Online film critics get mixed reviews

Everybody's a critic! In today's movie world, that old show-biz lament seems almost literally true. Film reviewers have swarmed onto the scene like so many cicadas in the past half-dozen years - thanks mainly to the Internet, where anyone with a website, a blog, or just an e-mail address can set up shop as a cinematic pundit.

And some are highly influential. Reviews posted at darkhorizons.com, aintitcoolnews.com, and filmthreat.com - three of the most visited movie sites on the Web - court more attention from Hollywood's coveted 18-to 24-year-old age demographic than, say, a review by Time magazine's Richard Corliss.

Simply, broadband is beating out the newstand when it comes to finding a quick recommendation on a new release - especially because some websites post critiques earlier than print reviewers, often sidestepping embargoes set by the studios. (For instance, Harry Knowles of aintitcoolnews posted his review of the coming Harry Potter movie last week.)

But the freedom of the Web to print anything - no formal credentials or editor required - has set off a debate over whether the proliferation of online reviewers has strengthened the overall state of film criticism or weakened it.

"Online reviewing isn't the wave of the future," says Harvey Karten, director of New York Film Critics Online, a trade association. "It's the 'in' thing at this very moment."

There are many reviewers on the Net whose writing is superior to no small number of print critics, but there are also many sophomoric writers, he observes.

Mr. Karten and others who run online-critic associations see their job as weeding out the good from the bad. They do this by setting high standards for membership, regularly vetting their members' reviews, and spreading news about special accomplishments like print articles and book publications.

Nobody knows how many online critics currently exist. "I have no idea how to count," says Phil Hall, a member of the Online Film Critics Society governing council, noting that the OFCS has members from Iceland and Croatia to South Africa and Thailand.

One reason for the explosive growth of Internet criticism is its sheer availability. "Computers are universal in American homes," Karten points out, "and 67 percent have Internet access. Theoretically, anyone with [such access] can set up anything from a personal blog to a sophisticated site."

Sites such as efilmcritic.com even invite readers to submit reviews - if they like it, they'll post it. The site boasts: "We got folks who take a wage from the studios we slam, we've got people who know people, and a hefty slice of average folks who don't dribble when they talk and just like a good flick. This allows us to get a good cross-section of opinions on each film released."

For some readers, website reviews by an amateur critic may be more in line with their tastes than that of a highbrow cinèaste in a broadsheet. Moreover, some online critics write in a "webby style" that suits a generation accustomed to instant messaging and text messaging.

Another factor is the Internet's interactivity.

"Readers of a major newspaper might send letters to the editor praising or dissing a review," Karten notes, "but it isn't likely they'll be published." By contrast, "moviegoers can easily respond to Web critics by posting messages and having [the critic respond] in turn."

A level playing field for writers

A spur to online journalism has been the weakening power of traditional print media. Yet even some successful Internet reviewers aren't convinced the new medium is all its most vocal supporters claim.

"It's great because it democratizes film criticism, just as [flexible, inexpensive] digital video has the potential to democratize filmmaking," says Peter Brunette, a longtime print reviewer and media professor who is now chief film critic for IndieWire.com, a Web publication. "But on the other hand, it adds massively to the huge amount of information that's already out there and is already drowning us."

Dr. Brunette is also skeptical of the notion that more reviewers mean better reviewing. "I doubt if there's been any improvement in [film] criticism as a whole," he muses. "But the [Internet] proliferation has probably caused 'serious' critics from regular newspapers to think about how exactly they're different from - and whether they're better than - all those online people."

Hall agrees that the flood of new Internet reviewers hasn't necessarily made criticism better as a whole. Many film-review websites are run by people who lack a journalism background and whose writing shows more enthusiasm than skill. The Online Film Critics Society receives hundreds of applications, he says, but only a tiny number meet the organization's standards for membership.

Wanted: a filter for film reviewers

In sorting through the countless Internet critics, it's important to remember that they're a varied lot.

"Take a look at imdb.com or rottentomatoes.com," says Karten, referring to sites that disseminate reviews from many sources. "You'll find articles by print critics who have an online presence, and also by writers who post exclusively online. The second group [includes] those who have their own vanity web- sites and those who work for other sites, some of them quite prestigious, like Slate.com and Salon.com, for instance. There is good and bad writing in [all] categories."

Hall observes that Internet reviewing "has given writers - especially young writers in their early 20s or even teens - opportunities to reach a wide readership."

He adds that online writing can be a launching pad to traditional print criticism. Mike D'Angelo started with a bare-bones online site before getting recruited to Entertainment Weekly and later Time Out New York. A.O. Scott, the chief film critic of The New York Times, was hired because of a piece he wrote on Slate.com.

Whether they aspire to print or broadcast glory, or find online reviewing glorious in itself, the army of Web critics isn't likely to shrink any time soon.

"Most of the newer online critics I've seen are self-published and self- focused," Hall reports. "Then again, a few enterprising and serious journalists ... have created [Web] magazines with significant editorial staffs. I suspect that in time they'll be recognized as major forces - the digital heirs to Cahiers du Cinèma."

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