The Role of the Critic

Margot Robbie dressed as the first ever Barbie doll greenscreened into 2001: A Space Odyssey
This Barbie is everything (Picture: Warner Bros.)

“Critics are nasty, jealous, jaded and bitter. They think it’s all about them. They’re know-it-alls. They want to appear superior to everyone else. They’re impossible to please. They don’t understand the tastes of ordinary people. They love to tear down other people’s hard work. Those who can do it, do it. Those who can’t do it, criticize. What gives them the right to have an opinion? We’d be better off without them.” – Roger Ebert (‘”Critic” is a four-letter word’, 2008).

Justifying the role of the critic is forever debated. See the above quote from the late critic Roger Ebert written fifteen years ago, when YouTube was still in its infancy, merely three years young, and Twitter (now X) was only two years old. To Ebert, his piece served as a reminder that the critic is as relevant in the film industry as in any other medium.

Today, every thought, idea, and stream of consciousness is uploaded constantly, and every app refresh brings a slew of nonsense and opinions drowning out the last. Film criticism, much like everything else, is lost amongst the noise. Admittedly, critics have been throwing toys out of their metaphoric prams for a while, claiming their role is redundant.

A quick Google search of the term ‘critic role dead’ brings up many titles from publications and penned responses from critics explaining their career’s implosion. With an article written for The Guardian, ‘Who needs film critics when studios can be sure influencers will praise their films? by Manuela Lazic, surfacing and gathering applause for its dissection of the relationship between influencer and critic, it, unfortunately, failed to make complete sense of the landscape, or, instead, a grasping of how either serves a better job than the other.

Margot Robbie as Barbie in a pink Dreamhouse. Barbie is looking into a mirror but the mirror doesn't have any glass.
Hi Barbie (Picture: Barbie, Warner Bros. Pictures)

Whilst the reviewer’s world has changed since I began over a decade ago, with Letterboxd now being the digital equivalent of a printed capsule review, influencers are all too quickly and unfairly dismissed. In Lazic’s article, they conclude the multimedia Barbie screening was made inaccessible to critics, with the prioritisation of influencers. However, with no confirmation from Warner Brothers to confirm an attendance bias, one could assume that instead, this over-subscribed screening, where attendees queued across Leicester Square, may have been a result of the sheer appeal of the movie, weighted alongside the omission of the film’s appearance on the week’s screenings for critics.

It is also crucial to say that where a multimedia screening may indeed have both critics and influencers in its attendance, its purpose is not to serve either primarily but rather a combination of the two alongside others in the industry, including but not wholly limited to press agencies, data analysts, and possibly, exhibitors. To better understand the difference, the multimedia Barbie screening had two photo opportunities adjacent to the auditorium for influencers and critics alike. Barbie-licenced popcorn, in collaboration with Proper, provided on every seat.

Yet, standard weekly critic screenings appear in modest, limited numbers, where each attendee focuses solely on scribing their notes rather than showcasing their attendance online. We’re lucky to be offered a coffee or light snack, not photo opportunities or merchandise. We work for an audience, not to build one. Audiences on the other hand, can, from experience working in influencer marketing, discern the difference between sponsored content, and genuine critical reviews, even if the Advertising Standards Authority may not be as strict as they should be in calling out mislabelled posts from the Internet stars.

Further, Lazic comments on the introduction given before the screening requesting positive-only comments online, “if they won’t allow for our negative reactions, why should they get our positive ones?” they rhetorically pose. When hearing the request from the Barbie press team, I became overcome with a different feeling; instead, dread swept over me as previous experiences of hearing that seemed to accompany poorly made films, such as Shazam! Fury of the Gods – something I made a point about after the screening, online and with a refusal to reply to the press team asking for comment.

Shazam bam, no thanks man. (Picture: Shazam! Fury of the Gods, Warner Bros. Pictures)

Though, here, a crucial point gets raised. What constitutes the difference between a review and an online reaction? Is it how instantaneous something gets posted to differ between a review and a reaction, or is it in its word count? Where invited audiences sign legally binding contracts to prevent speaking about a film before release, as was the case with Barbie, where is the tangible line before a contract gets breached. A blanket rule should apply to both rather than treating the two as separate. But again, to offer conjuncture, from experience, a multimedia embargo lifts in parallel with the critic embargo meaning that responses and reviews circulate simultaneously.

