The Dehumanization of Film Critics

Originally posted in June 2013

Last week, Market Watch, a website owned and operated by the Wall Street Journal, published a piece called 10 Things Movie Critics Won’t Tell You. It caused an uproar in the film critic community because, instead of reporting facts, it trafficked in misinformation and stereotype. Among the unreliable sources quoted in the article were “movie fan on a Yahoo message board” and Shawn Edwards, a guy whose job is to provide studios with glowing blurbs they can use in ads for terrible movies. (He’s the guy who called Fired Up “The funniest, craziest and zaniest teen movie ever!”) You’d think a publication as supposedly prestigious as the Wall Street Journal would be interested in reporting truths rather than distortions, but then again, we live in a world where outrageousness equals website traffic.

The Market Watch “story” is only part of a larger problem, though. Go to the user forums at Rotten Tomatoes or any other website dedicated to movies and you’ll hear the same complaints about film critics. Horrible attributes are ascribed to us. We’re dishonest. We’re out of touch with what “real” people like. We’re bitter. We look for reasons to tear movies apart. We became critics because we don’t have the talent to make movies ourselves. We’re elitist. We have no credibility. We’re irrelevant. Most of us are unqualified for the job. I could go on and on. In short, film critics are far too often dehumanized, cast as soulless villains in a battle against average moviegoers and cinema as a whole. I don’t know what you do for a living, but imagine that every single day, people were out there disparaging you as a charlatan and an enemy of the state. You’d get a little worked up about it, don’t you think?

What’s so galling about this dehumanization is that those who engage in it have no clue about the very real struggles that go into this line of work. The fact is that film critics do this job for one reason and one reason only: We love movies more than anybody else. That’s why we’ve devoted our lives to writing about them. You would be shocked to learn how little film criticism pays. Most critics work another part-time – or, in some cases, even a full-time – job just to pay their bills, put food on their tables, and support their families. Those who manage to make film writing their sole occupation often scrape to get by, sacrificing things such as health insurance and retirement funds. Why would someone intentionally choose a job in such a low-paying field when they could earn bigger bucks somewhere else? Because they love movies so much that they can’t imagine doing anything else.

Haters and people like Charles Passy (who wrote the Market Watch article) can’t be bothered to peek behind that curtain. They’d rather assign ulterior motives to us, suggesting that we are trolls, intent on bashing movies as a means of acting out our own pathetic demons. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Let’s look at just one thing on the Market Watch list, an accusation that is often repeated by film critic haters (who, oddly, seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on websites devoted to film criticism). It’s often said that critics “want every movie to be Citizen Kane” and dislike films meant solely to be popcorn entertainment. Here are the top ten box office hits of 2012, followed by their critical approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes:

  • 1. Marvel’s The Avengers – 92% (fresh)
  • 2. The Dark Knight Rises – 87% (fresh)
  • 3. The Hunger Games – 85% (fresh)
  • 4. Skyfall – 92% (fresh)
  • 5. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – 65% (fresh)
  • 6. The Twilight Saga – Breaking Dawn Part 2 – 48% (rotten)
  • 7. The Amazing Spider-Man – 73% (fresh)
  • 8. Brave – 78% (fresh)
  • 9. Ted – 69% (fresh)
  • 10. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted – 79% (fresh)

So, of the ten most popular movies at the box office last year, nine of them were also praised by a majority of critics. Why, then, are so many people hostile toward critics who are “out of touch” with public taste? This is the most distressing thing about the dehumanization of film critics. The animosity comes without basis, without fact to back it up. We’re targets on a dartboard.

The truth is that most critics love movies, have spent years watching and learning about them, and get immeasurable joy from turning people on to a good movie they might not otherwise have seen. We’re not bad guys. Calling out the flaws in a turkey is part of the job, yes, but most of us would rather talk about a great movie than a crappy one. We’re in the business of sorting through everything to find the pictures that are truly special.

If you’re reading this, you probably already know the truth about film critics. You won’t need to be convinced. But here’s what I’m asking you to do: share this information with people who do not. Post this piece to a forum or message board, or simply tell any critic bashers you come across the facts. I’m not saying critics shouldn’t be criticized. We should just be criticized for stuff that’s valid and legitimate. We are, after all, human beings.