Moving Image Institute: Days Two and Three

“Is this akin to an off-off Broadway community where everyone attends everyone else’s shows?”

This line is the one that has stayed with me the most after three intense days of presentations and discussions at the Moving Image Institute. It was uttered by Matt Zoller Seitz of The House Next Door during a group panel on film websites and blogs, one of the most engaging sessions thus far. Seitz made the statement in reference to the film blog community, where it seems that everyone blogs to an audience of fellow bloggers. But with successive presentations by print critics, distributors and filmmakers, this perception of insularity seems to apply not just to online cinephiles, but to the entire indie and art film industry in the United States. Needless to say, it has left me in search of answers, or at least a better articulation of the questions.

But first, back to Saturday morning’s panel with Seitz, Eugene Hernandez of IndieWire, Michael Koresky of Reverse Shot and S.T. Van Airsdale of The Reeler and Defamer. As one might expect of a panel on bloggers, this session featured the most free-wheeling discussion during the Institute, with Seitz issuing sharp critiques of the print journalism industry (ironic since he was the only member of the panel who writes for a print publication). He launched his blog The House Next Door three years ago simply as a platform for him to make a prolonged argument on behalf of Terrence Malick’s The New World in response to derisive remarks made towards the film on other websites. A small following of young partisans convened on his blog and began offering opinionated and thoughtful pieces on many other movies as well as television shows, and a community was thus formed that by Seitz’ count now receives 4,500 views a day. His site is open to submissions from any writer on content of varying lengths and formats, a flexibility that he considers an advantage of online journalism over print (“Where do you print editors get off with your sense of superiority if you won’t let your writers write as openly as we [bloggers] do?”) He also values the instant interactive element of online writing for “returning human communication to its natural state, ” citing that the large-scale national syndication of the press and corresponding erosion of local media over the past 30 years has taken the sense of community out of print journalism, only to relocate it online. Seitz even asserted that the blogosphere takes media back to a pre-professional era when hardboiled, streetwise reporters (Sam Fuller, anyone?) gave journalism a certain flavor and vitality lost on subsequent generations of white collar graduates.

The enterprising spirit was shared among the other panelists. Hernandez started IndieWire back in the mid-90s as a e-newsletter mass-mailed to 300 recipients; now it’s grown to a site of over a million unique visitors. Van Airsdale started The Reeler blog and, after some nurturing under the IndieWire blog network, launched it as its own site, offering exhaustive coverage of the New York film scene. Koresky started Reverse Shot as an online emulation of leading film criticism magazine Film Comment; like The House Next Door, it has become a nexus for young writers to submit thoughtful pieces on cinema. Of the four sites, only IndieWire has the funds to compensate its contributors, and despite these sites being a source of free publicity for films, some of their writers are shunted from press screenings. When the elephant-in-the-room question was raised about what distinguishes a paid critic from an unpaid critic, the discussion sidestepped into a somewhat related binary between professional vs. amateur criticism, leaving me to conclude that with paid film writing gigs shriveling away, both distinctions are moot.

Our first filmmaker guests, Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy) and Tom Kalin (Swoon and the upcoming Savage Grace) offered their share of war stories from all stages of production and distribution – my favorite being that some conservative viewers disliked Old Joy because they found the very premise that a person like Will Oldham’s character might exist repugnant. Also, overheard by Reichardt after a screening: “I didn’t make the movie, I just invited you to see it!” Their visit was aptly succeeded by the representatives of their respective distributors, Don Krim of Kino (Old Joy) and Ryan Werner of IFC Films (Savage Grace), who continued a running theme of the sessions: that if a specialty market film doesn’t get a glowing front page review on the New York Times, then it basically is a doomed release. This has long been the case, but perhaps moreso than ever with local coverage of films decreasing or focusing only on Hollywood releases (for example, the largest Washington DC newspaper did not review Jacques Rivette’s Duchess of Langeais due to their policy of reviewing only three releases per weekend). Nonetheless Werner shared a few anecdotes of creative marketing, such as “soft opening” a movie on a Wednesday instead of a Friday to minimize anticipated negative press, and extolled the recent success of Digital on Demand, which has delivered new IFC releases to over 50 million households without diluting the theatrical audience. Krim noted the importance of Netflix, which ordered nearly 10,000 copies of Old Joy, in keeping indie films viable in the digital market, and shared some preliminary designs for a slate of Blu-Ray releases.

