Guest column: Is the staff film critic a dying breed?
The future of film criticism in Australia is under a cloud, with the number of full-time salaried critics in the country down to a handful – by some estimates, just two people – in the face of a perfect storm of technological disruption, cratering freelance rates and arts funding cuts.
Coverage of the arts, already a marginal element of the news media, is particularly sensitive to the commercial pressures affecting journalism as a whole.
The last two salaried, fulltime film reviewers standing are believed to be Jason Di Rosso at the ABC and Leigh Paatsch at the Herald Sun, whose writing is syndicated across the News Ltd network.
Local magazine-turned-website FilmInk employs three critics, although they combine the role with other editorial or publishing tasks.
The rest of Australia’s film reviewing comes from a patchwork of freelancers and contributors, who are sometimes paid very little or asked to work for free.
“What worries me is that a whole middle tier of positions has disappeared,” says Craig Mathieson, a freelance critic for The Sunday Age and its Sydney stablemate The Sun Herald. Mathieson built his profile in the nineties as a film critic for Rolling Stone Australia and at The Bulletin.
“They were freelance roles with good profile, editorial support and proper word rates,” he says. “These days [those roles] appear to have dried up.”
Whereas once there might have been a market for around 10 to 12 fulltime film critics in Australia, the situation is now far bleaker. Fairfax Media no longer employs any dedicated film reviewers on staff at The Age or The Sydney Morning Herald. Schwartz Media retains two novelists as film critics contributing on a freelance basis: Christos Tsiolkas at The Saturday Paper and the newly Oscar-nominated Luke Davies at The Monthly.
Guardian Australia, meanwhile, syndicates reviews from its well established team of UK and US reviewers, with Luke Buckmaster covering Australian films on a freelance basis. Buckmaster also pops up reviewing international releases at arts and entertainment website Daily Review.
Over at News Ltd, The Australian’s longtime critic Evan Williams retired in 2014. David Stratton regularly contributes to the paper, with literary editor Stephen Romei branching into film reviewing, too. Paatsch’s reviews are syndicated throughout News’s stable of state-based tabloids.
And the ABC, once home to Di Rosso, Julie Rigg and the iconic duo of Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz, is now down to Di Rosso. With the axing of the video gaming program Good Game last week, he is essentially the sole remaining critic of any description on staff at the national broadcaster, although a new “screen” focused review show is understood to be in development.
As critics compete for a dwindling number of freelance opportunities, concerns are mounting also over what impact the current situation is having on film culture more generally.
The lack of stable job opportunities “creates a situation where nobody has the time or energy to do criticism properly,” according to critic and researcher Lauren Carroll Harris.
“(It) denigrates the entire field, basically.”
Freelance critic Joanna Di Mattia says the environment is “tough for a lot of different reasons.”
Di Mattia, who writes regularly for outlets including SBS Movies, The Big Issue and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image’s blog, made just $3500 from her writing last year.
“There’s so much energy, emotional and physical, that went into making that money,” says Di Mattia, who takes casual shifts at a bookstore to supplement her writing income.
There’s the rejection that comes from failed pitches, unanswered emails to editors, and relationships that are painstakingly built only to crumble instantly once an editor moves on to another job.
“It’s almost like you need to have a trust fund sustaining your development as a critic,” she adds.
The status of critics in the broader film ecosystem is changing too, as studios increasingly sidestep them to market films directly to the audience. The official poster for the Christmas release Bad Santa 2, for example, contained pull-quotes taken from moviegoers’ Facebook posts.
Prior to each screening at last year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), audiences were treated to a scrolling feed of approved tweets. Those spotlighted came from a mixture of critics, audience members and sponsors.
MIFF artistic director Michelle Carey is upfront about how little the demise of print journalism is affecting festival attendances.
“We’re digital first these days I’m afraid,” she says. “We’re getting less and less coverage in the newspapers but is it affecting us? No. MIFF’s getting more successful every year.”
The festival is wooing emerging critics through its “critics campus” program, now heading into its fourth year (full disclosure: I participated in its first year). The program offers a week’s worth of one-on-one mentoring between emerging critics and more established mentors, with participants’ work published on the festival’s website and in partner organisations like The Age. MIFF’s campus follows the launch of similar programs at several major overseas festivals, including New York, Rotterdam and Locarno.
What’s motivating the emergence of these programs?
“It’s a combination of there being an explosion of new voices online and film festivals realising they need those voices in bed with them,” says Carey. “With the rise of streaming [there is] the pressure to be more than just films on a screen. Festivals need to be doing things that can’t be replicated online.”
Carey notes that the digital disruption to criticism helps build buzz around certain films in ways that have previously been impossible.
“Look at a film like Moonlight,” she says. “Ten years ago, it wouldn’t have had the ‘must see’ status it has at the moment. Critics saw it at the Telluride festival [in September], responded strongly, and there was enough of a groundswell that, by the time it arrived at Toronto a week later, it was the must-see film. And once you’re a must-see film at Toronto, interest just explodes.”
Where once only industry insiders would have heard the advanced buzz, today anybody with an internet connection can read The Hollywood Reporter, IndieWire or Variety’s coverage of films that won’t arrive in Australian cinemas for months or even years.
“For films like that, critics are vital and powerful,” Carey says. The downside for local film critics is that the buzz is mostly imported from overseas through myriad online channels.
