Mark Lipsky knows first hand how important critics can be for an independent film's success. Lipsky, now head of Gigantic Digital, was working for New Yorker Films in 1981 when Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert championed a little film called My Dinner With Andre on their syndicated TV show. When the show aired, the film had been slated to close its short run within three days; but because of the rave review, it went on to play an amazing year-long run at New York's Lincoln Plaza.
Now, Lipsky laments 'there's no Siskel & Ebert 2.0. They used to champion independent film on that show, and now that's the biggest black hole out there. You need those strong personalities, the respected knowledgeable people.' (For the record, Ebert still writes for the Chicago Sun-Times and also has a blog with the paper.)
It is not just one TV show that has gone as US film critics themselves make headlines because of their dwindling ranks. At The Salt Lake Tribune (blogs.sltrib.com/movies), a tally of 'departed' US film critics since 2006 stands at 49 and counting. Those taking buyout packages, retiring without being replaced, or being made redundant include Jami Bernard of New York Daily News; Dennis Lim, Michael Atkinson and Nathan Lee at The Village Voice; Ella Taylor of LA Weekly; Jan Stuart and Gene Seymour at Newsday; Carina Chocano at the Los Angeles Times; Eric Harrison at the Houston Chronicle; and David Ansen at Newsweek. There are losses from Florida to Georgia to Illinois to Michigan. Even a newspaper as large as the Detroit Free Press, with a daily readership of 320,000, no longer has a film critic since Terry Lawson was offered a buyout in December 2007.
'There's a full-blown crisis, not just in the number of critics but in the number of column inches they have at their publications,' says John Sloss of New York's Sloss Law Office and sales company Cinetic Media.
Newspapers and magazines are struggling - not just with the credit crunch but with specific problems of their own as advertising dries up and more readers are turning to free online information, not paid print subscriptions. 'As these papers cut costs, the first thing to go is arts coverage,' says veteran independent film publicist Jeff Hill, of New York's International House of Publicity. 'TV coverage survives because the masses watch TV, but film coverage is scaled back and a lot more papers are picking up syndicated stories.'
In another sign of the times, in November the Associated Press put a 500-word limit on all entertainment stories, including reviews and interviews.
Michael Silberman, head of distribution for Samuel Goldwyn Films, says it is hard to quantify how much the critics' downturn has directly affected box office. 'I'm not sure you can call it a one-to-one relationship. It's a difficult marketplace for specialty movies, regardless,' Silberman says. 'And critics have always championed those smaller, more difficult to market or foreign-language films. Critical support for those kinds of films would always propel box office.'
Emily Russo, an independent film distributor for 20 years as co-president of Zeitgeist Films, agrees the dwindling critical ranks comes at a bad time: 'It's like when it rains it pours, it's been tough all around on many levels.'
With column inches shrinking, film reviews - especially for smaller films - are becoming shorter and shorter. 'Papers are now putting indie films in boxes and having the Hollywood tentpoles as the films of the week,' Hill says.
That could be a nod to what newspaper publishers believe their readers want, or the fact the Hollywood studios advertise more than the independent distributors. Whatever the reason, it becomes a double whammy. 'For the big indies, they can throw money around for ad and marketing campaigns, and so the press can be the icing on the cake. But for a smaller distributor and a smaller film, press can be more crucial,' Hill adds.
In fact, one reason distributors are so keen to launch a film theatrically in New York - even on one screen for one week - is that, currently, The New York Times runs a print review of any film released theatrically in the city. 'It legitimises your film,' says Lipsky.
There are the 'critic-proof' blockbusters - recent comedy Paul Blart: Mall Cop, for instance, was called a 'suckfest' by Time Out New York yet still topped the box-office charts. 'If you look at the top-grossing films, nine out of 10 of those get horrific reviews,' says Lipsky. 'The mainstream audience doesn't care about reviews. But our audience for indie films obviously does.'
Eric d'Arbeloff, co-president of Los Angeles-based distributor Roadside Attractions, says the changes around critics 'certainly presents challenges. Critics are not 100% of the box office - there are many factors such as release date and word-of-mouth - but they are a big deal.'
With opening weekend attendance becoming increasingly vital to convince exhibitors to keep a smaller film on screen, early critical support is more important than ever. 'Critics are crucial in those first weeks,' d'Arbeloff adds. 'It was crucial for us on a film like (Eytan Fox's Israeli drama) Walk On Water to have strong early reviews. I don't see a movie like that working without that critical response.'
Cutbacks on critics also have a trickle-down effect to other kinds of film coverage such as talent interviews and features in local press - which can help drive box office to smaller films that are not necessarily critical darlings. At a festival such as Toronto, regional US critics would be there to review films but US distributors - including Hill's client Sony Pictures Classics - could take advantage of that and have those critics also do interviews to run when films are released. 'Now it will be wire stories, phone interviews,' Hill says. 'It really did help the whole industry to have these people come to festivals and meet face to face.'
In addition to the potential blow to the box office, the cutback in critics also puts an emotional damper on an industry built on personal relationships. Lipsky says: 'When we reach out to media around the country, what we're hearing is, 'I don't even know if the newspaper will be here in a month or two.' My heart breaks hearing these stories. Hearing about all these people who had been the standard bearers for film in their markets for decades and suddenly they are out of jobs.'
