The Glaring Importance of Critics in Filmmaking
Old Ebert is as dead as a doornail. This must be distinctly understood or nothing wonderful can come of the article I am going to relate. While not as much of a miser as Ebenezer Scrooge, Roger Ebert, the famed film critic who wrote for the Chicago Tribune since 1967, was noted for his absolute hatred when it came to the movies.
Your Movie Sucks! screams at filmmakers from the shelves of bookstores, and his tirade of annoyance at films like North (“I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.”) would send the most confident director into much-needed rehab.
But don’t let me send the wrong message, Ebert LOVED films. Loved them with a passion nobody except fellow critics can understand. His arguable spiritual successor when it comes to online reviews, the Nostalgia Critic, made the perfect summation video of him, located in the “Works Cited” section below. Ebert spent decades pouring himself into watching and summing up the positives and negatives of countless films, writing books, articles and doing shows all revolving around his immense focus on making good films for audiences and why films are so important. His influence has inspired film critics around the world and even filmmaking itself, so then begs the question: How important are critics when it comes to filmmaking?
Rated “A” for Effort
The role of a film critic is rather voluntary, spending their days and nights relentlessly watching and perhaps re-watching films to determine their value, often based on a scale (Ebert used 4 stars for his, 4 being the best and half a star the worst, with only a few notable exceptions receiving no stars), and more importantly letting curious audiences know if they too should partake in the viewing of the flick. In the realm of popular culture the idea of a group of diligent observers with skills university-grade or higher presenting a guide of what to watch is interesting in comparison to the other alternative: advertising.
Every trailer for every film shouts the positives at the viewer – it’s funny; it’s intense; it’s family-oriented; it’s guaranteed to make you pee your pants – but unless one is a die-hard know-it-all of what they like to watch, and able to tell exactly from thirty seconds of film footage if a production falls into those standards, the decision whether to view the film or not is left up in the air.
“Did it get good reviews?”
A question many ask in the lead-up to their personal premiere of this unseen work, old or new. That’s where the critic comes in.
Critics, unlike advertisers, are not out to promote a film, but rather to dive in before anyone else watches and scan it for the aspects it presents. It’s true that the other definition of a critic, apart from someone who analyses a work, is someone who expresses an unfavourable opinion, thus they are connected to a negative connotation, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, which we’ll come to later.
On the neutral side of things, the critic will examine what the film has that’s new, or how it handles old techniques in different ways. Then they take all this information and ask 3 simple questions: Do the techniques used work for the film? What audiences will it attract, if any? Compared to similar films, does it do a better job presenting what both creators and audience want?
These questions are hard to answer. Some films don’t work and nobody can tell you why. Defining just exactly what the word “work” means can even be a struggle. But the search to see if the film is presentable in the medium (i.e. does it follow the rules that separates a film from other works of art?) is an ongoing task all film critics participate in.
Then there comes genre, the category a film fits into based on its subject matter (and sometimes, though less often, techniques it uses in presentation, such as an “Art film” or “avant-garde”). Critics use the genre of a film to determine which audiences, based on what they’ve liked before, will enjoy the film. This entails building up a repertoire of seeing many films to compare it to, a life-long task of every critic.
Finally, having seen so many films, a critic learns about filmmaking techniques to judge a film based on the new things it does or similar things done differently. They determine if the filmmakers have been able to not only use proven methods to illustrate their message or idea clearly (remembering that audiences desire catharsis brought on by the work’s overall message/idea), but also if they can create or innovate so that their movie stands out as a step forward in the artistic realm. i.e. is the film entertaining and does it stimulate thought? Then they make their case, giving a rating overall with usually detailed reasoning.
However, with no defined rating system in place between critics, it can be confusing as to whom to trust in one’s own judgement of what they want to watch. Often criticised for misunderstood ratings given to films, critics often try to place more importance on what they say rather than the numbers they use to rate, which many viewers want to simply know if they should or shouldn’t watch a movie, without the long reading. In Ebert’s view ratings were merely guidance, and discretion is left to the reader to know what it is they want when checking ratings from a critic, and which critics to read. If you’re looking for movies on videogames, then a reviewer who focuses on westerns probably isn’t your best fit.
“When you ask a friend if Hellboy is any good, you’re not asking if it’s any good compared to Mystic River, you’re asking if it’s any good compared to The Punisher. And my answer would be, on a scale of one to four, if Superman is four, then Hellboy is three and The Punisher is two. In the same way, if American Beauty gets four stars, then The United States of Leland clocks in at about two.” – Ebert
Reviewers vs. Critics
Now many people get confused when discussing critics and their counterparts – reviewers. A reviewer’s role is much more commonly understood by the average Joe or Joette: “How was I personally affected by this movie?” They have a viewership that often agrees with their ideas of what to enjoy in films and focus on revealing their feelings to similarly-minded audiences. A current example is the aforementioned and misleadingly-named Nostalgia Critic who focuses mostly on films from the 80’s and youth of his generation and their current remakes or films dealing with nostalgic culture, thus his generation (which currently dominates film-watching audiences) finds his reviews enjoyable, especially with it being online, where the current biggest focus of said generation is.
But a critic, unlike a reviewer, does not watch only films of a certain genre or type and reflect on how it impacted their feelings, but rather they explore ALL films (normally new releases) and examine each one based on its own merits, focusing on the film techniques used and their effectiveness in the film presenting its message or desired effect on an audience. Hence why Ebert could speak on both Pokémon and Titanic and in fact did so.
