question of the week: What does the death of Roger Ebert mean for mainstream film criticism?

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the best known film critic in the United States– nay, on the planet. His death last week was, in the public sphere, a blow not only to his fans but to the very institution of mainstream arts criticism… if such a thing can be said to exist anymore now that Ebert is gone.
Buzzfeed’s Adam B. Vary notes that Ebert “presided over the the slow, sad decline of the very thing that elevated him to that status in the first place,” not just his own battling-critics TV show At the Movies in the specific but the overall decline of print media, which was laying off arts critics (among others) as a penny-pinching measure. More depressingly:

It didn’t help matters that the 2000s marked Hollywood’s steady transformation into a factory of enormously budgeted franchise pictures geared to such a broad audience that they popularized the lovely term “critic proof.” The result: It’s just not all that fun (or illuminating) to watch a titan of film criticism debate a well-meaning movie reviewer over just how bad the second Charlie’s Angels movie is.

The headline at The International Business Times is far more blunt:

Roger Ebert And The Day Film Criticism Died: Movie Critic’s Death Symbolizes The End Of A Profession

Yikes. The IBT’s Christopher Zara elaborates:

[P]erhaps the saddest thing about Ebert’s death is that there is no one left to take his place. No prominent film critic working today — not A.O. Scott, Anthony Lane, Peter Travers, or anyone else — is likely to take up the mantle of “the world’s preeminent film critic” now that Ebert is gone. It’s not just because they could never fill his shoes; it’s because there are no such shoes left to fill.

Ebert was the last of a now-extinct breed: a professional movie reviewer whose opinion actually mattered… in the spirit of public intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre, who believed his chief duty was to observe the world and speak out in accordance with his own conscience. If that type of conviction still exists, it’s been drowned out by Rotten Tomatoes, online trolls and the comments section on

It’s easy to point out that there are many passionate critics who are still working and are likely to continue working for years to come. But it’s hard to counter the notion that all that matters anymore is the aggregate of all their opinions.

Zara again:

[I]t’s safe to say that there will never be a time again when a single movie critic will exert as much influence as [Ebert] did in his day. Ebert and his contemporaries — Pauline Kael, Gene Siskel — wielded their pens at a time when print media set the national conversation and movies sat at the top of the cultural totem pole. Today, most newspapers are struggling for survival while the average moviegoer visits the cinema fewer than six times a year.

To be sure, film criticism, like film itself, will always matter to some of us. We appreciate thoughtful analysis and an informed opinion, and we’ll love the movies until our dying day, even if the CGI-laden drivel being churned out by Hollywood refuses to love us back. The problem is, our numbers are dwindling. Anoint as we might a worthy Ebert successor, what chance does he or she have at breaking into the cultural mainstream in the way that Ebert did? How does one define a zeitgeist when none exists?

That last line has been haunting me since I first read it a few days ago: How does one define a zeitgeist when none exists? It rings with a general cultural despair that has sharpened into focus with Ebert’s passing.

What does the death of Roger Ebert mean for mainstream film criticism?

Do you see any hope in the new paradigm of crowdsourced criticism and tweeted “reviews”? Will something that more resembles intelligent, personal discourse take its place? What will the state of film criticism look like in 10 years?

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

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Edmund Charles Davis-Quinn
Mon, Apr 08, 2013 10:24am

I think his death means more to Twitter actually. Since his cancer Roger Ebert, has moved from only be a essayist and critic of film, to an essayist or the bizarre nature of America today. I hope more essayists, critics, and accessible academics, use his style and message on Twitter. It was a joy and a pleasure Mr. Ebert. I have been a big fan for a long time, even learning about film through the Movie Home Companion. And after his cancer and his radical honesty online he became one of my heroes. RIP, Mr. Ebert, you did good, you did very good.

Mon, Apr 08, 2013 11:47am

I think that the studio system has decided that it doesn’t need critics as long as it can get some vaguely positive-sounding quotes for the posters (for which Twitter, or its own staffers, will do). But the studio system is increasingly not where I look for interesting film-making anyway. Really, what can a critic usefully say about Transformers XVII: The Patriotic Violence?
Where critics are still invaluable is in bringing non-studio film to the attention of non-festival-going audiences. The first example that comes to mind: I’d never have heard of the excellent Waterborne if MaryAnn hadn’t reviewed it. Nobody in the mass media is going to promote something like that – because they aren’t being paid to do it.
I have little interest in aggregation; I very rarely look at Rotten Tomatoes. Democracy assumes that every opinion is worth as much as every other, which is clearly not the case here.
The thing that I’ve been saying for years is that one needs to find a critic who explains things: not just “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”, but why. That way, even if I don’t end up agreeing with a review once I’ve seen a film, I can get a fair idea in advance of whether it will be worth my time.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  RogerBW
Mon, Apr 08, 2013 2:34pm

Nobody in the mass media is going to promote something like that – because they aren’t being paid to do it.