On the flip-side, for every established critic who has lost their job, there seem to be 20 bloggers to take their place. 'There are fewer mainstream journalists writing about films, but thousands of bloggers,' Sloss says. 'You really notice that during a festival like Sundance.'
'There are so few remaining critics of the traditional kind,' Lipsky adds. 'What people are looking to more and more is aggregate websites - Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes and Imdb.' Because Lipsky's company, Gigantic Digital, pushes online day-and-date releases nationwide, online criticism 'can be a positive thing for our hybrid release structure, it's actually further confirmation for me that we're on the right track'.
Goldwyn's Silberman says it is the cost-cutting newspapers themselves that might be pushing readers online. 'It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Local newspapers are getting rid of local critics and pick up wire service reviews that don't reflect that diversity of opinion, so people are turning online more,' he says.
Blogs and aggregation sites with user ratings are not the same as long-term professional critics, though: 'Sure it's good to have people talking and writing about movies,' Sloss says. 'But maybe I'm an old fogey because I appreciate critics - their experience, their knowledge, their expertise. I trust them.'
New York-based producer Paul Mezey, whose credits include Cold Souls and Maria Full Of Grace, says there can be a different mentality between a new blogger and an established print critic. 'A lot of times it's about establishing the identity of the blogger, and for traditional critics it was about protecting this culture of film,' he says.
Zeitgeist's Russo adds: 'You do see a lot of activity on websites and blogs, and that can be something of a relief, but it's not really a replacement for traditional critics.'
How the industry is adapting
Working with website editors and bloggers requires a different approach from the film industry than pitching to old-school journalists or critics. 'It's more like grassroots marketing,' Russo says. 'Bloggers like to feel they are finding things on their own, it's not the classic pitch from a publicist to do a feature.'
D'Arbeloff of Roadside Attractions says: 'We take online critics and bloggers much more seriously than we used to, and the agencies do too.'
It is not about which way of working is better or worse, it is about adapting to the changes and learning the new landscape. 'There used to be a much more clearly defined hierarchy of journalists under the old system when you went to, for instance, a festival like Berlin,' d'Arbeloff says. 'Now it's whoever can afford to get themselves there. I'm not sure if that's good or bad. It's not the same kind of gatekeeping.'
The changes can also mean shifting resources from print publicity to other kinds of PR and marketing. Russo notes: 'Grassroots campaigns have always been a component and now, more than ever, that's becoming more important.'
A real chill will be felt if the lack of critics to champion smaller films eventually hurts a film's chances of securing theatrical distribution.
'If you work in specialised distribution, you may be less inclined to pursue a certain kind of film if this situation continues where critics can't champion films,' Silberman says, noting how crucial critical support was to Goldwyn's past hits such as The Squid And The Whale and Raising Victor Vargas.
'It's a really sorry state. We'll see how we can work around it. Maybe it'll be about choosing films that don't need that type of critical support,' Russo says. 'Films that have more built-in, identifiable audiences rather than cinephilic works that really need those critical champions.'
The critical vacuum could even start to have an impact on film-makers themselves, as critics have traditionally played a vital role in supporting young film-makers. Jeff Hill notes that for some film-makers he has worked with, such as Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes, Richard Linklater and Mike Leigh, 'critics have helped make their careers, especially in the early days'.
Russo agrees critics can be crucial in supporting a young film-maker before there is box-office success. 'Critics picked up on Guy Maddin's work way ahead of the public and that really changed his career,' she says. 'Certainly for new film-makers now it will be tougher for them without those early champions. It might be harder to get that foothold.'
Criticism has not been completely revolutionised overnight and even during these transitional times, critics are still helping independent film find those footholds. 'Reviews helped hugely with films like Waltz With Bashir and Happy-Go-Lucky last year,' Hill notes.
The experts agree there can be positives to criticism migrating online and all were quick to point out there is intelligent writing about film to be found online - perhaps in greater volumes than in traditional newspapers - but it is a matter of finding 'the sources to trust'.
Many of the displaced print critics have themselves migrated to blogs. 'Even if critics aren't in newspapers, they'll find their voice elsewhere,' Silberman says. 'But it becomes an economic issue.' D'Arbeloff echoes those sentiments that not all great critics will want to, or should be expected to, blog without payment: 'Somebody has to foot the bill. Not everyone can work for free,' he says.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, the venerable critic who retired from the Chicago Reader in 2008 and now has his own blog, discussed the online migration of film writing at the New York Film Festival's Film Criticism in Crisis' panel in September. 'I can't think that it's either the end or the beginning of anything,' he said. 'We're right in the middle of a lot of really big changes in which we're using old definitions for new things that are going on, and so there's a lot of confusion.'
Lipsky is hopeful for new models around the corner, just as new models are emerging for distribution itself: 'I'm sure there are some websites out there in development now that will reinvigorate the intelligent, critical film world. It will all go online, but in the interim period it's a struggle.'
John Sloss sums up the thoughts of many when he says: 'Criticism will evolve. There are just new ways of communicating about film.'
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