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Counterpoint: Should Critics Have to Pay to See Films?

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Nov 05, 2010 | 1:02pm EDT

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This week, Film Threat’s Mark Bell took up the standard to march for Kevin Smith’s idea insisting that critics should have to pay to see films rather than seeing them in advance for free. While there was much kerfuffle over the original tweets about this – and the subsequent verbal lashing Mr. Smith delivered upon me via that very same Twitter account – I haven’t addressed this idea specifically, mostly because I felt it was the silliest part of the rant. But now that a fellow critic has attempted to reinforce Smith’s assertion, I felt it was probably time to tilt at this particular windmill. Here’s Bell’s argument:

Right now, because a critic or film writer can see most things for free, they/we see anything. It’s part of the gig, you see as much as you can. But when I have to pay for a movie? Much more discerning, and I tend to see movies that I actually have an interest in seeing. I’m not going to sleep through a screening (never have anyway), not going to walk out and I’ve got more, personally and financially, invested. It’s more than just my job and privilege, it’s my money on the line too. I think this could lend itself to more rapturous praise, but also more damning criticism (folks love it when their money goes far, hate it when they feel short-changed; this emotion would creep into the reviews but, at the same time, real professional critics who know what they’re doing would find a way to measure their response appropriately).

Kevin SmithNow I understand why Smith wouldn’t mind critics paying – as he said recently in a radio interview: he doesn’t need us anymore; we’ve done our job for him already. He has an established audience, and we certainly haven’t helped him recently. Why not let his hardcore fans see it for free – then glow about it – and let the critics cough up a little coin? But this is Bell’s job. He should know better. Here are the three reasons this idea – and Bell and Smith’s notions of what a critic is – is just wrongheaded.

The first and most important is also where I kind of get on the bus with Smith. There are a lot of bad critics in this business. And by that I don’t mean to say that I disagree with their opinion or disagree with their writing; I mean that they don’t love movies. Every once in a blue moon I have someone tell me I’m too lenient on films or that I vary wildly with even many of the guys I review with. Of course, their face always falls when I respond, “Well, I love movies.” Quentin Tarantino once said that there are two types of people, those that love movies and those that love the movies they love. Everyone loves movies, right? Check every dating site out there – virtually every profile contains the same line: Must love movies, music and [fill in a third thing]. But ask yourself, would those people want to watch six movies in a row, uninterrupted? Would they walk into a Hillary Duff romantic comedy with a smile on their face because they hope they might like it? Would the idea of talking about the same movie for two hours straight excite them?

You see, I’m that guy. The first kind. I love movies. And I walk into every movie, no matter who made it or what it is about, ready to love it; after all, nobody in their right mind drops $10 and sits down with their arms folded ready to write scathing lines disemboweling it. But I’m not like the majority in this business. Some people love the movies they love. As Bell said: “But when I have to pay for a movie? Much more discerning, and I tend to see movies that I actually have an interest in seeing.” At the end of the year I pay to see some of the worst movies out there as well as pay to rent or stream the reputedly worst movies of the year in order to write my worst-of-the-year list. Seventy-five percent of the crap I watch doesn’t even make it, but I enjoy the experience for what it is nonetheless ... Because I LOVE this stuff.

If you’ll watch anything put in front of you “because it is your job” but won’t do so with your own free time and money, or if you have to cough up your own money in order to experience the visceral nature of being “personally and financially invested”, perhaps you are in the wrong career. There are a number of fantastic careers in the film industry for which your talents would be better suited – but this is likely not one of them. And that’s no reason to shut out the ones that are cut out for this.

Clerks IISecondly, a critic’s job isn’t just to tell people whether or not they should see a movie; it's to help people enjoy their movies more. I’m not a marketing stooge; most of my colleagues aren’t marketing stooges. Sure, marketing stooges exist in this industry, and we make fun of them, but this gig isn’t us just typing the words “I liked it.” An impact on the box office isn’t our job. Our job is telling you about the film in such a way that you not only decide whether or not to see it but take away something that enriches your experience of watching the movie – whether it be something funny you might not have noticed about the quality of film or acting, or an idea or theme the director is playing around with that the audience might not get right away. Many people even read the reviews after the fact to help them understand a film better or see if anyone else saw it the same way they did. Removing that kind of review from a lot of films – and doing away with press screenings would do just that – takes away from the enjoyment many people get out of the experience. Not everyone gets to pal around with movie geniuses every day or play stickball with Kevin Smith; some people need to read the conversation rather than have it.

Finally, the core idea is a joke because critics don’t pay for movies – our papers or sites do. We already have to pay upfront to see many movies now that the studios felt weren’t good enough to show to critics, and we just expense our editors for them. But what that means is that an outlet will only want to pay for something that pays them back – which means paying to see the movies everyone wants to read about rather than paying for the ones they don’t. And that means big-money corporate films with $50 million in marketing will always trump coverage of the $50,000 B&W indie that is 10 times as good but needs 100 times the help getting people to see it.

Critics will never be cut out of the screening process. Period. And if magically press screenings were finally done away with, one studio would resurrect it to get scads of cheap publicity, dominating the vacuum left behind and causing other studios to wonder aloud “Why should they get all of the coverage?” – you know, before they start up screening for the press again as well. Filmmakers and studios don’t have to show us their films, but not showing us says more about how they feel about their films than it does what they think about critics.

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