Fade to black? Gerald Peary's For the Love of Movies looks at a crisis in film criticism.

SFIFF52: Movie-Scribe Meltdown

David Winks Gray May 2, 2009

This just in: The newspaper industry is in trouble. And, as you know, it has been suffering since well before the economy took its nosedive. A connected phenomenon close to our hearts at is that film criticism—as practiced in the daily/weekly/monthly newspaper/magazine—also stands at the precipice. And while no one seems to agree on what the future of film reviewing will be, there is consensus that we are seeing change. Little acknowledged in this increasingly common discussion is that film writing over the past 100 years in America has gone through not one, but several major shifts in style, focus, concept and delivery. has put together a panel of nationally/internationally known critics to discuss all this Sunday, May 3, at 6 p.m., in connection with a film that clearly describes the issues and sketches the history, Gerald Peary’s For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism (which screens at 3:45 p.m.). In the meantime, we checked in with a few key figures of Bay Area film criticism to find out what’s been happening on the ground here.

We asked the critics for background on their reviewing jobs, their take on the economic pressures the newspaper industry faces and thoughts about where film criticism is heading. We also checked in with one Internet-based film writer for perspective. Note: The transcripts below were taken from longer phone and e-mail dialogue; occasionally, the order of statements has been moved around or edited slightly to make for more coherent reading.

Mary Pols
Former movie critic for the Contra Costa Times, where she had been writing for approximately 11 years

I left the Contra Costa Times last March. I took a buyout and I did so because it seemed like the writing was on the wall. I felt if I didn’t take the buy out I could very easily wind up getting laid off. And, as it turned out, there were enough people who took the buyouts last March that they didn’t lay anyone off. But then in July they laid off a bunch of people, including the food critic and the book critic. It looked like I would have gone then. But when I left, they didn’t replace me. What they do is they take wire reviews from other Dean Singleton papers. [William Dean Singleton is the CEO of MediaNews Group, a privately owned news company that runs 54 daily newspapers, including the Contra Costa Times, the San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune and the Marin Independent Journal.] When I look back on some of my early reviews, like my review of the first Lord Of The Rings movie, I think I was allowed to do 1,200 words, and by the time I finished at the paper I was pretty much begging to be allowed to do 700 words. If the review was over 500 words the first question from my editors was why it was so long. So the space really decreased. And it is much harder to write a thorough 600 word review than a 1200 word one.

Film criticism is valued less now than it used to be, but it also has a different value. I taught an undergraduate film criticism class at Berkeley, and when I asked them who their favorite movie critics were, most of them said Rotten Tomatoes [a site that aggregates opinions into statistics]. People are being exposed to film criticism now, they’re just not being exposed to an individual now, the way they used to. I have to make money in other ways now as well. I have to freelance beyond movie reviews to pay the bills. It is absolutely getting harder for critics to make a living now.

Kelly Vance
Currently the sole film critic for the East Bay Express as a freelancer, a writer whose history with the Express goes back to 1978

The East Bay Express has always devoted a generous amount of space to film criticism, including long reviews, capsules, feature stories, news stories about the local movie biz, columns, and blogs. That hasn’t changed through successive ownerships.

They’ve never had more than two critics at a time. Ten years ago, 1999, I was sharing movie reviewing chores with Michael Covino. Village Voice Media [owners of the paper from 2001 to 2007] tended to use movie reviews from its corporate cadre of reviewers, but allowed local reviewers like myself some space. If VVM had their way they would have four or five reviewers, most of them in Los Angeles, reviewing all the movies for all of their papers. If you want to have local coverage, you can’t have someone in New York or Los Angeles writing about what’s going on at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts this weekend. When the new local owners took over in 2007, the film coverage went back to local. I am the chief movie reviewer and write all the long reviews as well as some capsules, although other critics (none of them local) contribute capsules for films I don’t see, in the interest of comprehensive coverage.

Eventually a lot of news organizations may go out of business, but new ones will spring up to take their place. And whether you read it on your handheld device or on a piece of paper is completely irrelevant to me. It’s the content. The critic, because of his or her experience, writing style, and a few other intangibles, brings something to their interpretation of a film that someone on Yelp [the Bay Area-originated company that specializes on short reader-created views on many topics] may not.

Jonathan Curiel
Writes about film, foreign affairs and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle, and has been with the Chronicle for over 20 years

The San Francisco Chronicle has had a stable of writers and critics that have numbered anywhere from five to seven who regularly write about film, and I don’t think that number has changed. In fact there may be more people at the paper writing on film now than ever. Even in the last year or so, the amount of space the Chronicle devotes to movies has increased. The new Friday movie section has boosted the amount of space the Chronicle devotes to movie criticism.

