"I'm not so sure there are any important film critics left in America," said the studio marketing executive. "Once you get past Siskel and Ebert, it's a short list. And if there are any others, you can bet they're almost all on TV."
Is it time to say goodby to the once-prestigious role of the "important" film critic who pontificates for a living?
Is TV killing film criticism?
Just look at an obvious indicator--the movie ads.
Movie marketeers go far afield these days to find critical boosters for their pictures--and top billing often goes to TV film critics. "Nuts," starring Barbra Streisand, has an ad running in these pages with eight raves-- all from TV film reviewers. Current ads for "Three Men and a Baby," "Fatal Attraction" and "Running Man" also quote exclusively from TV critics. (Likewise for recent ads for "Overboard," "La Bamba," "Surrender" and "Someone to Watch Over Me.")
It's not that the studios can't locate a good print review--they seem to prefer the TV ones. When Warner Bros. opened its prestige Christmas release, Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun," guess whose quote got top billing--Time magazine or "At the Movies?" Right--the TV show.
But the ads are just the tip of the tip of the iceberg. The ascendancy of TV film critics has changed the rules of the reviewing game. Thanks to the potency of television, critics--both thoughtful print essayists and the glib tastemakers who populate the airwaves--have been absorbed into Hollywood's star-making machinery.
Homing in on Clips
A veteran film director recently admitted: "If I were just coming out of film school today I'd find a different line of work. It's hard to decide what's worse--having to get a green light from production execs whose notion of film history begins with 'Chinatown' or needing opening-weekend reviews from a bunch of TV critics who sound like they can't take notes and read subtitles at the same time." (The film maker insisted on remaining anonymous, as did our studio exec, which shows how much clout TV's critics wield today.)
Which brings us to an intriguing question. Are TV film critics simply great marketing foils, or are they shaping the tastes of moviegoers?
It's no surprise that most TV critics (see Scouting Report on the next page) have largely middle-brow tastes. Most have become film commentators for the same reason Edmund Hillary said he climbed Mt. Everest--because it was there. Few have any scholarly film background, some have never written for a living--and then there's KABC-TV's Gary Franklin, who joined the critical ranks after a career as a nightside radio reporter for KFWB radio (AM 980).
Of course, that's the point--writing and TV are completely different mediums. The New Yorker's Pauline Kael may be a dazzling stylist, but would her richly descriptive criticism play on TV? Probably not. TV critics have their own descriptive weapons--film clips.
"The biggest complaint you hear about TV film critics is that they don't use words like dense and film noir, " said KNBC-TV news director Tom Capra. "But I'm not sure we want to get into that level of criticism on our show. It's not our job to tear a film apart and decide whether Robert Altman's at the top of his game or not.
"My feeling is that TV critics--like our David Sheehan--should be consumer reporters. What makes David so good is that he knows how to use TV--and how to use clips on TV to make his point. That's the big difference between print critics and TV ones--here we've got all these pictures to work with.
"David sometimes does seem to have a pretty bizarre selection system, but he's basically there to steer you to the good films and away from the bad ones."
Still, the key to TV critics' influence isn't what they say so much as what they show--the images (in this case the film clips) have far more impact than any critical opinion-making. That's why marketing execs love them--they've provided them with priceless free advertising by essentially taking movie studio trailers out of the theaters and into people's homes.
"There's no doubt that we're slaves to the clips that the studios give us," said Capra, who's knows the industry from inside and out--his father is the legendary film director Frank Capra. "The studios basically have the attitude--say whatever you want just as long as you spell the film's name right. They get a hell of a lot more mileage out of the clips that David shows--for free--than anything they could ran in a paid 30-second spot."