This week, the New York Times ran sixteen film reviews and one film festival review (mentioning many more films) in just the Thursday and Friday print editions alone. I have no idea how many more ran online, but it’s safe to say there were a few more (there were at least two film festivals taking place this week), and this doesn’t take into account the numerous additional articles and interviews about the films and their stars, or even the little blurbs on what’s new on DVD. That’s a lot of film reading.
This was actually a respite from the flood of film reviews the Times has run in the past few weeks, which have averaged somewhere around twenty-seven films per week. This is a lot to digest for even the most committed cinephile (you may end up committed if you read them all), and it has reached a crisis point where one may throw up their arms and ask, “how am I to sort through all these reviews and pick a few good ones to read, much less watch the films they’re about?”
First world problems indeed, especially in light of the actual floods that hit the NY region recently, but here we find ourselves – metaphorical flood gates to keep out the rising tide of films and their reviews will likely be as difficult to successfully implement as those we need to protect our homes.
How do we find ourselves here? It’s pretty simple actually. Thanks to cheap production costs and everyone being a filmmaker now, we live in a world of super-abundance. Add to this the rise of digital platforms, the decline of movie-theater-going, the shift to on-demand viewing and the inability of Motorola and TimeComWarnerCast to develop a user-interface that helps people find all of this content without spending hours reciting their ABCs (and now 123’s), and you get the cluster-fuck that is the current state of film viewing in the US.
Here’s how it plays out. Let’s say you’ve just made a great little indie film. It won critical acclaim, played Sundance and your 500 Facebook friends love it. Unfortunately, some 40,000 other people did the same thing this year and got some variation of the same results. Good film distributors, unlike film students, don’t grow on trees, so you find yourself facing DIY distribution. Thankfully, there’s a consultant for that (hey, guess what, I’m making fun of myself here too, wow!). They will point out that some movie about Crips and Bloods made tons of money on cable VOD, so all you need to do is call up an aggregator, who will put your film on Comcast and iTunes, and all will be well. That aggregator then informs you, that yes, millions can be made, but you are one of 40,000 films this year, some of them by Studios who hired famous stars, and TimeComWarnerCast has figured out that one way to plug a finger in this breaking-dam is to require that you play in some theaters. This might get you some reviews and raise the profile of your film, garner some word of mouth and at minimum will keep you away from their ABC search box for awhile.
So you find yourself in the ironic position of trying to get your film into a place no one wants to go to see it, so that you might get it onto a platform where people will never find it.
Luckily, there’s someone who can help you do that for a price. So, you hire a booker that gets your film into theaters. Or perhaps not, you might just shell out $15-20K to the theater owner directly, as now there are plenty of theaters that will show your film, quality and demand be-damned, and play it. Of course, you won’t be the only one doing this. If it happens to be August, the deadest theater-going month of the year (beach or movie…hmmm), you get to wrestle for space in that theater with thirty some-odd docs that have paid a nonprofit to play them all back to back, usually in empty theaters, just so they qualify for an award that they won’t get, and that is irrelevant to them anyway.
Why is everyone doing this?
Enter the New York Times, who in addressing the myriad changes wrought by digital technology hasn’t thought to change one of its analogue policies, which states that the Old Gray Lady will review any film which plays in New York City for one week in a movie theater. This has been a great, egalitarian policy for years, and many would argue it remains the case, but it has contributed greatly to the deluge of film reviews we see each week.
You see, that policy isn’t secret, not at all. Pretty much everyone knows it, and when people know a not-so-secret, powerful rule, they tend to exploit it. As more and more films get made and find their way to iTunes and Cable, everyone has decided that the way to stand out from the crowd is to take advantage of this policy and get reviewed by the Times. Smart, affluent customers are the audience for both indie films and the Times, the thinking goes. A review there, even a bad one, is more likely to get seen than an advertisement.
This might have been true once. We could debate whether a review by a hack in a paper read by just a few million people really helps, but this post is already long. If it was ever true, however, it isn’t any longer. When sorting the reviews in the Times starts to take longer than flicking through the alphabet on the cable box, people start to give up. Their attention wanes and fewer reviews get read. Not that it matters. Theater going isn’t going up, mind you, so all of these reviews and all of these films showing in theaters aren’t leading to any increase in audience.
After a period of time, the smart people in the room start to notice it isn’t working anymore. Talk to any person “in the business” these days, and the talk comes around to this problem. Cable companies, distributors, aggregators, DIY experts, and heck even the NYT are all talking about how to fix the problem (Rumor has it that the NYT is considering changes to its review policy).
Now, as I’ve argued before, bemoaning this increase in films won’t make any difference. When it comes to stopping the tide of creative content on offer, well, wish in one hand, shit in the other, see what comes first…as they say. But let’s face the facts. Fact: This ain’t working anymore. Fact: Audiences aren’t increasing, and they aren’t being served. Fact: you can make a good living as a theater owner by filling your theater with four-walled crap, but it’s a losing game long term when people realize there’s nothing worth seeing at your theater. Fact: Filmmakers are doing this for one of two bad reasons – vanity or to game the system. Fact: If the NYT is supposed to be an arbiter of taste, a trusted source for quality, curated information, then this system is undermining the little value it has left. No one is winning here.
I can’t see a world in which the New York Times doesn’t change its policy about how they select films to review. Contrary to popular opinion, they aren’t run by dinosaurs or idiots, so they see the problem, and likely know that their value resides in becoming even more of a curator of the best content (while remaining eclectic in the decision as to what defines best). At the end of the day, the Times has to care about its customer, and the customer didn’t create this problem, it just wants a solution.
Second, smart filmmakers and their distributors need to face the facts, whether the Times forces their hand or not. In a world of superabundance, it becomes increasingly difficult to get reviewed, much less get seen (and both have always been hard). I always say that digital technology’s greatest impact lies in how it demolishes many canards that have held sway over the business. Perhaps the one saying that a NYT review is gold becomes less true when said reviews are less precious. Perhaps we need to envision a world, which perhaps already exists, where the NYT review isn’t even necessary. Look, I read the Times (in print) daily, I don’t think it isn’t valuable, but it has always only been one small piece of the puzzle I put together in my head when making a movie-going decision. We have lots of tools to influence this process and should focus more on those.