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It’s an interesting time, particulary in American cinema, because there hasn’t ever been a greater difference between what critics think and what the public thinks. If you look at the movies that are at the top of the box-office each week-end, these are movies that critics usually are not fond of, and if you look at the movies that critics love, they are very rarely big, commercial successes anymore. So what happened ? Clearly, when the film industry became much more corporate, with conglomerates taking over studios, you had pressure to make money with every movie : there were a lot fewer gambles, and they focused on remakes, sequels and adaptations. That has increased more and more over the years, to the point where now most people who want to tell original stories and deal with daring material that is exciting to actors and filmmakers are increasingly going to TV instead, because that’s where the kind of movies that would have been made even just 15 or 20 years ago, now get made. So the midrange budget movies are almost extinct. One of the only reasons that still gets those kind of stories made as films is awards. Because there’s still a desire on the part of certain talents, executives and studios : they still want to have a reason to compete in the Oscars, to be in Cannes and in other prestigious places. A handful of times a year, they will do something very daring, just to remain in the game of that. It’s why I’m very grateful, as a lover of quality films, to the Oscars : that might be the only thing pending between us and a complete year-round film schedule of remakes, sequels and adaptations. Critics are important because they can champion quality films and support them when they come along. Those reviews are then quoted in advertisements and award campaigns, which try to help win Oscars. Critics are very important still, even if it’s not in the way that they used to be. People are not necessarily reading in large numbers what critics say, and then going to see those movies, but people within the industry do so and covet that sort of validation. It keeps those kind of movies alive, and not exclusively on TV. I recently read something that was pretty interesting. The New York Times film critic for many years, in the middle of the 20th century, was Bosley Crowther : « So prestigious was Crowther that for 21 straight years, from 1941 to 1961, no movie won a Best Picture Oscar unless it had appeared on his list of the 10 best films of the year […] And few foreign films succeeded at all without Crowther’s imprimatur. » The point is that critics within the industry, like Crowther years ago, and today like A.L. Scott and few others, still can really make a difference, at least within the industry.
Without the Oscars and without the whole awards-industrial complex, the situation would be would be pretty bleak. TV would completely take over in terms of being “the place to be”, where quality stories and work go to live. We may be heading towards that, it may be inevitable. But for at least a few years more, those of us who love cinema and seeing things on the big screen have to be grateful that critics and awards are keeping at least some of them still there. And we still have films critics and TV critics, even at The Hollywood Reporter where I work. Now, maybe that’s going to become obsolete one day, maybe there won’t even be a film Academy and a TV Academy, but one academy for both. But for now, there’s still enough of a difference, enough within each medium that we feel that we need to have separate critics. But there are some places where that line is evaporating, because it is really evaporating in the experience of the viewer too. What we may end up in a few years is a world in which most movies that are still on the big screen are basically IMAX and 3D, just things that you trully need to experience on a big screen, and then the rest of them will be available at home. The experience of watching something on TV when you have a giant screen at home is not the same as before : TVs are getting larger, their image and sound quality is better, and smaller arthouse theaters are sadly going away… I still think it’s best to watch a movie on a big screen, if that’s the way the filmmaker intended for it to be seen. Amazon recently allowed me to see, on a big screen in a movie theater, Barry Jenkins’ limited series The Underground Railroad. Even though it’s going out to most people on TV. So the line is verry blurry right now, and I’m not saying it’s good or bad : that’s just the reality of it. There’s not much difference when people are shooting TV, sometimes beautifully, in a way that it could be seen on a big screen. What makes it TV, what makes it a movie ? Even the TV Academy, the Emmys, had to make a rule saying that you cannot compete in both the Emmys and the Oscars, which some people were trying to do, because it wasn’t clear if something was TV or a movie. This year, with the pandemic deadline, was particulary blurred because almost everything was released on TV, even things that were intended originally to be released in movie theaters. Even the film Academy decided to accept those things that debuted on TV as movies, as long as they were intended to be in movie theaters. Very few people saw Nomadland in a movie theater, and yet it won the Best Picture Oscar. In some ways, the pandemic has forced us to confront these questions maybe even sooner than we would have otherwise. We were always going to soon have to think about these things, but now we really have to, because the new world is upon us.
Film festivals are still very important. If you look at the writer & director of Nomadland, Chloé Zhao, her prior movie, The Rider, was not a big commercial success or anything, but it was a very good movie that people saw mostly at film festivals and made them recognize her talent, which led to the opportunity to do Nomadland, which also led to the opportunity to do a Marvel movie, The Eternals. I don’t know if making a Marvel movie was her ultimate ambition, but it allows her to make some money so she can then, presumably, continue to do the kind of littler movies that she made her name doing. It’s a weird system, but film festivals are very important to it because that’s were talent can be discovered. And critics are, again, very important : they’re the ones who are seeing everything and reviewing everything at film festivals. They are able to champion people who otherwise might never cross the radar of a big studio for instance, or even Searchlight Pictures. It’s still quite the way people can make a name for themselves.
Many people have come out of the Cannes film festival or the Critics Week in the past and gone on to bigger opportunities, because it gave them a platform, a chance to be discovered. Thais is the greatest value of film festivals : the ability to see and discover new talents. In the 1980s, the indie film arthouse boom started, with Miramax, Focus, Sony Classics, etc. Suddenly, you didn’t need to have a studio behind you to make a movie. So v ery talented people were doing it, and were able to be discovered. It actually started to democratize the entire industry as much as it can be. The changes in technology made it possible for anyone to make a movie ; the film festivals made it possible for anyone to show a movie ; the critics made it possible for anyone to be recognized for a good movie. So each of those steps is important.
As told to Michael Ghennam