Saturday 22nd July 2017,
Televisual

Have Film Critics Really Been Seduced By Hollywood?

Thanks to The Black Box Office for reposting!

UPDATE: Armond White responds to the response to his hosting gig. It is predictably caustic, riddled with inaccuracies, outrageous accusations, pseudo-Marxist rhetoric with vague hints of misogyny.

ORIGINAL: Well, Armond White has done it again.

I swore to myself after writing this post on White I would put him to rest. I’d said my peace. But his most recent performance at the NYFCC, which sounds as epic as White’s criticism, has raised an interesting issue for me.

Mainly: are film critics really tools of the industry?

Among Armond White’s long, long list of grievances against Hollywood and film critics is his charge of collusion, that critics have lost interest in film and have been clouded by the glitz of Hollywood. It’s one of the main reasons for his hostility to critics — and his naughty/hilarious behavior at the event. (I simply lack the time to go through all of White’s other complaints. Needless to say they are many and sometimes quite complicated. A lot of research suggests his grievances are personal and date back to very specific moments in the history of film criticism, along with spats he’s had with past critics, directors, etc. Who knows.)

But are critics really hacks?

I have a hard time believing it. Let’s take last weekend’s box office (via NYMag; reviews via Rottentomates; Green over 60% favorable; Red less):

1. True Grit: $15 million ($110.4 million)
2. Little Fockers: $13.8 million ($123.9 million)
3. Season of the Witch: $10.7 million ($10.7 million)
4. Tron: Legacy: $9.8 million ($147.9 million)

5. Black Swan: $8.35 million ($61.5 million)
6. Country Strong: $7.3 million ($7.4 million)
7. The Fighter: $7 million ($57.8 million)
8. The King’s Speech: $6.81 million ($33.3 million)
9. Yogi Bear: $6.8 million ($75.6 million)
10. Tangled: $5.2 million ($175.9 million)

Of the top 10, five were positively reviewed by critics, and five were negatively reviewed. This being awards/Christmas season, the good films were glowingly reviewed (Oscar bait) and the bad films with panned with a vengeance (blockbuster bait).

The bulk of the box office take came from panned movies. Indeed, critics often lament how their pans often don’t translate into lower box office receipts.

What’s the worst part? The movies with the highest budgets (and the most money for marketing) received the bad reviews. The good reviews, with the exception of Tangled, went to independent and relatively cheap films.

All evidence points to critics acting independently of studio marketing.

But that’s just one weekend. If we look across the top films for the entire year (as a proxy for a sample of big budget films; grosses are domestic), a different pattern emerges:

2009

Avatar
Transformers II
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
The Twilight Saga: New Moon
Up
Hangover
Star Trek
The Blind Side

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel
Sherlock Holmes

2010

Toy Story 3
Alice in Wonderland
Iron Man 2
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
Inception
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
Despicable Me

Shrek Forever After
How to Train Your Dragon
The Karate Kid

The big budget films that make money are more often than not critically well-regarded. So maybe film critics are tools?

Well, I’d say no. The argument needs more nuance. Why? First, many expensive films outside the top 10 were panned by critics, but audiences saw those films in fewer numbers, suggesting critics merely have good taste. Second, while the films above did get good reviews, most got just “okay” reviews. Universally-lauded films like Avatar, Inception and Up are a bit rare for Hollywood. Indie films, which go through more rigorous screening through festivals before distribution, are generally more favorably reviewed.

In some cases, I do believe critics can be seduced by studio marketing — I’d peg Avatar as a decent case. But more often than not, I think critics are more predisposed to be swayed by things like auteurism (Christopher Nolan as a director; Pixar as a studio), well-executed franchises (Harry Potter), and semi-inventive takes on otherwise conventional films (the darkness of Sherlock, the wit of Iron Man). In the absence of these things, fearing irrelevance, critics are likely to give a pass to some so-so films they feel audiences will enjoy (Karate Kid, The Blind Side; some critics see their jobs as helping audiences make ticket decisions; in a country with proliferating media options and more films released annually than ever before, one could argue this is a public service).

When all else fails, they pan.

White would prefer critics be beholden to “the film” and nothing else, but that’s an impossibility. Critics consider multiple factors, naturally: audiences, the director, the money that went into the film, who the film is marketed to, etc. White himself takes into consideration outside factors — I won’t go into naming what.

The charge that film critics are tools remind me of claims that journalists fail prey to company PR or government talking points. As a journalist, I can tell you: no writer wants to be known as someone who’s been seduced by marketing. It’s the worst charge. Most journalists look at marketers and PR people with disdain (I actually don’t, but I used to!). Writers would much prefer to be critical than sycophantic. Why? It sells more papers and gets more attention!

And, clearly, being critical works. White gets more press than probably any critic in New York, perhaps America, except Ebert and perhaps an assorted handful.

So the next time you read about the critic-industrial complex, don’t buy it. It’s just another writer, trying to be critical.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

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