Nothing makes you feel like less of a professional than being purposefully “uninvited” from a potential press screening. Baby Mama, the new Tina Fey comedy coming out later this month, will have a 7:30pm showing today (Wednesday 8 April) and only “legitimate” members of the Fourth Estate are being allowed to attend. Now, such a delineation is perhaps a complete fabrication of my competitive brain. My studio rep, who typically hounds me on all other preview opportunities, politely failed to mention this event to me. When asked, she listed potential PUBLIC screening dates sometime closer to the film’s release.
Yet I know the score. I’m in the know. I have a friend who works for a print publication, and he told me that the studio mandates were crystal and clear - no online critics, period. Why Fey’s latest would require such an extreme limiting of pre-release exposure will have to wait until sometime later in the month. But the fact that studios still see the journalistic community as divided into print and pariah is very disheartening, especially when you view the statistics.
A writer who creates content for a standard newspaper may see a circulation in the hundreds of thousands. His or her content is usually guided by an editorial staff determining the most newsworthy item or the “hot” commodity. Translate that into reality, and you’ll find that a typical daily publication fails to offer continuous coverage of film. They will reserve reviews to Friday, sometimes even placing them in a special circular or section. Anyone failing to subscribe, or who doesn’t buy that day’s paper, misses the chance to catch up on the latest releases. Sometimes, blurbs and grades are give in Weekend editions, but for the most part, print criticism is a once a week, 24 hour and over experience.
Online, on the other hand, is forever. For the non-professional, a preview screening is an invitation to a quick turnaround and a release date defying scoop. For those outside the blogsphere however, it’s a chance to have their voice heard by more than just a handful of the local population. When PopMatters reviews a film, there is the potential for anyone to see it at any time. Anyone. In the entire world. As long as they have access to the Internet. That means that, if this site gathers two MILLION hits a month, with an equally impressive number of unique views, that’s a reach far beyond any hometown tabloid. When a look at Leatherheads or a subverting of Shine a Light appears on the web, its possible audience is almost incalculable.
As with any Johnny Come Lately - and Technically - to the party, it’s easy to see why print takes it personally. Many major newspapers are dropping their full time critics, buying out contracts, offering early retirement, and turning over their fading Friday fortunes to syndicated news services and the occasional freelance deal. Many have even resorted to using actual audience members, plied with free tickets and a chance to have their opinion published, as a means of updating their approach. Of course, none of this addresses the backlash against the online community, which has been its own worst enemy at times. But is does question the logic of limiting exposure to an already marginalized medium. Print is apparently dying…or destined to be reborn in another manner. Online is the future now.
It goes without saying that the web has wasted as many opportunities as it has belittled or just plain blown. With an unlimited access to information, a community that’s passionate about its viewpoint, the ability to achieve rapid (if also restrictive) consensus, and an outright capacity to leave the traditional media in the dust, it should be the bell weather for a new wave of criticism. Unfortunately, the fanboy tends to take over, allowing unrealistic expectations and a blinkered devotion to one’s own insights to win out. Now, some might say the same about Pauline Kael, or Roger Ebert. After all, film reviewing is founded in personal judgment more than any other factor. But the online critic often fails to take into consideration two other important elements - context and perspective.
It’s all part of the home theater explosion, the notion that all film is available to all people, and therefore, capable of being comprehended and compartmentalized by every and anyone. Naturally, that’s not true. In fact, the founding of such a format has not brought out the best in the medium. Indeed, film has become more mainstreamed and marginalized since VCRs opened Grandma’s gates of perception. Granted, more availability has given otherwise forgotten gems a second chance, and there is a dedicated few who take the job of analyzing film seriously. But for the most part, the web is best known for championing ‘80s items like The Monster Squad over in-depth overviews of Godard.
In some ways, the Internet is like the pop art explosion of the early ‘60s. It consistently crumbles the ivory tower and takes on age old truisms by staking out claims to competitive beliefs. It’s a fount of fabulous variety. It’s also a din that delivers so little of its potential and promise that it’s like listening to your local weatherman as he predicts rain while it remains sunny and warm outside. Organizations such as the Online Film Critics Society try to champion those who work within this ethereal environ, but there’s also a mercenary element of “I, Me, Mine” to the structure. Most critics do their job for the love of it. But there is a core who couldn’t fathom filling column space without a few free perks - and that includes a screening.
It’s worse in the realm of DVD. No one takes on the latest digital release over the joy of words. Instead, it’s the lure of product, the possibility of getting that special feature laden box set or special edition that drives many to pursue a gig as an online reviewer. It’s the kind of professional whoring that would have Harlan Ellison headed for another quadruple bypass. Sites who specialize in catering to the studios survive on this kind of sell out snuggling. It’s the nature of the beast - at least, for now. One day, once website’s wise up and realize the publicity power they really carry, the PR people will be supplicating themselves in an attempt to cater to their needs. For now, no one wants to bite the hand that keeps them from a weekly trip to Best Buy.
Clearly, it’s the combination of personal prostitution and off the cuff contemplation that demeans the reputation of the online critic. But there is another, less obvious element at play. Call it wanton wishful thinking, or out of sight, out of danger, but many in the print community would like to believe that writers working on the web will one day be put back in their electronic cells and simply forgotten. They stand under the outdated idea that the news hungry will always go to them for their daily dose of information. It doesn’t matter that the current post-post-modern mind wants their data updated hourly. Nor do they consider the rapidly changing demographic for their product. As the so-called Baby Boomers age, a new science savvy generation will replace them, a group that would rather have their film facts broadcast over their IPhone. How does a piece of fish wrap serve their short attention span needs?
One day, it will all work out. The decision makers will stop treating the Internet as a sore spot, and instead, will embrace its ability to be a harbinger of choice and opposing options. It will stop trying to turn reviewing into an old boy’s club, complete with arcane membership and rituals, and instead open the doors to all comers. Mark Cuban learned this the hard way when he banned bloggers from the Dallas Mavericks locker room, claiming that it was difficult to draw a line between the actual media and the online community. Huh? Is such a distinction even possible, especially when the ultimate goal seems to be the distribution of ideas? We use the ‘Net for so many things - medical diagnosis, legal advice, bar bet answers - that to say it can’t be a source of a new cinematic renaissance is ridiculous. The weaker elements will eventually fall by the wayside, but to discount everyone outside of a certain status quo will only make the transition that much harder.
Of course, none of this addresses my inability to see Baby Mama - at least, not today. I will have to wait with the rest of the rabble, sitting in the press area and absorbing the dirty looks from those longing for my spot. It won’t affect my take on the film, especially with my aesthetic expectations already set so low. But the studios better wise up to one thing - many in the online community aren’t as bonafide as I am. They want to make enemies, and will do so in spite of such boycotts and embargos. And when the war is over, there will only be one winner - and it won’t be the last remaining print personnel. Progress can’t be stopped. The sooner the major movie companies learn that, the better off it will be for the entire critical community. Until then, let the selective processing (and pandering) continue.