Fewer film reviewers means less visibility for indie films

by Gregg Goldstein, Hollywood Reporter

Alex Gibney's "Taxi to The Dark Side" won the best documentary Oscar in February. But when it opened in New York on January 18, it didn't get even a one-paragraph review in the New York Post or New York Daily News.

It wasn't alone. An increasing number of films aren't getting reviewed in key U.S. outlets, damaging their slim chances at the box office. If the trend continues, it could make it even more difficult for smaller independent films to secure a release.

Reviews from established media outlets are the only reason many low-budget films make it to theaters today, because they trigger word-of-mouth, feature articles and DVD-ready quotes vital to the indies' true profit source: home video.

But as more and more indie films have flooded the market (up from 501 in 2006 to 530 last year), they are overwhelming critics.

"The number of films opening in New York City has exploded in the last three years -- 14, 16, 18 titles some weeks, many of them shot on video and playing for a single week in one theater on the way to video," says New York Post chief film critic Lou Lumenick, whose paper also skipped a review of the documentary "Ghosts of Cite Soleil," winner of a DGA Award from the Directors Guild of America. "We simply don't have the space or the staff (three reviewers, all of whom have other responsibilities) to review them all, so we make tough decisions on a case-by-case, week-by-week, basis."

FEWER FULL-TIMERS

At the same time, newspaper film departments have been hit at a breathtaking pace. Critics recently have been laid off, bought out of their contracts or have left and were not replaced at the Los Angeles Times, the Village Voice, New York Newsday and more than 15 papers around the country.

In their place, papers have begun running wire service reviews or relying on a mix of stringers. That, however, diminishes the impact of the reviews, because "you don't know enough about a person's voice and what they like for their review to count," according to L.A.-based publicist Fredell Pogodin.

Reviews' financial impact on distributors goes beyond box office. "It costs $700 to $800 to schedule a screening for one critic, and sometimes they don't make it," says ThinkFilm's Mark Urman. "If you send a DVD, you lose the impact of a big screen and you're competing with children, dogs and phone calls." One crucial venue for indie film, the Village Voice, now has a critic in Nashville who distributors need to set up screenings for, or send DVDs to.

To some extent, the Internet has taken up the slack, although the flood of online opinions don't necessarily carry the same weight as a well-established print critic. "We're not at a point where Internet writers have the credibility of established media with proven records and editors," says Urman.

Movie City News blogger David Poland partly agrees. "For indie releases in New York, this is mostly true, because they -- and in a less significant way, (indies) in L.A. -- are the only arena of theatrical release still driven by newspaper quotes. It has nothing to do with Web critics' credibility or proven records. It has a lot to do with a market that tends to be older and comforted by the familiar."

L.A. papers tend to be more inclusive, many editors say, but New York -- where a New York Times review rules tastemakers' opinion -- has a bigger and arguably more influential indie film audience.

GENERATION GAP?

Blogger Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere begs to differ with Urman's take on things. "People who support indie movies tend to be more Internet-fluent, and there are maybe eight or 10 online critics who genuinely matter and are, in the parlance of the trade, 'conversation starters.' Due respect, but insisting that review quotes are still about print critics is generational hubris."

Meanwhile, the line between print and Web is blurring. Respected critic Glenn Kenny, for one, is now based at Premiere.com since the longstanding print edition folded. All venues get jumbled together on RottenTomatoes.com and IMDB.com, where visitor rating scores are carrying an increasing (if unmarketable) weight.

Although it didn't cover them in print, the Daily News offered online-only reviews of "Taxi," the Oscar-shortlisted docu "Lake of Fire" and the most acclaimed foreign film of last year, "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days."

Joe Neumaier, who started as a critic there after those reviews were relegated to the paper's Web site, admits, "smaller movies run the risk of getting short shrift due to space restrictions and higher-profile films taking those places. It's sad, and it's Darwinian, but hopefully we'll evolve to a point where there'll be room for everyone."

Or perhaps Darwinian principles will win out, and the indie world will have to learn how to live without some of the print attention it has relied on in the past. "The only complaints we've gotten (on not running some reviews) are from publicists and distributors," says the Post's Lumenick. "Not a single one from readers."

article originally published at http://www.reuters.com/article/filmNews/idUSN2034888920080320?sp=true.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey