The Permanent Crisis of Film Criticism | Mattias Frey

«Fundamental changes will have to do with undemocratic limits to content»

The permanent crisis of film criticism

The Internet is both cursed and promising: lauded as the technology that makes possible the democratisation of the production and reception of cultural goods, demonised as a space that transforms criticism into superficial nonsense dominated by commercial interests and click-rates. The film and media scholar Mattias Frey highlights the consistency of this discourse throughout the history of the developing media. Yet in fact, film criticism finds itself today at a crossroads, he says.

Text-Interview with Mattias Frey

Mattias Frey, in 2015 you published a book titled The permanent crisis of film criticism. How bad is the outlook for film critics in your eyes?

The depth of today’s crisis of film criticism hinges largely on a matter of perspective between the consumers and producers of criticism. For many of the former, film criticism could hardly be in a better state: today anyone who can afford a reliable internet connection can access writing about film from Iran, Nigeria, Japan or anywhere else with a few clicks of a mouse and largely for free. Aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, AlloCiné or allow a quick overview of many evaluations. No longer is the consumer subjected to tyrannies of geography whereby he or she must read the opinions of a few local or national critics. There is a hitherto unprecedented diversity of forms – from capsule reviews and vlogs to video essays and long-form academic articles – available among an ever-proliferating array of websites and publications.

And from the perspective of film journalism?

Seen from the other perspective, film criticism could not be in worse shape. The media landscape is under huge strain from digital disruptors and film critics have suffered even worse than their ailing peers in political or business journalism. Despite the aforementioned easy availability of writing on film, almost all of this is being offered for a pittance or nothing at all. In 2009, an American colleague estimated that there were 100 people making their living as film critics in the United States. I would reckon that this number has fallen by at least a third and as much as a half since then and that a similar trend is at work in other countries. This development is surely more drastic in countries with a more consolidated media sector (e.g., Britain) than others (e.g., Germany), but it is taking place in every highly industrialised country that I have studied. In sum, then, film criticism finds itself at a crossroads. To where this itinerary will lead is as of yet uncertain, but it will doubtless pertain to much larger developments in media ownership, future consumers’ behaviours regarding paywalls, to what extent Facebook and Google (or others) will play gatekeepers to information and news, and so on.

Which scenarios can you imagine?

A nightmare scenario would be an end of net neutrality and an oligopoly of (pseudo-) criticism by the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon and the Murdochs. Another scenario would see much quality criticism behind paywalls. There will surely come a point where – because of paywalls or better monetisation of advertising – a core volume of criticism becomes better compensated financially. The present situation, where too many are writing essentially for free, is unsustainable. For a while now we have seen our best students – our brightest minds – go into business consulting or finance because professions in these sectors are compensated to such a high degree. This is a huge waste of talent and the quality of our culture is suffering for it

Trailer of «Was heisst hier Ende?» (2011), Essayfilm by Dominik Graf on Michael Althen

Mattias Frey is a reader in Film and Media Studies at the University of Kent, Managing Director of the Centre for Film and Media Research and an Editor of the journal Film Studies. Frey's books include The Permanent Crisis of Film Criticism: The Anxiety of Authority and Film Criticism in the Digital Age (co-edited with Cecilia Sayad). In the 2000s, he reviewed movies for the Boston Phoenix and for many years he reported on film festivals for Senses of Cinema.

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