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June 23, 2008
The Rise of the "Critic Proof" Film: Commerce Rules OK?
Mark Lawson had an interesting article in today's Guardian which I also discovered on the Guardian website. As an important critic who presents such programmes as the BBC Front Row it is was very disturbing to find that he, along with other critics, was being constructively excluded from giving a review of Sex and The City which was launched in London a few days ago. Critics are obviously an increasing danger to the "high added value" (overpaid 'celebs') fare which Hollywood is serving up to fairly uncritical audiences who are seduced by the marketing aura of celebrity and massive PR, publicity and profiling campaigns. These can rise to as much as 50% of a Hollywood film's costs.
"Refusing to hold previews is increasingly common," says Solomons, whose irritation is institutional as well as personal: he's just become chairman of the film section of the Critics' Circle. "It used to be a rare event, the most famous case being The Avengers with Uma Thurman and Ralph Fiennes. In fact, that film not being given a press screening was a news story. But now, such an event, even for a big film with big stars, is greeted with a shrug of indifference."
Lawson argues that the rise of the World Wide Web and the has contributed to the attempts to shut out professional critics from the media loop of production and consumption.
online comment is responsible in two different ways for the new resistance to professional critics. The first is that the spread of the web means that a cruel early review can have national or even global impact far beyond the range of the site on which it appears. Secondly, publicists now gamble that blogging and fan site comment may create a kinder environment for new releases than members of the Critics' Circle. In theatre, the Nimax group, owner of five London playhouses, is planning to survey theatre-goers and use their comments on the website instead of those grouchy newspaper guys.
Certainly cultural artefacts are likely to get much higher exposure much more swiftly via various platforms on the web and certainly social networking sites can spread gossip and opinion extremely fast. However there is a slight problem with Lawson's argument for as he points out towards the end of his article:
...cinema's main target audience: 15-24-year-olds seeking, in two senses, a big release on a Friday or Saturday night.
However, how many 15-24 year olds actually read any form of serious criticism - hardly any I suspect. But then I don't think that that many read any serious film blogs. I have a slight concern here in that this is the second item within the last month that bloggers about film and cinema have been under attack from professional critics. Nick James the editor of Sight and Sound being another important person within the film critical establishment who attacked bloggers in the June edition page 5, as well as sites like Rotten Tomatoes (which I believe is under Murdoch control nowadays). If the new democratic rights to publish are undermining the position of critics (I don't think this is the case) then Lawson is in danger of developing a grouchy defence of his and other colleagues work, however it is undermined by a few palpably ignorant bloggers which is the impression being given at least this is just an elitist trench-digging exercise and is untenable. Let's face it if critics had that much influence over audiences then presumably half this genre junk targeted at impressionable youth wouldn't ever get made.
Critics Bite Back
Lawson draws attention to one disgruntled critics attitude to the film The Happening:
Last weekend, News of the World film pundit Robbie Collin explained to his readers: "I wasn't allowed to review The Happening here last week in case I 'gave away the big secret'. But now it's been out for a couple of days, I can. So here it is: The Happening is a load of shite."
Apart from the fact that it takes one to know one so as to speak this puts this particular critic in a hard place. Does he say that anyway about the usual third rate generic offerings that come along or does he normally bite his lip and play the game?
What Now For the Film Critic?
Lawson again notes Solomons who is effectively saying the writing is on the wall for film critics. It is hard to disagree with the following statement which asserts perhaps a little pessimistically that the critics days are numbered:
"The worry," says Jason Solomons, "is that film companies will now just prefer to advertise on TV to let the target audience know their product's arrived. They save a few quid on setting up screenings and avoid any negative reviews. The old idea that all publicity is regarded as good publicity has simply gone"
However on a note of optimism critics can now feel much more at liberty to trash the films when they finally do see them. As film companies are highly dependent on the video and TV aftermarket with the cinema acting as more of a shop window, making sure these things have the briefest possible afterlife and have wooden stakes thrust into them is an honourable and necessary role for the critic. Forget the first few days of a release of entirely forgettable films they aren't worth the candle.
Here are some snippets from the Londonist about the future of the critic in the digital age which included Nick Jasmes and Pete Bradsahw from the Guardian. Andrew Pulver in the Guardian also covered this discussion:
What we found frustrating was that both members of the panel and the audience had an incredibly unsophisticated knowledge of blogging and online journalism. More than once online writing seemed to conjure up an image of lonely spotty teenage fanboys, wanking in bad grammar about the movie they had just seen, in between whining posts about how misunderstood they are.
Editorial rigour is, in fact, even more keenly followed in online publishing because of the speed and the means available for writers, readers and editors to respond to one another: if an article is released with incorrect information or highly contentious material, it can be a matter of minutes to react and amend. This is a luxury, a privilege and an advantage that print journalism and publishing does not have, and we are keen to emphasise that online journalism and publishing is the better medium at this present time for editorial discipline. Rather than the unbridled, anarchic, grammatically incorrect writing that is so widely presumed when blogging is considered, there are many out there striving to emulate and even exceed the disciplines and ethics of print journalism.
Andrew Pulver's last paragrah however offers a salutary warning about the virtues and vices of blogging:
Steve Hunt, who works for the British arm of the Hollywood studio Paramount. "Blogging is, for us, just another carriage, a way to get through to our audience."
The reality is that any media platform can become subsumed, the point is to find trustworthy consistent critics. It may take the blogosphere a long time to reach that standard. I can't say that I can imagine this blog getting around to dealing with Sex and The City. I'm sure they will all cope in their Louis Vuiton outfits anyway.