It was in the 1980s that the American movie culture exploded in size. Theaters went from one screen to two to twenty, and the number of films being released every year dramatically increased to keep those screens filled. Those multi-plexes—some of them located in malls, for a win-win—became social gathering spots, and going to the movies suddenly became the cool thing to do for teenagers and twenty-somethings. For everybody.
It was during this era that the importance of film critics to the general populace expanded as well, as more people were going to more movies. Critical reviews could make or break movies. Film critics grew avid, almost cult-like followings, and a few even got their own TV shows, with the preeminent one being Siskel & Ebert at the Movies, based out of Chicago but syndicated nationally.
There are just as many movies being released now. Far more, in fact, once you include the Hollywood-grade productions being made for HBO and streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon. And yet, today, very few people even pay attention to what the critics have to say about new movies. The job of “film critic” has been relegated to the realm of near-obscurity, and to some extent they only have themselves to blame. It has been partially-assisted career suicide, but the causes are many, and interrelated.
In part this transformation of the landscape is due to the death of the newspaper and the change in media. For decades newspapers and a few national magazines (Time, Life, Newsweek, etc.) had a lock on critical reviews, and the names of their reviewers were household names—Pauline Kael, Rex Reed, Roger Ebert. Movie reviewers were minor celebrities. Today those national magazines are largely defunct, as are a huge percentage of newspapers, and only a tiny fraction of people read those surviving newspapers when compared to twenty or thirty years ago.
The biggest sign that critics have faded from importance? Back in the day, when a new movie was released, the TV commercials would be filled with quotes from the reviewers who loved the movie. That’s done to a very small extent still, but in an era when anyone can have a website and be a movie reviewer, those complimentary blurbs from nobodies are (in my opinion) objectively worthless.
Today, it is user reviews which have become ascendant. Wondering if a movie is good? Go to the rankings on RottenTomatoes, or look at the score on IMDB. A sure sign the user ratings have become ascendant is the movie studios using them their trailers and commercials. “Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes” is a clear selling point.
If there is any truer sign that the user ranking databases have become ascendant, it is the allegations of corruption—ratings fixing—at ratings site Rotten Tomatoes. Independent analysts have, studying the publicly available data, determined that Rotten Tomatoes clearly “fixed” the audience ratings for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker at 86%, when this despicable movie was pulling far lower numbers everywhere else, and even the critics panned it. And this is far from the only time the site is suspected of ratings fixing. Why would they do that?
Rotten Tomatoes is owned by Fandango, which is owned by NBC/Universal, in bed with the movie studios, and interested in their ad money.
But the lesson here is that nobody tries to bribe the powerless.
Rotten Tomatoes has unequivocally been compromised so I don’t trust any of their ratings. Interestingly, Netflix eliminated their ratings system altogether, because they didn’t like the ratings they were getting on certain pet projects which quite often had a political undertone—and this happened long before the Cuties debacle. I have not noticed the same tampering with the user ratings on IMDB, which is now owned by Amazon. If the folks at IMDB are tweaking the ratings at the behest of some studios, they are doing it subtly enough that it is not obvious.
But the great thing about the living creature called the internet is if the existing ratings sites begin to disappoint, a new one will rise.
In part, user reviews have become ascendant because movie critics, more so than ever before, have become detached from the audience base, and their reviews as a result have lost value to average Americans. And now we’ve got to talk politics. Movie reviewers as a rule don’t just lean left politically, they are members of the liberal elite, and their politics don’t just influence everything they write, but color every movie they see.
Case in point: Black Hawk Down (2001). This is one of the best war movies ever made, not just based on a true story but in many ways a tactical reenactment of a real events, starring a who’s who of actors. It is a damn good movie by any standard, helmed by one of the best directors Hollywood has ever seen (Ridley Scott), and yet almost reflexively the majority of mainstream media movie critics did not like it. Due to their politics. If you read the reviews of the time, most of them have more to do with badmouthing the military and (sitting President) George W. Bush than they did the movie itself. Most of the reviews told you more about the reviewers’ political views than they did the movie.
Newspaper and legacy media movie reviewers always tended to be left-wing politically, out of touch with mainstream America, and living in an echo chamber. The perfect example of this is Pauline Kael, who wrote for the New Yorker magazine from 1968 to 1991. In December 1972, after President Richard Nixon was reelected in a resounding victory, Kael is famous for saying, “I live in a special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon.”
Kael is famous for repeatedly stating how she didn’t understand how John Wayne was a successful actor. Try to find a movie reviewer who understood the popularity of John Wayne with American moviegoers. It’s almost impossible.
Movie critic Roger Ebert interviewed Kirk Douglas in 1969, and during a rant about Kael’s negative review of his new movie War Wagon, had this to say: “If Pauline Kael were sitting here right now, I’d tell her, ‘You’re a bright dame, but you’re full of shit. Don’t crucify me because of your idea of what a movie star is. I didn’t start out to be a movie star. I started out to be an actor. You people out in the East have no idea what goes on out here. No awareness or knowledge whatsoever.” When a Hollywood lefty actor slams you for being out of touch, that’s pretty telling.
Ebert himself was left of center, but he kept his politics out of his reviews and didn’t let them color his “middle America” perceptions of movies except in very rare occasions, which was one reason why he was probably the most successful movie reviewer in American history. If he said a movie was good, it was. Period.
The critics’ political biases, back in the day, didn’t matter in an era where consumers had no alternative. And it didn’t matter so much in an era were far fewer things were politicized. These days, Hollywood has trouble making movies that don’t address, in some way, politics, and actors can’t stop talking about politics. The critics respond and reflect that in their reviews. The problem with that? No matter what your politics, roughly half our polarized country disagrees with them, so financially it would be better if you kept them to yourself. But noooo. This situation has made the Oscars, and every other awards show, unwatchable. And it’s not me saying that, the ratings of every awards show are hitting record lows.
If E.T. came out today the “woke” critics would probably consider it a pro-illegal immigration allegory…because you simply can’t escape politics these days. And try to cancel it because there aren’t any black/lesbian/handicapped/whatever characters. Cancel culture is going after pancake syrup and kids’ toys. Social media is suspending your account if you dare to question any of their political positions, even if you’re just talking to your friends in the digital equivalent of a sewing circle.
You’re free to believe and do what you want, but if you can’t keep politics out of your reviews (and most critics can’t), your review will in some way be unpalatable to half the country. And you’ll soon be out of a job, if people have alternate news/entertainment sources. That’s one big reason so many newspapers went out of business. Why the circulation of Time magazine is half now what it was in 2007, and just one-third of what it was at its zenith. The bias has become too great, and people have alternatives.
All of that is why Americans now trust the ratings/reviews provided by their fellow citizens online far more than they do the opinions of the few elitist reviewers still around, who for all intents and purposes live in a foreign country and who don’t seem to understand or even like middle America.