Talking Movies

July 19, 2017

Who cares what critics say anyway?

Uproxx.com had a much-discussed piece recently arguing that critics should not have to watch and review films like Transformers 5, because it’s bad for them to see a film they’re going to hate, dulling their palate, and not much use to anyone else either; as critics constantly carping about unstoppable cinematic behemoths gives the impression of rarified and tiresome elitism.

In that light it’s interesting to see that websitebuilder.org have an interesting new infographic

Click here for the link: https://websitebuilder.org/resources/online-reviews-infographic/

How do people make decisions on how to spend their money when they go to the cinema? It turns out that it’s not Rotten Tomatoes, the bane of many a studio executive and film director, but rather IMDb that is the most trusted source online. In fact, Rotten Tomatoes comes 5th in the ranking of importance in this infographic, behind even the late Chicago Sun-Times’ man legacy website RogerEbert.com. To wit, audiences do not care what critics on the most discussed critical aggregator say about new movies nearly as much as they care what other punters say about new movies. This is assuming IMDb’s ratings are driven mostly by punters not pundits, which is reasonable given that IMDb’s Top 250 is topped by The Shawshank Redemption, not Vertigo or Citizen Kane. This leaves film critics somewhat at a loose end…

Intriguingly Twitter meltdowns, like the official Ghostbusters account endorsing Hillary Clinton as a gesture against the imaginary patriarchy who weren’t going to its film last year, might also be even more spectacularly counter-productive than you’d think. The infographic from websitebuilder.org has it that if a retailer responds properly to a negative review on social media or online ratings site there is a 33% chance that the negative review will be deleted or changed into a positive. Or, you know, a major studio could just let someone start a Twitter war, shouting abuse at the very people they are meant to be politely asking for money, and see how that works out for the bottom line…

The takeaways must be that word of mouth is stronger than ever, but now in an online form, that critics are definitely not gatekeepers anymore, and that studios need to be very careful about how they respond to the ever proliferating trolls online for fear of digging holes even deeper.

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February 25, 2011

On Not Live-blogging the Oscars

“If the headline is big enough, then the story is big enough”. Events are only as important as the media deems them to be. Big Brother was a flop when it began on Channel 4 in 2000, not least because the tabloid press sneered constantly at the stupidity of the concept. When they decided to change their tunes and cheerlead for it instead, they created its audience by making it seem that who got evicted when somehow mattered. Big Brother hadn’t become any less inane; the media had merely decided that it was now important. So it was. And this is where the Oscars come in. I was driven to distraction last year by the spectacle of the Irish Times not only wasting space on Saturday simultaneously predicting the winners while sneering at how other contenders were better, but then trumpeting on their front page on the Monday that you could read their blog coverage of who did actually win. The ‘paper of record’ practically apologising for being published too early to be able to list the clowns who won the annual meat-parade infuriated me so much that I wrote a quick snippy demolition of the Oscars after the fact as a tangent to my sequence of articles on media manipulation, critical misperception and popular reception of cinematic successes. I just forgot to actually write that…

I stand by the reasons I gave for not doing a live-blog of the Oscars but I’d like to expand them and properly illuminate the most important one. There is the practical consideration. Why would an Irish media outlet, like Movies.ie who are currently trumpeting theirs, do a live-blog of the Oscars? It does not make sense for the Irish Times as opposed to the Chicago Sun-Times to live-blog the Oscars as most of their readers are asleep rather than watching TV. Automatically the live-blog becomes a stale transcript to be read the next morning. Which leads to my conceptual problem with live-blogging – it is performing live, for a writer. The meaning of performing live, which gives theatre its magic, is in its ephemeral nature. A live episode of ER carried a frisson for the American viewer then, entirely absent for the Irish viewer watching a re-run now, and wondering why people keep forgetting their lines and falling over props. A live-blog, if pure to its own conceptual ideal, would be deleted at the end of its writing. The reference to ER is intentional; it’s a scripted episode, performed live. But a live-blog is an episode improvised as the director shouts plot-points at the actors who try to respond creatively in the moment. I co-directed a comedy script the actors loved to riff on, and twenty minutes of improvisation around a forty minute show produces maybe five moments worthy of being scribbled into the script. Against those odds live-bloggers must write witty insights for post after post, minute after minute, hour after hour. I don’t believe Fry & Laurie writing together could produce something that was good live, and if they did it would be pointless keeping a transcript – writing is considered reflection, not spontaneous rambling, as Lester Bangs infamously discovered when he accepted a challenge to write a gig review live onstage…

Above all my animus towards live-blogging was that it is merely the newest way of giving the oxygen of publicity to an event that desperately needs to be ignored. The coverage by the Irish Times last year explicitly recognised that the actual winners were rarely the best the year in cinema had offered so it is too much to ask that media coverage be dialled down until it reaches the level of saturation the quality of the awards warrants? If the Oscars were a dog show, it would be Crufts. If people wanted to read a live-blog of Crufts that might be their concern, but the BBC pulled coverage of Crufts because of concerns over the cruel breeding that its awarding criteria encouraged, and the Oscars is a Crufts that most years denies entry to the most popular breed of dogs, and encourages only a tiny and unhealthy range of dogs to be bred for competition, while renegade dog-lovers both strive to keep some unfavoured breeds from extinction and supply the other unfavoured breeds beloved of the public. The Academy’s insane predilections have arguably distorted the entire medium of cinema. Walk the Line had trouble securing financing because it was a mid-budget drama. It wasn’t a blockbuster which could be sold to a mass audience, and it wasn’t a low-budget indie drama that could be sold on its Oscar nominations to a small audience, it was merely a cracking film – and that left it nowhere. The Oscars tend to squeeze serious drama into a tiny release window, downgrade the critical esteem afforded to quality mass entertainment, and encourage ‘independent’ movies to adopt a rigid set of clichés (think Sunshine Cleaning) in order to base their marketing campaigns around their Oscar nominations.

