All across America, daily newspapers are feeling the pinch as more and more readers turn to the Internet for their news, weather, and dangerously uninformed opinions. Circulation is down. Staff members are being laid off. And one of the most expendable positions — at least to bottom-line-minded publishers — is the film critic.
The reasoning is that since the same movies are released in every city, there’s no reason to pay a local guy to review them. It’s much cheaper to just buy them from the wire services, which syndicate reviews by Roger Ebert, the Associated Press, the New York Times, and others.
In 2007 alone film critics at papers in Chicago, Denver, Dallas, Atlanta, Akron, Ft. Lauderdale, and Tampa have been either reassigned or fired altogether. Those papers are tightening their belts. If you gotta fire somebody, it makes more sense to get rid of the movie critic than, say, someone covering local sports or local politics.
The problem with this line of thinking is that if everyone follows it, eventually we’ll be left with only a few different critics whose reviews will be reprinted in the nation’s 1,400-plus daily papers. Do you want to pick up the paper and see Roger Ebert’s cavalcade of four-star reviews no matter which city you’re in? Fewer voices means the conversation becomes less interesting.
It’s a pretty lousy situation all around. The only people who faithfully read newspapers anymore are old people — and old people don’t go to movies or care what movie critics write. In fact, the only reason old people subscribe to newspapers at all is so they’ll have something to complain about. I remember it well from my days at a small daily paper in Utah. They always start by telling you how long they’ve been a subscriber, as if that gives them editorial privileges. “I’ve subscribed to your paper for 35 years,” they’ll say, “and I’ve never seen anything as offensive as the word ‘crap’ that appeared in today’s Metro section!” The next day, they’ll call to report what the new most offensive thing they’ve ever seen is.
They always end the call by threatening to cancel their subscription — a threat they will never, ever carry out. How would they read Family Circus every day if they didn’t get the paper? On the Internet? Please. You could run a front-page photo of the mayor desecrating the corpse of the caller’s husband, and she still wouldn’t cancel her subscription.
But I have gotten away from my point, which is this: I hate old people.
My secondary point is that as newspapers struggle to redefine themselves in the 21st century, their film critics will have to work extra-hard to make their services seem indispensable. How can they do this? By writing directly to their local audiences.
Think about it. Sure, movies are the same regardless of where you see them. But a critic in Des Moines is writing for a much different audience from a critic in Tucson. Critics should play up the differences as much as possible, to make even reviews of nationally released films seem like local stories. Do I have absurd examples? Of course I do.
Iowa film critic: “‘I Am Legend’ is flawed because it shows Will Smith growing corn in New York City, something we Hawkeyes know the region’s climate and soil content would never allow!”
Utah film critic: “‘Enchanted’ is a mixed bag. It has scenes of women doing housework, but it also depicts women as having jobs outside the home. For mature audiences only.”
Alabama film critic: “If you want to see a great fantasy film, one that depicts a civilization far more advanced than our own, go see ‘Beowulf.’”
Good luck, my ink-and-newsprint colleagues! May your bosses only threaten to cancel your employment and never actually follow through.