This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
It’d be reasonable to say that writer and director Kevin Smith has had a more vocal and sometimes uneasy relationship with film critics than most filmmakers over the past five or ten years.
Infamously, he voiced his discontent with critics after the less than stellar response to his studio comedy, Cop Out. Back in 2010, he wrote on his Twitter feed that “from now on, any flick I’m ever involved with, I conduct screenings thusly: you wanna see it early to review it? Fine: pay like you would if you saw it next week.”
There were interesting points in this (many of which were lost in the internet mass of noise that followed), and in an indirect way, it all seemed to build towards Smith’s impressive horror Red State, a movie he then took on the road himself around America.
Anyway, as a consequence of Smith’s comments about film critics, lots of film critics then wrote articles about film criticism and how Kevin Smith has felt the benefit as well as the wrath of film critics in general. Then, things soon went back to how they were.
But I still think there are points worth discussing here.
I’m increasingly of the view now that studios are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in marketing and promotion to negate the effect of film criticism, at least for a week or two. Moreover, said studios are succeeding. That the focus is so much now on getting a very big opening weekend for a major blockbuster, that the reviews themselves are far less vital to the machinery of big movies than they once were.
They’re not irrelevant, but I don’t believe that Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ box office opening would have been dampened had the early reviews been poor. After that weekend, you’re more reliant on word of mouth anyway, and thus again, where critics fit in when it comes to bigger movies is open to debate.
Even looking at a blockbuster that didn’t take off – Fantastic Four – it strikes me that more damage was done to that via other sources than critics. Sure, the surrounding negativity didn’t help, but then we’re in a world where a bad Transformers film grosses over $1 billion.
It isn’t alone. You can come up with no shortage of films that have belted past $100 million at the US box office, with barely an appreciative notice from many critics of note. As long as the marketing is expansive, and as long as the cast and crew toe the party line, more blockbusters now have a big opening weekend than not.
But back to Kevin Smith.
By his own admission, he’s mellowed in his approach to film critics since Cop Out (he talked in 2014 about letting go of his anger, saying “I’m old now enough to know some people are going to like it and some people are not going to like it”), and indeed has felt their support again with his recent indie horror, Tusk. A film that many didn’t take to, it had a few very vocal supporters. And as has been noted many times, that’s something that Smith’s early career felt the benefit of. Clerks and Chasing Amy in particular had no shortage of champions amongst critics.
I was interested, then, to read his response to early reviews of his new film, Yoga Hosers. This is a follow-up of sorts to Tusk, in that they are both part of his planned True North horror trilogy. Harley Quinn Smith (his daughter) stars alongside Lily-Rose Depp (Johnny’s daughter) in the feature, and the initial response to the movie has been heavily critical.
Smith addressed this on his Hollywood Babble-on podcast. “I was at three screenings [at Sundance] and it played wonderfully,” he said. “It was a wonderful experience watching the girls ascend and start doing interviews. People ate them up like candy. The critics on the other hand – holy fuck! Like I get it, the movie’s not for everyone. And based on what I read it’s not for anyone,” he said. He added that “I don’t even get mad, it’s not for the critics.”
It’s those last five words that really pricked my ears up.
I like Smith’s heart-on-his-sleeve approach to his movies, and I like the fact – whether I agree with him or not – that he doesn’t toe a mythical party line when talking about the film industry itself. With Red State, for instance, he questioned the insanity of having a film that cost a few million dollars to make then costing ten times that, or more, to physically release. I think there are valid questions in that, that are only partially being answered by video on demand. He asked a useful question, that still – years later – needs a more useful answer.
With Yoga Hosers, though, I’m not quite sure I fully agree with Smith’s points.
I get the demarcation between films that are being perceived as for critics, and those that aren’t. But that implies a snobbishness in all film criticism that I genuinely don’t believe is there. And I think the role of the critic has migrated somewhat. That most critics appreciate that a review of Spectre or something of that size is unlikely to alter someone’s decision as to whether to buy a ticket or not. However, when a critic finds an interesting smaller movie, that struggles for the oxygen of publicity, it can in extreme cases legitimately transform careers and movies.
In less extreme cases? It can just make people go and see it. That has to be worth something.
Furthermore, the pool of critics is broader. In days of old, you needed to attract the attention of, ideally, one of a few people with a voice in a print publication. Now? Get one website on your side, and they can start banging the drum for your film. Ultimately, though, sometimes just one critical voice can sometimes prove pivotal.
How critics can help
Once upon a time, the legendary Pauline Kael, for one, was instrumental in the success of several early Brian De Palma features, and of Robert Altman’s revered classic, Nashville.
More recently, Creed director Ryan Coogler eschewed the virtues of film criticism. Accepting a New Generation prize from the LA Film Critics Society in January, he talked about his first visit to the Cannes Film Festival, and how he’d watch Variety critic Justin Chang “going crazy on his laptop…He would type like a madman, with a fury I would recognize,” Coogler said, admitting it was the first time he saw a film critic “do the work.”
He thus sought out Chang’s reviews, and discovered his review of A Prophet. “I had a new found respect,” he said, revealing he went to see the film off the back of that piece of writing. It’s now Coogler’s favorite film.
This, for me, is the role that film criticism is increasingly taking on.
On Friday 12th February 2016, there are 21 releases marked for UK cinemas. Appreciating a couple are re-releases and live cinema events, that’s still 17 or 18 new movies all landing on one day. You won’t have to search far for reviews of the bigger ones – Concussion, Alvin And The Chipmunks: The Road Chip, and Zoolander 2. But who’s going to put up a fight for Welcome To Leith? For Meru? Or for Noble? They’re the ones that need oxygen, and – bereft of the marketing budget the Zoolander sequels are enjoying – critics are their best chance of getting it.
For Yoga Hosers, Smith has built himself enough of a name, and enough of a fanbase, to attract interest in his film without critical help. I don’t begrudge him that in the slightest (quite the contrary, and his work in highlighting other independent filmmakers is pretty near pricesless). He’s put in a shift and a half across his career, and I love the fact that barely a project of his looks like it’s seen the inside of a focus group. I’m intrigued to see the film, for one.
But I would say the idea of films for critics, and films for everybody else, is becoming – if it isn’t already – a misnomer. We’re all human beings, after all. And with so many releases clamouring for the same amount of attention, I think critics have a slightly different, perhaps less vital, yet often very important role to play.