On day three, cinematographer and director Ellen Kuras exhorted critics to display more appreciation of the non-theatrical elements of a movie by answering two simple questions in the course of a review: what is the “look” of a movie, and how is that look achieved? Kuras screened an excerpt of her upcoming documentary Nerakhoon (The Betrayal), as did director (and longtime film critic) Gerald Peary and producer Amy Geller of their documentary-in-progress on American film criticism, For the Love of Movies.

The latter included a provocative quote by Harry Knowles, uttered in response to the derision towards online and amateur film critics and bloggers: “If everyone can become a critic, that means critical thinking can spread.” While the logic of the statement is specious (the order of the clauses should be reversed), I applaud the democratic, outreaching spirit behind it, the kind of sentiment that I feel is somewhat underrepresented among the proceedings of the Institute thus far. It’s a pity that Bruce Goldstein, partner of Rialto Pictures and director of Film Forum, with his abundant energy and keen sense of community-building through cinema, couldn’t make his session. Each presenter has lent tremendous insight into their respective vocations and unique perspective on the industry as a whole. Still, I feel that a higher-level discussion has not yet taken place, something to the effect of “why are we doing this and what does it matter to others?” Hearing how many colleagues have risen to a common challenge of an industry in decline has been inspirational, even humbling. But there must be more than making the most of a bad situation; dare I say there has to be more than thinking about the problem in industry-defined terms. The distributors who presented all but admitted that, due to the demise of local media film coverage, theatrical markets outside New York City are a losing battle, and they have tailored their publicity efforts accordingly. These are defensive, cost-saving measures, but for the long term health of specialty cinema – not just as an industry, but as a vital part of our culture – more must be done. To this point it would have been great to connect with a film festival programmer, or even a grassroots media activist, someone whose mission is explicitly to make films connect with communities. Critics could learn a lot from such people in devising their own roles as advocates or activists (roles I consider essential for meaningful criticism), or even on the basic level of engaging a readership and getting them to watch (and think about) movies.

In coming up with some provisional answers to these challenges, I think back to two moments from the Institute. One is MOMI founding director Rochelle Slovin‘s opening remarks, challenging us to re-conceive what a museum that truly engages its visitors might look like as we walked through its kinesthetic exhibits. The second is film critic Molly Haskell in dinner conversation with Institute participants as well as her husband, fellow critic Andrew Sarris. (More on their presentation later.) At first she admitted to not following blogs, confessing to feeling overwhelmed by the abundance of online content and not knowing even where to start. Over the course of the dinner she eagerly jotted down each blogger participant’s site address as well as titles of films we recommended to her. It’s that kind of outgoing curiosity and enthusiasm to engage with new audiences that might get more attendees coming to our shows.

Author: alsolikelife

This is my pet project

  • Dave Kehr

    Thanks again for a detailed account of an interesting session. The underlying assumption of the MVI seems to be that film criticism is and should be a component of the marketing system, something I have grave reservations about. Why should playing advocate or activist be “essential to meaningful criticism”? Aren’t we here to try to understand how movies work, where they come from, what they may or may not signify? The publicists and distributors invited to the panels all seem to assume that critics exist primarily as promotional tools. As much as I admire Don Krim and Ryan Werner and what they are trying to achieve, I believe the job of selling films to the public is theirs — not that of the critic.

  • Whitney

    It seems as though, when it comes to blogging, that the promotion is not for the films themselves, but of the blogger. If a writer posts a piece in a public forum, they obviously want as many readers as they can get, but with the saturation of online criticism, it’s hard to ensure even a modest number of views and even less thoughtful consideration. Therefore, time and effort (most likely more than the time and effort of the actual writing process) is often put into self-promotion rather than sincere interaction. When promotion of films becomes part of that strategic internet self-promotion it seems to me that the problems of capitalistic print journalism still exist.

