Why do we need film critics? It's a question that movie executives, publicists, and even readers often ask around this time of year, as we edge into summer, and the studios haul out their extravaganzas – the types of films often panned by reviewers.
The Wall Street Journal recently featured a shoot-out between its critic Joe Morgenstern and Variety editor Peter Bart on this very question. USA Today recently compared the boffo box office of critic-denigrated films such as "300" and "Wild Hogs" to the lackluster performance of lauded films such as "Zodiac" and concluded, "It's been a tough year for movie critics." The temperature may be rising on this debate, but it's not exactly news that movie critics and the mass audience don't always agree. Why should they? If all I did was rubber-stamp the verdict of the box office, I would indeed be unneeded.
Movie critics are held to a different standard than other critics. If a book critic were to pan a Jackie Collins novel, or a food critic were to point out that the Whopper isn't Kobe beef, they wouldn't be called "out of touch." Film critics, however, are expected to be cheerleaders.
But criticism – reasoned, informed, independent-minded criticism – is truly the only thing protecting the consumer from the seller in the movie marketplace prior to a film's release. That's why studios try to marginalize serious critics – the ones who can't be counted on to gush over every piece of product that skitters off the assembly line. The marginalization usually takes the form of withholding preview screenings until it's too late for the film to be reviewed on its opening weekend. Newspaper and magazine feature editors may discover that their access to movie stars has dried up if the house critic is too tough. Movie ads may be pulled.