We are delighted to introduce what we hope will be a regular feature on this blog: A ‘guest slot’ from friends, collaborators and other muckers whose opinions we value (though not always necessarily agree with).
This week: Ben Child examines the evolving ‘authority’ struggle between film bloggers & film journalists.
Who is the rightful daddy of film criticism?
Is it the eminent critic with the encyclopaedic knowledge of the great works of world cinema, who may nevertheless be rather out of touch with Joe Public (at least if the monumental box office success of blockbuster films such as 2009’s Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen is anything to go by). Or is it the heartfelt but occasionally naive blogger, who may see movies in much the same way as Joe does?
At the recent SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, the studios’ fascination with the fanboy brigade was illustrated by the size and sumptuous nature of its blogger’s lounge, repleat with iPads, free bar, popcorn and live music. The press lounge, by contrast, was described by one journalist as “a bit like working inside a filing cabinet”. The implication being that Hollywood is far more interested in courting the geek army these days than it is in those critics who work for more established organisations. The further implication being that the former are a pushover, while the latter are likely to make life hard for press officers pushing less-than-excellent product.
Some commentators have talked recently of the death of the professional film critic, and it’s easy to see why when reports suggest that Twitter is now the best indicator of a film’s box office around. The semi-professional film blogger often falls into the gap in between filmgoer and critic. The latter may see them as easy pickings for studios looking to get positive buzz out about their movie, while the former may be attracted to them precisely because they have not seen every Michelango Antonioni film at least three times: after all, neither have they.
But is the fanboy blogger really such a soft touch? And why is he or she often seen as being so? To answer this last question, one has to look back to the early days of internet-based film criticism, namely Harry Knowles’ Aint It Cool News, the hightly individual and hugely vibrant film site which has been running since 1996, presided over by its equally colourful editor-in-chief, who frequently boasts about being phoned up by Sylvester Stallone for advice on naming his latest movie.
Knowles is a self-proclaimed film geek, and while his sprawling prose is not always full of praise for projects (in fact, quite the opposite), he has in the past given drooling reviews to movies which were less popular with more mainstream critics. Possibly the most famous case in point is George Lucas’ 2002 Star Wars prequel, Episode II: Attack of the Clones, which Knowles was permitted to see months before anyone else in an almost unprecedented move. LucasFilm knew what an enormous fan of the series their target was, and used his reaction to generate positive early buzz about a movie which has ultimately come to be seen as a mere blip of half-decentness in the sea of disappointment which is the entire prequel trilogy. Interestingly, the review seems to have disappeared from the Aint It Cool site, though Knowles later posted an almost-as-glowing followup.
Was it this type of result which got studios thinking more and more about courting the fanboy? One suspects it may at least have contributed to film executives’ sudden determination a few years back to start spending much of their time at events such as San Diego’s Comic Con, gauging reaction from people dressed as Spider-Man and Wolverine to early footage from upcoming films. But does it really work? The answer, inevitably, is yes and no.
At the top end, the most successful movies at the box office are often those which have received almost universal acclaim from both mainstream critics and bloggers. A good example would be the work of Pixar, which has seen its films emerge as the best-reviewed movies of 2010 (Toy Story 3), 2009 (Up), 2008 (Wall-E) and 2007 (Ratatouille), according to the reviews aggregate site rottentomatoes.com. All these films also performed extremely well at the box office, with Toy Story 3 taking the No 1 spot worldwide for the year. The others were all in the top 10 films for their respective years of release.
Another good example would be Britain’s recent Oscar-winner The King’s Speech. Again, the critics adored it, whether they emanated from blogger circles or more traditional organs. “The King’s Speech is an exceptional work,” wrote Aint It Cool’s Capone, while The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw labelled Tom Hooper’s film “a richly enjoyable drama”.
The divergences between blogger and critic really begin to emerge, however, when one looks at fanboy-orientated movies such as last year’s The Expendables, the Sylvester Stallone vehicle which also featured a cavalcade of 80s and 90s action behemoths, from Jason Statham to Mickey Rourke (there was even a cameo segue starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis). Knowles himself was characteristically unsubtle in his adoration for the movie. “The Expendables is a capper. A party film. A movie to get giddy for,” he wrote. “I was trying to hold back, but I love this movie.” Gary Phillips of Hey You Guys, meanwhile, called the film “easily the best action movie you’re going to see all year”.
The Expendables has a rating of just 41% “rotten” on rottentomatoes.com: does this tell us that fanboy bloggers don’t have a clue what they’re talking about? Or does it, rather, tell us that fanboy bloggers like the same kind of movies that the people who read the fanboy blogs are likely to like? It may just be a matter of perspective. The studio executive might argue that The Expendables was written for the kind of audience which Knowles and Phillips represent. To them, it is a great movie, even if the critical world at large is unsure.
For the record, I remain unconvinced. A great film is a great film, and one which filmgoers of all shades ought to be able to enjoy. A decent critic should not ignore a strong but mainstream movie based on a tried and tested genre any more than they should discount a project because of its art house, world cinema roots.
Classic 90s films such as Total Recall or Starship Troopers are fabulous examples of action film-making in which director Paul Verhoeven loving parodied the extremes of the genre in a fashion which added delightful splashes of satirical colour for those who might usually detest such movies, yet hardly irritated those who adore them. It is quite possible to make excellent entertainment without pandering to the fanboys, and quite easy to make abhorrent trash when taking the opposite approach, as Samuel L Jackson vehicle Snakes on a Plane proved a few years back.
The latter was concocted largely based on ideas from geeky internet users, with the line “I have had it with these motherfuckin’ snakes on this motherfuckin’ plane” emerging directly as a result of fans’ determination to have Jackson say it. Snakes On a Plane was not the predicted smash at the box office which had been anticipated by studio execs.
The lesson, then, is that both bloggers and mainstream critics are hugely important for studios when trying to promote a film, but neither is the be all and end all of the equation. In fact, often they can perform different roles. The bloggers build advance hype about a movie, while the critics can often be the superior choice when it comes to getting under the skin of a movie and delivering a considered, impartial verdict on what it’s all about.
At the end of the day, it depends on what one is looking for as a consumer. The key for studios is not to see the mainstream critics as their enemy and the fanboy blogger as their friend, but rather to see both as part of the promotion process. Get one or the other onside, and your film is going to make some money in the short term. Get both onside and you could be looking at a product which will keep delivering for years to come.
Ben Child writes the regular Week in Geek column on comic book, fantasy and sci fi movies for The Guardian website. He is also a music critic for iDJ magazine and dance music blogger who produces his own tunes and DJs regularly around London.