Is social media beginning to undermine film criticism?

Kieran Turner-Dave
impossible 300x225 Is social media beginning to undermine film criticism?

A still from the film 'The Impossible'

For those who appreciate good cinema, the opinion of discerning film critics is of the utmost importance. The job of a professional critic is to watch as many films as possible within a given time frame and then convey their own opinion on each movie to a cinema-going audience, so that they can better decide which films may interest them most. However, with some of this year’s Oscar-nominated films (Argo, The Impossible) having resorted to marketing their films based on the reviews of Twitter users – is it possible that social media is beginning to undermine film criticism?

Before the advent of the Internet and the relaxation of film censorship, a consensus amongst print journalists would effectively dictate a film’s box office success and the resulting reputation of the filmmaker. Take Michael Powell’s voyeuristic horror Peeping Tom, for example, the film currently holds a 95 per cent “fresh” rating on film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes and is widely regarded by modern critics as a seminal piece of psychological horror cinema. Yet upon its release in 1960 it was met with a critical response that vilified the film as “unpleasant”, “silly”, “disgusting”, “cheap” and even “unhealthy”, which led to it being banned by some local councils before it was even released. In turn, the movie tanked at the box office and effectively ended the career of a hugely influential British director.

The explosion of social media in the last decade or so could therefore be seen as having an incredibly positive effect on our movie-watching habits. Maligned masterpieces like Peeping Tom need not wait decades before receiving the acclaim they deserve, as distributors can more easily market a movie at their target audience. As a Twitter user myself, I can follow film critics, journalists, studios, actors, directors, distributors, festivals, independent cinemas and cult film societies in order to widen my exposure to cinema news and reviews.

Moreover, in my personal experience as a film writer, social media has helped articles that I’ve written be seen by individuals whose opinions I hold in incredibly high regard. Ten years ago, it may have been decades before someone like Mark Kermode or Graham Linehan had the opportunity to come across a piece I’d written. Thanks to Twitter, they had both retweeted my articles within my first fortnight of writing for The Independent. For a budding film journalist, social media therefore provides an invaluable tool for circulating work within the right circles.

However, the ever-broadening scope of opinions should not lead cinemagoers to forget the most important quality a film critic possesses: expertise. Just because websites like Twitter, Facebook and Blogger allow for a more level playing field in which commentators can voice their opinion, it does not necessarily mean that every opinion should be seen as equally informed. A film aficionado may watch well over a hundred films released within a given year and their perspective on a single movie will therefore be relative to all of those other hundred films; as well as the hundreds of others by which that film may have been influenced. Upon reading a film critic’s review therefore the casual moviegoer should be able to trust that what they are reading is the well-informed opinion of someone who has a great knowledge and respect for cinema and who is experienced enough to comment on each movie’s merits and failings relative to its competition.

argo 300x225 Is social media beginning to undermine film criticism?Yet it is this trust in the knowledge and understanding of a commentator that film distributors have begun using Twitter to undermine. Granted, if everyone who watches a film scores it out of 10, (the system used by The Internet Movie Database or ‘IMDb’) the average of all of those scores would probably be a fair reflection of the film’s reception amongst audiences.

The problem, however is that the distributors of Argo and The Impossible have gone a step further and chosen to adorn their posters with a selection of favourable opinions from random Twitter users. Such a move is of course incredibly misleading, as not only does the opinion on the poster have no basis in expertise whatsoever; but a quote from a Twitter user can also be easily influenced, cherry-picked or just plain fabricated without any legal difficulty.

Of course, for a film’s promoters the use of Twitter quotes is an ideal move. Although the sources of the quotes may negate the value of the opinions presented, it is more likely that the target audience will associate the movie with the PR department’s carefully selected buzzwords rather than remember the actual name of the dubious commentator. Moreover, the use of possibly ill-informed or fictitious tweets can allow movies with poor critical reception to cover their posters with more favourable reviews. Consider the British children’s comedy Nativity 2: Danger In The Manger; one theatrical poster included a single quote from Charles Gant of Heat magazine who called it a “funny, festive, feel-good treat. Four stars.”

Now when an intelligent cinemagoer sees a poster of a film that’s best review seems to be four stars from Heat, may infer that it has been met with a frosty critical reception. But hold on, a quick search of Twitter can yield a much more positive critique.

Although this Twitter user boasts of an enthusiasm for One Direction and N-Dubz, it should not be assumed that their knowledge of film is parallel to that of Roger Ebert. If a film fan were to consider a quote from a completely unknown source to have any credence whatsoever, they may as well determine which film to watch at the cinema by rolling a dice – as pretty much any film will have a posters – worth of positive reviews from random tweeters.

The growth of social media has greatly widened the scope for the discussion of cinema, and allowed for film writers and distributors to more successfully meet their target audiences. Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that the increase in the quantity of opinions is not the same as enhancing the quality of the discourse. Film critics are still the most enthusiastic and informative voices when it comes to determining the value of a movie compared to the cost of a ticket price. So please consider a variety of erudite and reasoned opinions before seeing a movie – but not those of a carefully selected, and potentially untrustworthy, stranger.

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  • disqus_4lboDIqrOe

    “For those who appreciate good cinema, the opinion of discerning film critics is of the utmost importance.” Are you having a f’kin laugh? I hope this is irony, and designed to stir us up. If not, you’re a deluded idiot. I’ve never understood the purpose of so called professional art criticism. It’s on a par with economic rating agencies – utterly pointless.

    As Brian said, ‘You are all individuals!’ … ‘Yes, we are all individuals!’ …

  • Miles Maker

    It’s not a the knowledge of film audiences care about. Audiences seldom analyze films and seldom care what the analysis is–they simply care about what emotions a given movie makes them feel. Critics are just as important as ever in some circles, but analytical prowess has nothing to do with whether or not audiences will respond to a given movie so most people no longer care if it’s given a ‘thumbs up.’

    If your friends & family like a movie, chances are you will too. THIS is the prevailing influential barometer being used by the public–and rightly so. I can’t tell you how many films I later saw that I was discouraged from seeing simply because a critic I respected slammed the thing, only to discover over time that the critic is coming from an entirely different place than I am–socially, economically, culturally–and simply doesn’t share the same creative preferences and value system that i do.

    I love critics–just not when it’s time to decide if I should go watch a given movie.

  • ArfurTowcrate

    We don’t need a self-appointed paid elite to tell us what we like.

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