    Also, I stumbled onto this site today and am really enjoying it. Thanks.

  • badMike

    Regarding the question:

    “why are we doing this and what does it matter to others?”

    The answer to the first part is obvious: we love writing about movies and we’ll do it even if we’re making little to no money.

    And I think what it matters to others is the feeling of community and belongingness that’s fairly central to human behavior. Matt’s statement about us just writing for each other’s amusement is probably true, but so what? I don’t really know who reads my site except for some filmmakers, festival programmers and film bloggers. But I’ve met interesting people, seen some interesting films and that’s fine by me.

  • http://www, Doug Cummings

    Dave, I think you might be turning critical endorsement into something more shrill–certainly Kevin and I are not about to promote film X just because it is released by Kino or IFC Films. But if smaller companies do release a good film, we might go out of our way to write about and bring attention to it rather than take up more space devoted to the latest blockbuster. As you told the LA Weekly a couple of years ago, “Both Manohla and Tony see it as their mandate to push the art films they love” and your decisions on what to highlight in your excellent DVD column are certainly a form of advocacy and activism, are they not?

    I think Kevin’s point is merely that critics help create audiences for films and help shape film culture, and that it’s a basic role of criticism to do that rather than spill ink over each and every film, even if that would be possible.

  • Filmbrain

    Whitney — Your comment touches on an important issue that needs to be explored, but nobody seems willing to broach the subject. I think this gets back to the question of responsibility.

    There are without question film bloggers who value hit count over quality. These are the sites that post multiple times per day, often regurgitating stories that have been printed on dozens of other sites. Then there’s the film blogger who plays the contrarian for no reason other than to attract angry readers to his/her comment section.

    Perhaps this is a part of the problem with bloggers who are getting paid. Their sponsors are no doubt pressuring them to increase readership, and that’s not going to happen with 750 words about Tomu Uchida. It pains me to see talented writers trading in snark to survive.

    At the same time, there are just as many excellent film bloggers for whom self-promotion is not at all a factor. (For example, the very blog we’re commenting on at the moment.) Yet when the subject of “film bloggers” is raised, what comes to mind first? Something more akin to your description, I’m afraid.

    So how do we move forward? What can be done to change the impression, so that when esteemed critics are asked about bloggers we hear something other than the now-hackneyed “they’re unedited” or “they write without thinking” blah blah blah? We have to get past that and actually discuss the future of future of film criticism, and what can be done to make sure that “real” criticism doesn’t go the way of rumble seats. With corporate interests squeezing out critics in favor of syndicated hacks on one end, and bloggers who are happy to give rave reviews to anything in exchange for invites to screenings and junket round tables on the other, how can we ensure that film criticism doesn’t wind up becoming a Browning Society?

  • HarryTuttle

    I didn’t see evil when reading Kevin’s phrase about “advocacy and activism” because it is indeed one of the key role bloggers could play, at least to build the “word-of-mouth”.
    But Dave Kehr has a point, there is a fine line between an enthusiastic noble cause and giving up the big picture critical distance just because the niche markets are in dire situations. This is the difference between “positivism” and “complacency”. And unsurprisingly the filmmakers and publicists are joining the choir to weep on the death of print criticism precisely because they lose a branch of their marketing system. While the primary vocation of film criticism is NOT to save struggling films from extinction, which is only a hopefuly positive consequence of doing the job right.
    The independence of critical thinking is only garanteed by the absence of interest in the commercial success of each movie. Like Kehr says, if a movie doesn’t meet its niche audience, only the publicist is to be blamed. The critic notifies the release of a movie, and gives a good or bad evaluation. Now if a critic needs to repeat articles over and over, to drag readers in theatre, to trumpet for the film at special screenings… then somebody else is not doing their job.
    When a critic goes out of his/her way to promote a film deemed important enough to be so endrosed, it’s a bonus, for special personal reasons. We can’t have an industry funcionning systematically on this kind of interventions (which constitutes a certain conflict of interest between the judges and the market).

    Great points Doug and Filmbrain!

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