So then a critic becomes a general go-to for curious audiences to choose which films to give money to in order to be entertained. They even have grown important enough to be shown screenings before a general release, not only to send out reviews beforehand to advertise but also to give filmmakers opinions and advise. Thus the film can be “fixed” or changed before released to audiences in hopes they will come en-masse to pay in expectation of hopefully a good film.
It would be quite a different world if movie-goers paid for films only AFTER they’d seen them, being fully informed of where their money was going to, but such is the way of our mercantile world. Every film instead expects money upfront (somehow also indicating how good it is in terms of box office results, though the audience reviews have yet to begin) based on the audience’s dumb luck. Thus we place our trust in the critic for any forewarning. But why is it so important compared to advertising? If advertisers are honest (though that’s a big “if”), can’t we trust them to see the good points of a upcoming film and base our judgements solely on their word and our predisposition of what we like? Well, that’s where the cynic comes in.
Voice of the People
Ebert was the textbook example of the polar opposite of an advertiser. Rather than praising all the good qualities of a film he nitpicked every awful detail and horrendous decision made by the filmmakers until all was brought to light. He ensured audiences, even if they didn’t agree with his personal views, could be informed of the decisions made that would affect their own viewing. In such circumstances it is easy to see why people thought he might hate movies. But with his passion for good movies he used his anger at the negative aspects to help promote better and better films, and his influence, it can be argued, was successful.
Even before Ebert, films were watched firstly by critics, people who know techniques and purposes of the art like any other critic of any other art. They, like test audiences brought in to preview a film, often force the filmmakers to go back and change films, whether endings (Mad Max: Fury Road) or even whole movies (Blade Runner). The pressure of critics symbolises the desire of filmmakers to make something people will actually pay to watch, especially now in an age where the internet has made reviews and opinions all the more important.
So if critics are so important then the impact of a cynical critic, as demonstrated by Roger Ebert, is all the more prominent in good filmmaking.
If a person judged to be an indispensable factor in the creation of films is not a cheerleader, but a picky payer of attention to detail and attacker of all things negative they see (which in a cynic’s case is far more than a regular person sees), then the pressure to make good films is all the more intense. Having the extreme of the absolute hardest audience member to pleases gives filmmakers a high bar that the closer to the better their movie is guaranteed to be.
Critics, and especially cynics, understand an audience wants things to be “good” based on their interests and so drive filmmakers to create and push themselves to make these and new films devoid of as many problems and known negativities possible, ensuring filmmakers keep in mind the purpose of making film: for an audience.
So in short a critic is the audience’s representative in judging a film before they have to pay to see it, and a cynical critic is all the more important because they are focused and intent on driving out the bad to help foster the good.
The Ghost Of Cynics Past
In the current day and age the most popular films are tragically (in this writer’s humble opinion, being an unabashed cynical critic himself) mostly remakes or sequels. In this environment the need for someone to hammer in attention to detail for these extremely similar films (where looking at past proven technique and innovation is crucial more than ever) is of the utmost importance. Coincidentally this period has come during the loss of the greatest of cynical critics, Roger Ebert.
While I don’t mean to dive into the possible correlation of worsening films after the loss of a major critic, the point is clear that producers are influenced by popularity when making films. In fact they are so influenced that filmmakers have left productions that have focused more on popularity than good filmmaking. For example both the remake of Stephen King’s It and the biopic on Freddie Mercury lost their director and leading actor respectively over differences of creativity when the producers weren’t going in a good direction.
Thus films need a cynical, critical voice as it is the only major factor apart from audience money in influencing producers, being an indication of where that audience money might go before it is spent. Audiences have less control over how a film is made than why it is made and so it remains the critic’s staunchest role to uphold their desires where a producer can cut them short in favour of lesser expensive and faster methods of production, in order to make money and not bother with audience enjoyment.
People go to the movies for many reasons. A critic goes to the movies to ensure all those reasons can continue to be respected. For someone like Roger Ebert, who himself loved the movies, a loud and angry but concentrated voice was the best surgical tool for weeding out the unwanted cancerous flesh of bad movies so that the ones with importance (i.e. heart) could come to light. In view of his passing it then must be remembered that films will only be as good as we demand, and so we need those cynical critics to demand only the best. Because who really wants another Sharknado? (*Dodges shoes.*)
Author’s note: While this article has focused on Roger Ebert alone for simplicity many comparisons can be drawn to Gene Siskel, Leonard Maltin and many other critics who are also cynics. But then again as they say, everyone’s a critic.
Ebert, Roger. “Shaolin Soccer Movie Review and Film Summary (2004)”, “Pokémon: The First Movie Review (1999)”, “Titanic Movie Review and Film Summary (1997)”, “North Movie Review and Film Summary (1994)”. www.rogerebert.com. Web.
McKnight, Brent. “Tom Hardy Talks Mad Max: Fury Road Reshoots”, November 1, 2013. Giant Freakin Robot. Web.
Robinson, Will. “Cary Fukunaga Leaves Stephen King Adaptation It, Which Has Been Indefinitely Delayed”, May 25, 2015. Entertainment Weekly. Web.
Vain, Madison. “It Looks Like Sacha Baron Cohen Won’t be Writing, Directing, Producing, and Starring in Freddie Mercury Biopic”, March 28, 2015. Entertainment Weekly. Web.
“Versions of Blade Runner“, Wikipedia. Web.
Walker, Doug. “Nostalgia Critic Editorial: Farewell to Roger Ebert”, April 5, 2013. www.channelawesome.com/nostalgia-critic-editorial-farewell-to-roger-ebert/. Web.
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