Stuart and Gene Seymour — took buyouts, along with their editor. And at Newsweek, David Ansen is among 111 staff members taking buyouts, according to a report in Radar.

They join critics at more than a dozen daily newspapers (including those in Denver, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale) and several alternative weeklies who have been laid off, reassigned or bought out in the past few years, deemed expendable at a time when revenues at print publications are declining, under pressure from Web alternatives and a growing recession in media spending.

Given that movie blogs are strewn about the Web like popcorn on a theater floor, there are those who say that movie criticism is not going away, it’s just appearing on a different platform. And no one would argue that fewer critics and the adjectives they hurl would imperil the opening of “Iron Man” in May. But for a certain kind of movie, critical accolades can mean the difference between relevance and obscurity, not to mention box office success or failure.

“For those of us who are making work that requires a kind of intellectual conversation, we rely on that talk to do the work of getting people interested,” said Mr. Rudin, who produced “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood,” two Oscar-nominated and critically championed films last year. “All of the talk about ‘No Country,’ all of the argument about the ending, kept that film in the forefront of the conversation” and helped it win the best picture Oscar.

Despite Samuel Butler’s long ago suggestion that critics arrive at their occupation because of their general unfitness for anything else, they can be a cultural good, championing films that lack crowd-pleasing content or the financial wherewithal to muscle their way into public consciousness. Mr. Lee, for example, named “Southland Tales” the best film of last year. Never heard of the postnuclear, semi-futuristic portrait of Los Angeles directed by Richard Kelly (“Donnie Darko”)? That’s very much the point. “Criticism is treated as a kind of product, and that is inevitably going to favor bigger national releases,” said Owen Gleiberman, a critic at Entertainment Weekly. “That The Village Voice doesn’t want to pay for two staff movie critics is a joke,” he added. “There is so much to cover.”

Michael Lacey, executive editor of Village Voice Media, said in an e-mail message that the company, which owns 17 newspapers, continues to have a serious commitment to covering film.

“Whether a recession or a depression, papers are making decisions based upon the economy, clearly, but our coverage of film remains strong despite the departure of the smart and acerbic Nathan Lee,” he wrote. “When we took over The Village Voice we had essentially one full time writer covering film, Jim Hoberman. He is still with us. We will expand the work of talented New York freelance critics to insure local coverage of the scene specific to Manhattan.” (Mr. Lee, who has been a freelance writer for The New York Times, declined to comment when contacted.)

Mr. Lacey added that the chain still has five full-time film critics and that worrying about whether each city had its own critic seemed silly at a time when major metropolitan dailies can’t afford to cover the presidential race. (The loss of a critic in New York, where some films see their only light of day, would seem to be more problematic.)

Mr. Bernard of Sony Pictures Classics, whose current movies include “The Band’s Visit,” “Married Life” and “The Counterfeiters,” suggested that losing some local critical firepower is troubling for both readers and distributors.

“In each city there is a mosaic of voices,” he said, “with each reflecting the personality of the town and the readership. For us a movie like ‘The Lives of Others,’ ” — the German-language winner of the 2006 foreign film Oscar — “was dragged along by critics until people realized that it was one of the best movies of the year.”

But are print critics really so all-important and sacrosanct with the Web full of debates about all manner of film in places like, and

“Honestly, I think that a lot of the viewers of serious films have already migrated to the Web,” said S. T. VanAirsdale, a senior editor at and the founder of, a site devoted to coverage of the New York film world. “Serious movies can always be helped by a boost from anywhere, but almost anyone who is interested can find plenty of information about a film before it even opens because of all the coverage in the blogs about festivals and screenings.”

And David Poland, head of the Movie City News Web site (, said he likes reading serious printed criticism as much as the next movie fanatic, but films intended for adults have far bigger problems — namely, too many movies on too few screens — than the number of people teasing them apart. “Losing critics for serious film is like taking away the padding on the crutches of a very sick man with two broken legs and one working eye,” he wrote in an e-mail message. “It’s not going to keep it from limping along, but yeah, it hurts like hell.”

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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