Attacks on film critics are misguided. It is the executive suites that have lost the popular touch, argues Len Klady.
In the past few years, I've read a fair amount about the role of the film critic. To be more precise, it's felt like open season on people that critique the current crop of movies in newspapers and magazines, on television and the internet. The gist of these articles and editorials is that critics are out of touch with the core film-going audience.
There are invariable caveats in these poorly thought out pieces. The writer will posit that this brotherhood of paunchy, middle-aged, unkempt men have a collective tin ear when it comes to what a less well-defined mass of humanity wants to see and/or enjoys in the comfort of a multiplex.
Still, hidden within these examinations is the grudging admission that these observers of cinema serve a purpose in their ability to influence the fate of films that have 'adult' content.
Anecdotally, I can cite instances where reviews appear to have made a difference for good and ill to a film's commercial life. But let's not confuse apples with oranges. Strictly speaking, criticism is not consumerism. Film muddies the waters because it is both an art form and a product.
The idea of reading a piece of criticism as a means to select a film is foolish. It assumes that someone approaches going to the movies in much the same way one would select a washer-dryer. And whereas one might consult friends about brands of washers and scour through consumer reports to determine the machine that best suits one's needs, a trip to the cinema is, according to every study I've ever read, an impulse buy; almost always decided at the last minute and often a compromise based on non-aesthetic factors such as what's playing, when it starts and what others in the group will or won't sit through.
As to the influence of the critic(s), it's a generally overrated factor. The odd film that appears to have benefited from favourable reviews is far outweighed by the dozens of movies that cannot muster up more than marginal interest despite numerous awards. The movie saved from oblivion is an anomaly and not a trend.
The flak directed at movie reviewers is misdirected. Serious critics are simply, to the best of their abilities, trying to contextualise a film. It's not their job to usher someone into a seat. They're not rewarded for predicting popularity nor should they be punished if their views do not mirror those of the box office.
The major disconnect in this equation is not between film reviews and movie-goers but the one that exists between people making movies and the financiers who determine what is produced. For the significant portion of society that wonders why there's nothing at the local marquee that appeals to them, the fault can be traced back to any number of executive suites.
Out of touch
The dilemma boils down to the fact the decision makers are the ones who are out of touch. Movie-making has an emotional component that cannot be quantified and the great producers have approached the task with an imprecise combination of logic and gut instinct. You cannot make a better film by fixing the brakes or improving the mileage.
The question that is too rarely voiced is what do a bunchy of paunchy, middle-aged, well-dressed men know about the tastes of teenage boys - even those that have a couple living under the same roof.
The answer appears to be very little, but nonetheless the pursuit of that sector of the population has become paramount to virtually the exclusion of all other potential ticket buyers.
Perhaps the reason they haven't been brought to task is an act of compassion. We all understand that these well-compensated scions of bygone movie moguls exist in a velvet-lined hell, toiling eternally to make movies they would never consider seeing in a movie theatre.