Blogging, Criticism, and Niche Audiences

by | August 27, 2009 | DIY

Here’s an article from Chuck Tryon’s blog, on the increasingly important role of blogging with regards to independent film.

Blogging, Film Criticism, and Niche Audiences
by Chuck Tryon | August 6th, 2009

One of the ongoing questions I’ve been thinking about for a couple of years is the role of blogging in reshaping film criticism. It’s a topic I tried to address in my book, particularly through the lens of the opposition between professional and amateur critics and the role of blogging in both directing attention to movies and in creating community around shared interest in movies. But as I was writing that chapter (and especially as I look back on it now), I can’t help but feel as if I was aiming at a moving target of sorts, as the various practices of film reviewing change over time. With that in mind, I continue to be interested in some recent discussions of the role of reviews in shaping film culture.

Part of that entails a shift in the status of popular film criticism. A number of critics and film journalists have recently pointed out that after a failed reboot with younger critics, At the Movies, the show that introduced audiences to Siskel and Ebert, has now revamped, hiring veteran film critics, A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips. As Karina points out, drawing from an observation by Patrick Goldstein, ABC’s decision to hire Scott and Phillips tacitly acknowledges that the audience for this type of format is typically middle-aged (although Goldstein hastens to add that a show like At the Movies could find new life on the web). Although the TV audience may be aging, one of the other points here may be that such shows (or reviews) now function best at the level of the niche audience, whether that’s a local readership or a group interested in a certain genre of film, such as the ongoing and borderline exhausting debates over Mumblecore: is it a genre? is it dead yet? is it killing (or saving) indie? The selection of Scott and Phillips shows that there is some room for intelligent conversation about film, but a show like At the Movies would benefit from engaging its online audience, not antagonizing it, especially when audience taste in movies may or may not match up with box office totals.

One of the more interesting discussions of film criticism has focused on Paramount’s decision not to screen G.I. Joe for most film critics, taking the film to the “heartlands” with special screenings near Andrews Air Force Base and for web critics known to be friendly to action films (such as Jim Emerson, responding to a Boston Globe column by Ty Burr, has an interesting read on some of these issues, arguing that film critics rarely shape popular taste but instead reflect it: “Movies don’t fail because they get bad reviews; they flop because — whether they’re any good or not — the first audiences to see them don’t like them much, and/or ticketbuyers never show up in the first place because the marketing and advertising hasn’t motivated them.” I’ll be interested to see how people interpret the box office for G.I. Joe and whether this “niche roll-out” of the film will be seen as successful, especially given Paramount’s desire to create another film franchise.

At the same time, web distribution of films allows for new models of engaging with niche audiences in order to encourage the consumption of movies. Matt Dentler has an insightful response to Richard Corliss’s recent column explaining why he hates Netflix. Many of Corliss’s complaints are standard variations of the usual video store nostalgia, including the concern that movie viewers will get films only via recommendation algorithms, not from cinephile video clerks. Matt’s right to point out that there are a number of benefits to Netflix–easy access to movies, a potentially more targeted recommendation system–and that Corliss’s nostalgia obscures many of the annoyances associated with video stores. A commenter, Tom, adds that many towns didn’t have independent video stores with a diversity of film choices. Media scholar Joseph Turow, however, worries (probably correctly to some extent) about the degree to which the Netflix recommendation algorithm represents yet another step toward deepening “statistical evaluations of media audiences” and reshaping how companies think about the people who consume their products. Although the Netflix recommendation algorithm is not properly a “review,” it does illustrate how many people will make choices about what they watch and what they regard as film culture.

But, in addition to tapping into (and possibly helping to create) niche audiences, blogs allow for different models of responding to films and a larger movie culture. For this reason, I have become increasingly interested in the role of blogs and internet video in expanding the possibilities for creating dialogue about movies new and old. One recent example that I really liked was Stephanie Zacharek’s video essay on Lost in Translation for the Film in Foucs Rewatch series. Thanks to the discount bin at a local big-box mart, I happened to buy and rewatch Translation the other day, so the film was relatively fresh in my memory, but Zacharek astutely opens up several of the film’s key scenes, namely the karaoke scene at a party, carefully reading the film’s song choices and the performance of the two leads, Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray. In addition, Zacharek’s attention to the subtle elements of costuming and camera focus would be useful for introductory film students.