The economic pressures affecting newspapers are the same pressures affecting the U.S. economy; there is this dramatic downturn, and part of the downturn involves advertising. There are fewer companies and businesses advertising in the papers. The personal ads and want ads used to be a boon to papers like the Chronicle and others, and those have, if not disappeared, fallen dramatically because of Craigslist and other services. So, the effect on the paper is that the paper has experienced three rounds of buyouts in the last three or four years, and has lost, with this last buyout, probably more than 200 employees.

Bruce Newman
Currently a general assignment reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, he has been at the paper for nine years, as was the paper’s film critic until one year ago

Someone had just left when I arrived at the San Jose Mercury News, and when I came, they simultaneously brought back Glen Lovell and hired me. So he and I were the paper’s two film critics for about six years. I did it for eight years, it’s been a year since I stopped, and I think Glen stopped a couple years before me. Currently there’s no film writer at all at the paper and the paper picks up wire reviews and stories from the New York Times, AP and the Los Angeles Times. I almost never write on film anymore.

There’s been a huge decline in advertising at all papers from the New York Times down. I think the Mercury News was particularly hard-hit by the massive reduction in classified advertising, because that was almost free money they were getting in. When Craigslist came along, classified advertising almost vanished, so all newspapers have been hurt by that. And now lately, the economy has hurt the newspapers and the other big problem is that the Internet has cannibalized a lot of the audience for print newspapers, and they can’t make as much money on print advertising. So, even if everybody that stopped reading the print version was reading the online version, which I don’t think they are, they would still lose money because online advertising doesn’t pay as well as print advertising.

Gregg Rickman
Has worked as a freelance movie reviewer for SF Weekly since 1996

The critics at SF Weekly were always freelancers, after Michael Sragow left in the late 1990s. The Weekly’s chain was an early adaptor of the idea of using reviews from other papers in the chain. The big shift there away from local critics came in 1997-98, after Mike left for the Baltimore Sun.

It is well documented that a lot of the problems at say the Tribune Co. (L.A. Times/Chicago Tribune, etc.) come from the huge debts run up by an owner who was acquiring papers, baseball teams, etc. Many individual papers are or would be profitable taken on their own account. The death of the newspaper industry, if it comes to that, is top-down suicide due to greed and mismanagement. Blaming the Internet for these problems (as is usually done) is like blaming mammals (that new species) for the death of the dinosaur. The real problem was that damn meteor.

The big film studios have achieved their decades-long dream of dumbing down popular film criticism to applause meters cued to how much advertising is purchased. I don’t see the local situations improving. TV is no better (see the "two Bens" on Reel TV as emblematic—there’s no room anymore for even a middle brow critic like Ebert). I also don’t see any way out for would-be professionals via the Internet. It’s possible to do great work online, but how it becomes a paying proposition has baffled greater minds than mine. People who want to write about film will, out of sheer love for the medium, but the 1960s-90s era, when it was possible to make a nice career in the field, was an historical anomaly not likely to be repeated for the foreseeable future.

Craig Phillips
Writes for GreenCine and its GreenCine Daily

There are still so many fantastic film critics writing online these days—even more than there were a year or so ago, due in part, alas, to some of their magazines and newspapers folding or cutting back. Writing online, especially when writing on their own blogs, I think critics have more room for an intimate, more expansive kind of writing that they haven’t always had a place for in print. On the other hand, there’s definitely a reason we all need editors, and I think that aspect of it is sometimes missed. Right now it’s all evolving and nebulous so it’s hard to even analyze completely where we’re going since we’re in the thick of it. I only know that good writing about film won’t be going away.

I think it’s a very challenging time, to be sure, for any freelance journalist—film or otherwise—to be making a living without a lot of stress and salesmanship involved. I know that we, GreenCine, make a point of trying to pay writers for every piece we publish online, but it’s not easy and I know a lot of places are struggling to pay as much as they’d like, or anything. Film writers have to be creative, market themselves, network and self-publish to at least get their stuff out there.

It will probably take newspapers figuring out a completely new and viable model before more critics find paid work again. There are still magazines, too, both print and online, that are paying for work, but less of them than there used to be.

"A Critical Moment," the May 3, 6 p.m. panel, includes: John Anderson critic and feature writer, Washington Post, Newsday, New York Times, and author, Sundancing; David D’Arcy critic, Screen International, GreenCine, etc.; Jonathan Curiel critic and journalist, San Francisco Chronicle; author, Al’ America; Dennis Harvey critic, Variety, San Francisco Bay Guardian,; Gerald Peary critic, Boston Phoenix, Los Angeles Times; filmmaker; Mary F. Pols critic, and formerly, Contra Costa Times; B. Ruby Rich critic, author, professor, Community Studies Department, UC Santa Cruz, and Susan Gerhard (moderator) critic, former senior editor at SF Bay Guardian, Cinema Scope, indieWIRE, GreenCine; editor,

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