Sales Agent & Producer (The Match Factory / Match Factory Productions - Germany)
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When you go to a big festival, like Cannes, and you open any film periodical, it’s as if nothing had changed. However, in the general press, while fifteen years ago films would fill several pages, we see that it is given considerably less space (even if – sometimes – digital content balances it out). In Germany, the outcome of the reduced space given to cinema has been that critics have less of an impact than before. Conversely, in England, it is absolutely impossible to sell a film if it got bad reviews.
There are other huge variations between countries. I was very impressed by the impact of online reviews in the United States (which I have yet to see in Europe). I don’t quite agree with this idea that social media is toxic to criticism. Some writers have actually become real celebrities. For instance, everyone in the business follows New York Times’ Manohla Dargis. Her social media voice reaches out to plenty more readers across the New York Times usual readership. In that regard, film criticism still seems very vibrant and appealing.
At the same time, I believe a huge shift is currently taking place in the way the audience sees cinema, how they take it in and even talk about it, and it seems to me that we’re a bit behind in that regard. Rightly or wrongly, we’re still very much attached to a certain kind of films that can be seen as films for festivals, or what a German film critic recently coined “museum films”, which bear no real connection with the audience. And at the same time, we shun “mainstream” films, which are the opposite of films for festivals, which we believe we must cherish and protect. I sometimes feel that, at the end of the day, we may not be curious enough, not open enough to other outlooks on films. Of course, critics continue to play their customary role efficiently and good critical feedback on a film often helps filmmakers make their next projects a reality. Nevertheless, there are limits to that process because, for it to be effective, films need to be successful on three fronts at once: at the box office – even if it is a moderate success -, among critics, and in festivals.
If you look at the career of the elder among my company, Aki Kaurismäki, or other filmmakers of the same generation, like Jim Jarmusch, we see that they had time: time to develop their style, shooting five or six films to fine-tune their take on cinema, to become masters of their craft, before making the works that propelled them forward. Filmmakers no longer get to have that time. The audience doesn’t allow it, but neither do critics. I’m thinking specifically about a director whose first feature film was an international success. When his second feature came out, everyone logically expected it to compete in Cannes. And because it didn’t, most critics thought it meant that the film couldn’t be as good as the first one. It was very revealing, I noticed that critics didn’t judge the film on its own merits but rather according to context and expectations. And I found it very unpleasant. In putting a lot of stock in events that shouldn’t be taken into consideration I believe critics deny themselves their great privilege: being independent from the film industry. As a result, they shut themselves off, a bit like hamsters in a cage, as the wheel turns faster and faster and pressure increases on all sides.
A positive example - and one La Semaine de la Critique took a part in - could be, on the other hand, The Lunchbox, a film that got complete support from the press and was then also backed by the industry because La Semaine de la Critique had kicked off the process. Criticism can still be a driving force, even if some shifts in the business brought closer the limits beyond which it can no longer operate. There was a time when, in Germany, Ari Kaurismäki could sell half a million tickets. It doesn’t seem possible now. Even with a masterpiece that is fully supported by the press, it couldn’t go beyond a certain limit. And I think this is a global phenomenon, it doesn’t just impact arthouse films.
That being said, we have seen many changes. About five years after I started working in the business, DVDs came out, and everyone said that it was the end! But, against all odds, DVD sales became the greatest source of revenue in the industry, including - with the help of critics - for arthouse films. Then, DVD sales started dropping and everyone thought it was the end, that streaming platforms could never generate the same benefits. Then again, we start to see the – real if still limited - possibilities that streaming services open to arthouse films. Nevertheless, critics still make a difference between writing for a film that was released in cinemas and those released on streaming platforms. It’s a challenge we must overcome. There should be more room, so that both may be displayed, instead of having to make a choice.
We most probably should be more aware of our limitations regarding the idea of “helping films”. Everything we do, whether we are critics or producers, working for a TV channel or a festival, actually serves two masters, always: the audience and the filmmakers, protecting the latter’s freedom so that they may create something original, new and interesting. A few years ago, critics actively supported and championed various new movements, like the Berlin School in Germany, the New Argentine Cinema, the Greek “Weird Wave” and, the most famous among them, the Danish Dogma movement. They were all built with the support of film critics (maybe less so for Danish Dogma that was really championed by Von Trier himself). But none of these movements prevailed over time because they never had an actual box office success. It’s very clear with New Argentine Cinema: critics did a lot to promote the idea of a movement, they talked about it a lot, but at the end of the day, even if the directors that belonged to that movement (especially Lucrecia Martel) are still there, they had to find their own individual path. Similarly, what is left of the Berlin School, apart from Christian Petzold? It may be time not to repeat the same strategy, but to look to completely different places, to strive to open oneself, to learn to integrate the significant shifts that have taken place in the industry.
As told to Pierre-Simon Gutman