Movie Critics: Impact on Industry and Indies

March 25, 2008–the Long Island-based Newsday announced that 36 newsroom employees took a buyout offer. Three of those leaving Newsday were the paper’s movie editor, Pat Wiedenkeller, and movie critics Jan Stuart and Gene Seymour.

The previous week the Bay Area Newspaper Group’s papers east of San Francisco had 107 employees take the buyout, including movie critic Mary F. Pols. Another paper in Northern California, the San Jose Mercury News, reassigned its movie critic Bruce Newman to a general-features beat.

I learned about all that bad news for people like me from my colleague Sean Means’ column in the estimable “The Salt Lake Tribune,” which has extensive coverage of movies–all kinds of movies.

Means points out correctly that “fewer critics mean fewer voices championing good movies, and fewer regional critics mean the louder voices are those from national papers and wire services, largely in New York City and Los Angelesse.

As Chris Lloyd, a former critic in Florida, commented on my blog: “By forcing a generic product onto your readers, you’re giving them a push to go elsewhere. And you’ve given them one less reason to see your paper as indispensable.”

In the Hollywood Reporter, the industry trade paper, reporter Gregg Goldstein wrote about the lack of space for movie reviews in major newspapers, and how independent films are suffering for it.

Goldstein cited “Taxi to the Dark Side,” Alex Gibney’s Oscar-winning documentary about the Bush administration’s policies allowing torture of detainees in the name of the War on Terror. When the movie opened in New York January 18, four days before the Oscar nominations were announced, neither the New York Daily News and The New York Post, ran a review in print.

New York Daily News also didn’t print reviews of two acclaimed movies about abortion, the documentary “Lake of Fire” and the Romanian drama (and Palme D’Or winner at Cannes) “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” though it ran online reviews.

The price for indie films is high. Without reviews in New York papers, indies don’t get the critics’ quotes or buzz they need to get sold to theaters in the rest of the country. That cuts back on box-office returns that are already meager, and reduces the chances of good DVD deals, which is crucial for films to recoup their production costs.

Some hold that the problem is too many indie films and that the marketplace is imposing its Darwinian order on things. Others believe the rise of quality criticism on the Internet ultimately will balance the reduced coverage in the dead-tree media.

For Sean Means, it’s a sad state of affairs if fewer voices in print are leading to fewer voices on film.