Well, but Ebert and Kael and their contemporaries *did* sometimes champion movies that might have sunk otherwise (though they were studio movies, in the era before indies arose as a force). They could do that because a lot of people paid attention to them, and people were interested in challenging films, and people had access to them if they then wanted to see them.

Today, *no one* is getting paid to promote small films: not the major critics, and certainly not the minor ones, either. And it’s really *really* hard as a minor critic to build an audience if you’re writing about movies no one has heard of.

I would *love* to be writing about little films and bringing good ones to more viewers. (I’m constantly asked by indie filmmakers to review their films.) And then, if I do write about them, how likely would you to be able to see them?

ETA: When I say “no one is getting paid to promote small films,” which comes with the accompanying implication that some people are being paid for promote big films, I don’t mean that in a bribery sort of way. I mean merely that publications and Web sites that rely on advertising are getting that advertising from big studios, not from little indies, so they’re going to cover big films more often than small films… and also, again, that you cannot build a huge audience (which is what advertising needs is ads are going to pay) writing about movies that few people have heard of or have access to.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Mon, Apr 08, 2013 2:42pm

Yeah, what I see After Ebert is segmentation. There are the remaining “big” critics who seem mostly to be shills for the studios (hi, Peter Travers); nobody who isn’t a studio shill, or at least largely controllable, will build a mainstream reputation from now on. Then there are the “serious” critics who are more likely to be honest, but are limited in exposure – you and Berardinelli are the ones who come to mind. You may get screening invitations, but certainly not to everything…
I take your point on the audience-building, and on the access to “small” films – there’s no legal VoD solution I’m happy with, since they all rely on intrusive software and don’t let me shift downloads to off-peak times.

reply to  RogerBW
Mon, Apr 08, 2013 4:15pm

Well, I DO find the aggregate opinions on RT to be of a general use. If everybody hates the film, it is likely not very good. If everybody loves a film it has a better than even chance of being good–remembering that McDonald’s is the world’s most popular restaurant!

I think MaryAnn and some others find hidden gems; of course, some of the “elite” critics love films that are like watching paint dry. I like Japanese slice-of-life films, foreign comedies, foreign thrillers, no-brain-it-blowed up-reallllll-good popcorners, and everything from right to left to up and down. I showed CHARADE at my Sunday Film Series one time and a guy I know recently called it a big stinker. I like it a lot and he hates it. Who is right? You guessed it–we both are. Critics who try to develop hard and set rules for what constitutes a good film will break them every time for a film they like or dislike. Movies are right brain.

Keep going, Rog– … oops, I mean MaryAnn.

Emil Hyde
Wed, Apr 10, 2013 12:25am

The future of mass audience film is services like Netflix and Hulu producing their own content. So my guess is that comment aggregation its the future of criticism. The Yelpification of film criticism, if you will. Apart from that, with all movies a click away, availability becomes a nonissue. Links from sites like FF will BECOME the distribution system, much like Pitchfork dominates independent music.

Rebecca Dalmas
Wed, Apr 10, 2013 8:37am

His passing, the last of a kind, is a symptom of the larger cultural transformation. For thousands of years humans relied on oral tradition, for a relatively short time literacy, and now we are relying on what has been coined electracy.

Our world is a-changin’.

I agree with Emil Hyde’s comments about “yelpification,” and if we had to compare the new normal with another age, perhaps it lines up best with prehistoric trade, atleast on some levels…electronic media may be the apocalypse that acts as much as an equalizer as a natural disaster would.

Edward Bishop
Edward Bishop
Sat, Apr 13, 2013 4:10am

I liked him and you as critics and hope you continue to give your opinions! And I do not need wordy people to go on with their overblown opinions. He was an awesome voice. Do not piss on his memory!

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Edward Bishop
Sat, Apr 13, 2013 11:45am

No one is pissing on anything.

Do you have a reponse to the question?