Any publicity given to the Oscars only perpetuates this destructive effect and so, as a small individual gesture, until the Oscars recognise quality blockbusters and skilful comedies, and develop a long-term memory greater than three months, this blog will only treat them annually to the healthy dose of derision they deserve. Read some more of the Academy’s greatest mistakes in Oscar Schmoscar Part II.

February 25, 2010

Adjusted for Inflation

Avatar will be discussed in this blog next week but the coverage of its success inspires this related and very simple question – why is it that every blockbuster that’s released seems to break a new box-office record?

Who could forget what summer 2007 felt like: “Shrek 3 has the biggest ever opening weekend, beating the previous record-holder Spider-Man 3, which beat the previous record-holder Pirates of the Caribbean 2”. Notice something suspicious here? How it seems that nearly all the records were set by recent blockbusters? Suspect that there’s an unholy alliance of lazy journalism and cynical PR operating? It’s a painfully easy headline to just rehash the press release from a studio boasting that its latest masterpiece has just “broken the record for the most takings between a Tuesday and a Thursday, before the 4th of July weekend, EVER!” It saves having to think about the quality of the film and its importance, if any. But box-office returns do not a classic make…

There are legions of now revered films from Citizen Kane to Fight Club that did disastrously on release. Critics and studios fought on for them though as prestige movies, and, over time, quality prevailed as their reputations soared while bad films that were more commercially successful were forgotten. Cameron Crowe almost anticipated that his excellent film would do badly at the box office by inserting Gonzo rock journalist Lester Bangs into Almost Famous in a fashion that says as much about film criticism as it does about rock journalism. Art, this fictionalised Bangs argues, is where the uncool can hide their ugliness and transcend themselves. Artists hide behind their work, but rock stars have to be beautiful – they are always centre-stage. In the sphere of rock music the only place the uncool can hide is behind the byline. The journalists are the true custodians of something pure and high-minded that gets lost out there in the hype of tours and record sales. When the sales figures are forgotten enough journalists hammering on about artistic integrity and how something neglected really was great can provide a weird afterlife, like that of The Velvet Underground, who couldn’t give records away and have now entered our consciousness as a pivotal and important 1960s band. So it is that film critics can hammer home the virtues of neglected works and chip away at popular trash.

The obsession with opening weekends, which sees a film sink or swim by whether it can make enough money to be an easy headline for Monday’s papers, is not just a betrayal of this function of journalism it is lobotomising cinema. Quality is not important, as 2007’s summer of the threequel proved. If you throw enough eye candy and CGI at the screen it can, combined with a huge PR push, generate a staggering opening weekend. Once word of mouth gets out it’ll collapse precipitously but who cares? It’s not like you’re crafting anything of lasting value, certainly not a sleeper film that will make money for months on end like When Harry Met Sally did as more and more people heard about its charms.

The banner headlines about record-breaking opening weekend box-office grosses become hilarious if you do the unthinkable and adjust the figures for inflation. Titanic is the only film from the last 15 years that appears in the list of Top 10 Films of all time once you adjust their box-office gross for inflation. No Spider-Man 3 or Shrek 3 trouble the Top 10 despite shrill protestations of their record-breaking popularity. Odd, huh? But this note of reality destroys not only tabloid journalism but recent serious journalism. Peter Biskind has created a grand narrative that 1960s Hollywood was losing money precipitously because it was making films like The Sound of Music instead of Easy Rider. Well Easy Rider‘s box office isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit next to that of The Sound of Music. This grand narrative, which is almost an origin myth for sex, violence and drugs equating to serious drama and less explicit fare being censored triviality, falls apart as the figures prove that when given a choice audiences went to polished escapist crowd-pleasers over bleak grimy slices of nihilism. Star Wars was greeted as the Second Coming after a decade of films like Taxi Driver and Chinatown which critics revered but audiences, reeling from Watergate, Vietnam and stagflation rightly regarded as downers. Spielberg, derided by Biskind as a mere entertainer, has two entries in the Top 10 Films of all time!!

All of which raises questions that will be dealt with next week in discussing Avatar. Adjusting for inflation raises uncomfortable questions about what appeals to audiences by suggesting that people now are in fact historically disinterested in cinema-going despite sensational headlines about record box-office business. So let’s remember, it’s called show-business. Let’s have a little more focus on the show and a little less on the business. Leave the opening weekend financial statistics where they belong, on the back pages, of the Hollywood trade papers…

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