Yet, to suggest that some critics do not write negatively to prevent “avoiding ruffling any feathers” undoes the fabric of our role. A critic, across its many forms, serves its audience with trust built over time in both writer and publication. At every stage of a piece’s consideration, either online or in print, the work needs to, at its core, understand its audience. Whether a short capsule summary, as exampled by Victoria Luxford, for a repeat showing to appear in RadioTimes or a video essay by Leigh Singer for Little White Lies‘ YouTube, each article serves a different audience.

Or put more traditionally, the more witty reviews passed down in teachings from Pauline Kael, present differently to an in-depth analysis found in Sight & Sound. As many critics will attest, even after submitting a review, they have discovered that their editorial team may change their star ratings to give a polar extreme to elicit a better reaction amongst readers.

After all, as alluded to in the Guardian article, the editorial team behind any publication must economically justify the writer’s hiring, the piece’s publishing, and how it sits alongside its broader brand. So where reviews get sandwiched between adverts, with site activity measured in click-through rates or shares, it is understandable, albeit not justifiable, why critics see their work editorially shifted to explain its valuation.

Who will history remember? The Man or the bomb. (Picture: Oppenheimer, Universal Pictures)

In a similar vein, it could be reasonable to assume that this is where, as Lazic agrees, how streamers have affected and devalued the cinematic landscape for audience goers. The price of one ticket averages at £7.66 (Source: Comscore, 2022), whilst a subscription to Disney+ caps at £7.99 a month. Whilst other competitors may charge more, that video-on-demand site is a primary example, holding the proprietaries of the highest-grossing movies of all time: Avatar (both the 2009 version and its sequel), Avengers: Endgame and Titanic.

But instead, to reduce this fact to the death of critics, comparing the quantitative and qualitative value of a film to be “as worthwhile as a YouTube or a TikTok video” is a disregard for both the art that appears on those platforms and the ways that cinema, much like everything in life, adapts and changes. To accuse streamers of being the death of cinema is reminiscent of blaming the talkies for killing cinema in the 30s or home entertainment for ending it again in the 50s. Neither was proven true, and while streaming makes it harder for audiences to be encouraged to see something in cinemas, programmers have adapted to streamers in the same survival-of-the-fittest way as the critic.

Look no further than to the BFI, whose successful Film on Film Festival earlier this year brought audiences back in droves to watch films available in a physical format or on demand. Granted, showing movies on celluloid had been done by other cinemas for a while prior, but regardless, films become an event for the festival. Audiences would be willing to pay today’s inflated admission fares offered something else in addition to the screening to justify the price. Similar to how 3D and CinemaScope attempted to combat the 4:3 ratio of cathode television sets. It’s partly why, by looking at the scheduling in curated cinemas, films are accompanied by introductions, Q&As or are screened in an analogous format. It could also explain why attendance for multiplexes is struggling, with little justification to see films in a standardised setting where alternative venues offer complimentary programming as part of admission.

Except for Barbie and Oppenheimer, where both films continuously exceed financial expectations as they head into their third week in cinemas. Interestingly, neither has a UK distributor with an exclusive streaming platform: Barbie, distributed by Warner, and Oppenheimer by Universal. Similarly, Barbie draws audiences donned in pink, and the contrasting nature of Barbie and Oppenheimer (shorthanded as Barbenheimer) in an advantageous way becomes its marketable event like the BFI Film on Film Festival.

Will there be another Film on Film Festival? (Picture: BFI)

Of course, all this sits in adjacency to how audiences see critics. A great critic was, and always has been, more than someone who sat through hours of nonsense to recommend the diamond in the rough. Their reflections on the sociopolitical world echoed in their craft in each film. Whilst each writer has their way of working, to lump ‘hot takes’ and analytical writers into the same boat without understanding their audience or how each sits in separation is a failure in grasping the critic’s role.

As Lazic acknowledges, many now associate the part of the critic synonymously with Anton Ego from Ratatouille, so it seems only fitting then that I conclude with the strict foodie: “The bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defence of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends. (…) Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

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By Conor Riley

Conor is the Founder and Editor for Cinamore, a publication focused on giving power back to journalists. As a portmanteau of the word 'Cinema' and the Italian word for love 'Amore', Cinamore aims to highlight the love that we all carry for the art of the moving image.


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