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The role of film critics in box-office success

July 22, 2006

Re "Everybody's a critic," Current, July 16

Kyle Pope cannot be serious. No one thinks critics -- whether the "elite" ones he so despises or even the more folksy Ebert and Roper variety -- had anything to do with the financial success of any of the films he mentions.

Each one of his examples -- "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," "Mission: Impossible III," "X-Men: The Last Stand" and "The Da Vinci Code" -- have a single, glaringly obvious thing in common: They were made because they are brand names the public already knows and were promoted to within an inch of their lives.

Anyone in or out of Hollywood, knows two things: A huge number of potential audience members don't read reviews by anyone, and you can guarantee a certain attendance based simply on the brand.

Two of Pope's films are not just sequels but second sequels; "The Da Vinci Code" was based on one of the most popular books of our era; and, while "Pirates" is only a sequel, it brought back Johnny Depp in his most wildly popular role yet.

Critics can make a difference on smaller films. But these days, the greatest geniuses in Hollywood are more likely to inhabit a studio's promotion department than to be making movies.




Kudos to Pope. As an Internet-based film critic, I and my colleagues are aware of the rapidly blurring line between legitimate film critics and regular audience members whose access to the Internet has empowered them to speak their minds as never before.

However, Pope falls into a common trap laid by this subject: namely, the implication that box office is the sole determiner of a film's worth.

Movies have at least a pretense to artistry, which means a life and a vibrancy beyond the first weekend's grosses. Many classic films were initially disappointments at the box office, and many more huge hits subsequently vanished from the cultural radar, never to be seen again.

But with many audience members (quite reasonably) looking for simple entertainment after a long day's work, and studios willing to cut every creative corner to bring it to them, scholars and movie critics are the only groups that at least keep this larger picture in mind.


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