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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

what would happen if critics simply stopped reviewing bad movies?

jaysherman1

Serious publications respected for their book reviews — The New York Times (h/t bronxbee); The New Yorker — have been of late seriously reconsidering the purpose of negative book reviews. No one has laughed at them, as far as I’m aware. Isaac Fitzgerald, the new books editor at Buzzfeed, has said flat out that he won’t publish negative reviews at all (Poynter).

I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before someone suggests that perhaps one way for critics and movie publications to cope with the tsunami of movies is simply to not spend time writing reviews of the bad ones.

What would happen if critics simply stopped reviewing bad movies?

I know some readers would be sad, because lots of film fans love a good smackdown of a bad movie. But what impact could such a movie have on the industry, and on readers on the whole? Would it make a bit of difference? Though there’s solid evidence that movies that get good reviews do better at the box office than those that get bad reviews (Collider), we still see bad movies cleaning up at the box office all the time.

What do you think?

(If you have a suggestion for a Question, feel free to email me.)


  • Danielm80

    I think there’s value in book reviews which point out that The da Vinci Code isn’t a realistic portrayal of the Church and Ann Coulter’s essays aren’t a realistic portrayal of…life. There’s also value in film reviews that question Michael Moore’s fact-checking and the validity of Heaven is for Real. And we certainly need critics to ask whether Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey are stories about healthy relationships.

    And then there’s Gigli. Critics saved a lot of people from seeing Gigli.

    I do think that people would have attacked those films and books even if there weren’t paid critics. But the critics gave those opinions a wider platform and greater credibility.

  • LJS

    If the critics say not just that “it stinks”, but why, then maybe the reader/viewer learns something. (I fear Hollywood learns nothing from reviews and commentary.) It’s the difference between “I don’t like this pasta sauce” and “it needed more oregano”.

  • Martin

    The world would be that little bit more bland. I would take the vitriol of a good critic than the praise of a poor critic any day.

    I wonder whether a critic, under such a system, would get paid based on what they review or what gets published. If there’s a possibility of reviewers giving better reviews purely to get paid, it’s a pointless system.

    If a critic cannot be critical, then what is the point?

  • RogerBW

    If negative reviews vanish, a mere mention is a positive review. At which point the review section can be reduced to a list of titles. I’m sure that would be much cheaper.

    The better-publicised a book or a film is, the easier it will be to find people saying positive things about it, and so the more important it is that negative things about it be said in public. I think that’s true whatever its actual quality.

    Bearing in mind that hardly anyone reviews everything, and even if they do they may not have got to a particular item yet, I think there’s a need to distinguish between “we have not yet considered this” and “we didn’t like it”.

  • Bluejay

    Your first paragraph makes it sound like the New York Times is itself casting doubt on the value of negative reviews. But is that the case? The Times article you link to features two authors defending the value of negative reviews.

  • I think the fact that the Times gave space to two book reviewers to debate the matter lends a sense of seriousness to the concept. I mean, the Times is not paying anyone to debate the deliciousness of chocolate, or the fluffiness of kittens. So the Times clearly considers this matter, at a minimum, not settled.

  • Jess Haskins

    I haven’t read the links, just going off what MaryAnn said. But I don’t think critics should limit themselves to reviewing (or publications to running) only *good* work. I think instead they should focus on *interesting* work. “Interesting” of course being hugely subjective depending on the tastes of the critic and/or publication, as it should be.

    Was the work attempting something novel and substantial? Did it wholly fail to achieve it despite lofty ambition? Worth covering. What happened there? Shambling, low-rent exercise in cliche, brainless summer blockbuster, or cynical cash-in? Skip it. Won’t change the minds of anyone who was gonna see it anyway.

    You already do this to a degree, MaryAnn — frequently in your list of upcoming stuff you’ll note stuff you haven’t seen and have no plans to. My usual response is a hearty “and why would you!”

    Let’s have more of that. And while we’re at it, let’s spend more time talking about why stuff is interesting rather than why it’s good or bad.

  • austencollings

    I found it difficult to take the New Yorker article seriously. Not only are Siegel’s claims about the Internet/technology radically changing are debatable (to put it mildly), but he doesn’t spend anywhere near enough time discussing what constitutes being negative. This is a big problem, since it immediately puts reviewers with feminist/anti-racist/etc leanings at a disadvantage. Point out sexism/racism/etc in a movie, and even if overall the review is positive, plenty of people behave as if the reviewer personally called for the cast & crew to be shipped directly to the surface of the sun! Avoid reviewing problematic films, and the reviewer won’t be able to review movies that most people are interested in seeing- and that’s assuming the reviewer can actually find many movies to be positive about!

    As Heller & Prose in the NYT point out, constructive criticism is a important function of reviews for creators. As someone approaching this mainly from the POV of an audience member, however, may I just say that negative reviews are extremely important in helping me decide what’s worth seeing. Thanks to ads, it’s very easy to find arguments in favor of seeing something. If I didn’t find a negative review, I’d assume that reviewer was dishonest and move on. (If I sometimes ignore them, it’s because junk like Hansel & Gretel: Witchhunters represents a different kind of movie-going experience than a well-made popcorn movie like Thor.)

    Besides, if professional reviewers were expected to stay mum about things they don’t like, then every bad movie they’re forced to sit through would be a total waste of time. Reviewers would lack incentive to give movies of uncertain quality a chance. Plus nobody should have to suffer through the Smurfs or Transformers uncompensated.

  • David_Conner

    One among a number of severe problems I have with this idea is that it appears to assume reviewers can “know” ahead of time whether a work is “good” or “bad.”

    On the one hand, sometimes a “bad” movie can surprise you and turn out to be much more entertaining than expected. But it’s the opposite scenario that really dooms the idea, I think.

    What if you see a highly-lauded movie that’s both a critical and box-office smash. Oscar nominated, made by a famous director, the talk of the town… and you see it and hate it? Are you supposed to censor yourself? Remain silent? Your readers will want to know what you think of the movie, one way or the other.

    (Actually, now that I think about it, I guess that’s a difference between movie and book reviewers. I imagine virtually every movie reviewer of note reviewed last year’s Best Picture winner, *Argo*, and would have many other major releases in common. But there would be no similar book that “every” book reviewer has read.)

    And on yet another tangent, every reviewer has to by necessity perform SOME sort of triage on what she reviews/doesn’t review, and every reviewer will have her own personal set of rules to make those judgements. One of which is probably “I think there’s an infinitesimal chance of this movie having any redeeming value whatsoever, or of my having anything interesting to say about it.”

    But making that any sort of editorial rule for a major publication? No.

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