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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

question of the day: If ‘Variety’ doesn’t see any future in film criticism, is there any hope for it?

I’ve been feeling very, very depressed lately about the prospects of ever making anything like a reasonable living at this film criticism game. And this shocking news did not help: On Monday, Variety, the legendary Hollywood trade publication, laid off its chief film critic, Todd McCarthy. Editor Tim Gray, in a memo to Variety staffers, said:

It doesn’t make economic sense to have full-time reviewers.

If Variety doesn’t believe that film criticism makes economic sense, maybe that is the case. Maybe film criticism doesn’t make economic sense. In his piece on the McCarthy layoff, Patrick Goldstein at The Big Picture writes:

Virtually every survey has shown that younger audiences have zero interest in critics. They take their cues for what movies to see from their peers, making decisions based on the buzz they’ve heard on Facebook, Twitter or some other form of social networking.

If anyone pays any attention to critics at all, it’s through aggregation sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, which offer a consensus score based on an accumulated ranking of critical opinion.

…when you turn your chief reviewer into a freelancer, it certainly tells you, loud and clear, how little value the job has in today’s increasingly critic-unfriendly market.

See, what’s scary here isn’t that Variety is clueless but that Variety may be right.

McCarthy will supposedly continue as a freelance critic for Variety — and that’s a terrible snub, too: “We love what you’re doing, we just want to compensate you less for it.” Or, as Roger Ebert summed it up:

In other words, Variety was hopeful that without a regular pay check, McCarthy would put his life on hold to do a full-time job on a piecemeal basis.

There’s the rub: I don’t think this is the kind of job that can be done well if it’s not done full time… at least, I cannot imagine doing this if I were seeing only one movie a week and reviewing just that one movie. A film critic needs to be immersed in film… and since my overarching thesis is looking at why these movies now, I need to see as many new movies as possible in order to even try to put it all into some context.

The notion of a regular paycheck (not to mention benefits! and vacation time! and sick time!) at this gig feels like an impossible fantasy to me. I had been holding out some hope that something approaching a living that didn’t require me to do other work might be possible between this blog and selling reviews and commentary to other outlets (on Ebert’s piecemeal basis), but lately that feels like a remote possibility, too. It had been taking all the running I could do just to stay in place, and these days I’m having to run even faster, and now I’m losing ground.

Certainly, from my perspective, too, film criticism doesn’t seem to make any economic sense.

So, the question is, If Variety doesn’t see any future in film criticism, is there any hope for it?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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