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Are social media killing film criticism?

By Todd Leopold, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Traditional movie critics battered in recent years, thanks to media struggles, marketing, noise
  • Though often viewed as ivory-towered skeptics, they have role to play in conversation
  • Social media making critics of us all; studios effective in harnessing power
  • Word-of-mouth spreads fast, still effective tool -- but so are good reviews
RELATED TOPICS
  • Movies
  • Media
  • Twitter Inc.

(CNN) -- Everybody's a critic.

No, really. In our tightly wired, Twittering world, everybody's a critic -- or expected to be one.

Movie studios count on early viewers to create buzz through blog posts and online comments. Fans' day-of-release tweets play into word-of-mouth. Established film reviewers contribute their takes.

As summer movie season kicks into gear Friday, there are more voices than ever. And that's just fine with Matt Atchity.

Atchity is the editor-in-chief of Rotten Tomatoes, the popular film review aggregation site. It's at the nexus of old-style movie reviewers, who write several-hundred-word essays on current releases, and members of the public, who increasingly contribute their digital two cents.

The public can do it through RottenTomatoes.com as well as RT's parent company, Flixster, the social site that characterizes itself as "the world's largest online movie community." There are also other review aggregators and online communities, such as RT's rival, Metacritic.

He sees value in all sides.

"I think there's a growth in the awareness and the interest in a movie fan," he says. "When you first start watching movies, you just want to see what the cool movie is. When you're younger, probably critics don't matter as much ... but as you get older, [and] you start to think 'my time is a little more important' or you're just getting more sophisticated in your film tastes ... you at least can get some education on what you're watching."

That may be small consolation to the nation's established film critics, who have been battered by print media's struggles, studio marketing strategies and Internet noise. Variety's longtime critic, Todd McCarthy, was recently let go after 31 years; the TV show "At the Movies," which in its most recent incarnation featured The New York Times' A.O. Scott and the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips, has been canceled.

Sean P. Means, the Salt Lake Tribune's movie critic, has kept a list of all the movie critics who have lost their jobs or been reassigned since 2006. Those professionals serve a function, he says.

"My initial point was every time a paper loses the movie critic job ... they lose a voice, and they lose a voice that's unique to that paper," he says. Local movie critics speak to their communities in distinct ways, he says, and don't just review the blockbusters. They can pick up on films or aspects of films that might be important to a particular city.

What's also being lost, says author and former film critic Jerry Roberts, is criticism's literary tradition. Roberts traced the history of the genre in the recently published "The Complete History of American Film Criticism" and observes that thoughtful film pieces "are going by the wayside."

Though he acknowledges the need for a basic judgment -- most readers just "want a good Friday night," he says -- he laments the decline of more nuanced work.

"The people who got into the business in the first place in the film generation [of the '60s and '70s], we wanted to write those things," he says.

Marketing gold

Of course, the public and studios have long had a love-hate relationship with critics. They've been seen as ivory-towered authority figures with axes to grind, and many haven't helped their cause with their attitudes toward mainstream flicks.

As Roberts' book shows, it's been that way for decades. As far back as 1933, Nation film critic Alexander Bakshy took a dim view: "Not only are there woefully few [films] that are worthy of serious consideration, but if you happen to be a film critic you are obliged to stop and analyze the incessant flow of bilge issuing from the film factories in Hollywood and elsewhere as if it were really to be measured by the standards of intellectual and artistic achievement," he wrote.

As the Internet has created more critics, it's also created more opportunities for studios to work around those critics or co-opt them.

"Movie studios are better than anyone at taking even a partial testimonial and turning it into marketing gold," says marketing expert Pete Blackshaw, an executive with Nielsen Digital Strategic Services. Social media participants now play a larger role in selling movies; studio efforts start a year or more before a film's scheduled release, enlisting opinion leaders, hardcore fans and various professionals to raise a film's profile.

The Cashmere Agency was tapped to promote 2009's "Ninja Assassin," starring the relatively unknown Korean performer Rain.

"We wanted to make it relevant to U.S. audiences," says the agency's president, Seung Chung. To that end, the firm hired Raekwon of the hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan to do an original song and video, incorporating clips from the film. That, in turn, was picked up by blogs, which led to stories in the trades, which increased fan chatter.

The film did poorly with mainstream critics; RottenTomatoes.com's Tomatometer rated it at a poor 25 percent. But it did better with viewers, who helped it earn a steady $38.1 million at the domestic box office.

But marketing -- whether old-style TV commercials or the latest social media app -- can't do everything.

"It still comes down to a lot of the same things that have always made movies successful: quality, scale or a hook," says Josh Rose, digital creative director for the advertising and marketing firm Deutsch Los Angeles.

For all the attention paid to the immediacy of the Internet, it takes time to save or kill a film.

Much was made of "Bruno's" poor showing last year, with Time's Richard Corliss among others blaming its decline on the "Twitter effect" of instantly expressed negative word-of-mouth. But though such quick talk can have an effect, it's one of many indicators, says Blackshaw. With the wealth of data those notes provide, studios can find ways of combating the buzz, including redirecting their marketing efforts.

'Adapt or die'

So where does that leave movie criticism, the field of James Agee, Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris and Siskel and Ebert? Will the more thoughtful critics find themselves increasingly marginalized?

The answer may come from a surprising source: Roger Ebert himself. Since losing his physical voice to cancer, the famed Chicago Sun-Times critic has made his written voice more prominent than ever, engaging movie fans on his Web site, sending out frequent Twitter updates and highlighting little-known films with his books and movie festival.

Read how Roger Ebert tweets about food, too

In a recent essay, "The Golden Age of Movie Critics," he took a generally optimistic view. Though acknowledging the challenges of making a living at movie criticism, "I'm feeling good these days. ... I know good movies are valued everywhere, and good writing," he wrote, singling out several bloggers and contributors.

Means, too, believes that the future of criticism isn't as dark as a vacant theater. It's just in the midst of the same changes affecting many other fields, he says.

"It's adapt or die," he says. "If you want this job, and if you think you're good at this job, and if you think you want to keep this job, you've got to adapt to the situation," by blogging, engaging audiences and establishing a name.

And, he adds, it's not like the critics on his departed list have gone away. Some have started their own sites, joined online-only outlets or gotten involved in other aspects of the film business. (McCarthy took a position with the New York Film Festival and recently started a blog at IndieWire.)

They remain part of the conversation.

"It was brought to my attention by people who are on the list," he says, " 'I'm not dead yet.' "