Jake Wilson, a freelance writer and reviewer for Fairfax, says that online publishing is suited to a particular kind of critic.
“If you’re relentless, there are a whole lot of ways to work,” he says. “But the danger is getting too caught up in it. Twitter can be an endless loop of people talking to each other and not succeeding to promote themselves to a wider circle.
“I don’t think the idea that to be a successful critic you have to be constantly talking to your readers and being a public figure beyond your writing is necessarily true.”
The state of film criticism at Fairfax has recently been in flux. At one stage, a senior manager proposed removing critics altogether and getting readers to review movies instead. The manager has since left the company. Meanwhile, national film editor Karl Quinn is increasingly branching out from film into writing on TV and entertainment, and Garry Maddox combines coverage of Hollywood with contributions to the travel section, among others.
Despite the uncertainty, being a film critic retains a certain allure. An advertisement for an upcoming workshop on film criticism run by Guardian Australia (tickets $299) says “Making a living as a critic is the coolest job in the world, right?” From the outside, this certainly seems to be the prevailing sentiment.
“The big thing is whether you can do it week in, week out,” says Philippa Hawker, a film critic and writer who was made redundant by Fairfax last year and has since joined The Australian as a film journalist. “Not everybody wants to live like that, to write like that.”
Then there’s the question of who exactly is reading the work. With the rise of aggregators such as Rotten Tomatoes and film-logging website Letterboxd, the audience for criticism has gone global — but so has the competition.
“When the new Star Wars comes out every critic around the world has to get their review up as quickly as possible,” Hawker says. “That’s a major pressure; for certain types of films a verdict is required as quickly as possible.”
Local critics are no longer just speaking to an audience in an easily defined geography.
“It can feel like I don’t know who I’m talking to anymore,” says Wilson. “I don’t think any writer these days can afford to take much for granted about who their readers are and what shared assumptions they can rely on.”
Reviews rarely get enough clicks to get front and centre placement on newspaper websites. The exception is one-star, “worst film of the year” pans, which always garner an audience.
Most film coverage in the Australian mainstream media is driven largely by the weekly theatrical release cycle and Hollywood’s well-oiled PR machine, notes Lauren Carroll Harris.
“[Australians] have a lot of coverage every Thursday when a new batch of films comes out, but it’s a very limited way of talking about movies,” she says.
Critics complain about the prevalence of capsule reviews, sometimes no longer than 150 words apiece and consisting of not much more than a plot synopsis and one or two sentences of commentary.
“We’re spending all our time doing product placement basically,” says Di Mattia. “The pieces that I’ve been most proud of have something of me in them. I don’t think you get that when you’re writing a 200-word review.”
Says Carroll Harris: “You end up telling the reader what they should think. Criticism should provide context – whether it be genre, a director’s body of work, a film’s cultural history – so that readers can expand their media literacy.”
Longer forms of criticism may only ever find a niche audience in Australia. In the past, this has not been a major problem because government funding programs approached criticism and production as two sides of the same “film culture” coin.
No longer. Film funding bodies in Australia increasingly view investment in film production as their sole priority.
“One thing younger people probably don’t realise is just how much cultural funding there once was in Australia,” says Hawker. “It just doesn’t exist in anything like the same way anymore.”
Dr Huw Walmsley Evans, an academic who has researched criticism in Australia, adds: “One moment that is completely lost to the sands of time is the rise of magazines like Cinema Papers and Filmviews. Their income came from a combination of advertising and government grants.”
In a reflection of the tight bond between film criticism and filmmaking that was once the norm, Cinema Papers, which ran from 1974 to 2001 and is widely regarded as the most influential film magazine ever to emerge in Australia, was started by three filmmakers.
“There is the idea that film criticism and filmmaking should work hand in hand,” says Wilson. “I’m not sure that should be the case though – some distance is good.”
Carroll Harris says that Australia’s funding bodies should consider ways of channeling more funding into film criticism and culture, in order to better the sector as a whole.
“It’s a major deficit of Australian film policy that it is conceived as a way of supporting film production funding to the exclusion of other parts of screen culture,” she says.
“Criticism doesn’t have to mean being negative. There doesn’t need to be this fear [in the industry] of negative reviews. Good criticism goes beyond ‘it’s good or it’s bad’.”
The explosion of voices online has meant an increase in innovative forms of criticism, and there is a near consensus among writers that this is a good thing. But nobody seems to know how to make these voices money.
“There are so many good writers out there,” says Philippa Hawker. “But the question is, what’s happening to them? Where can they write? How long can they sustain it? That’s the problem.”
“It’s a little bit wild west,” says Carey.
Di Mattia thinks that all the uncertainty is having a negative impact on the industry.
“I worry about the effect this has on the culture of criticism in Australia in general. [Only] the handful of salaried critics get to work regularly and develop their skills, voice, platform and audience.”
There’s an awareness that something needs to change, but nobody seems to know how.
“I’m globally pessimistic at the moment with the election of Donald Trump,” says Dr Walmsley Evans.
“This might seem like a tangent, but it’s not. There is decreasingly a thing we can call the mainstream media. There’s now just the media, with all boundaries between mainstream and fringe media, between official and unofficial culture, being blurred constantly.
“Anybody who tells you what things are going to be like in the future is probably not in a position to do so. We live in a moment of incredible flux.”
This article was first published in The Citizen.