ebert_blog Roger Ebert has an essay on his blog talking about how the Internet has produced a new “golden age” of movie criticism. There are more film critics now, across the Internet, than there have ever been before. The catch is, there’s no real quality control, and most of them aren’t getting paid for it.

(Does this situation seem familiar? If you replace “movie criticism” with “writing” and “film critics” with “writers”, the statement is still every bit as true.)

Ebert talks about James Berardinelli, one of the most-read film critics in the world (and one of the critics I personally respect most, right up there with Ebert), who is actually not what might be called a “professional” film critic because he is not able to support himself from his writing—he works at his day job, as an engineer.

He goes on to discuss how he discovered, through people leaving comments on his blog, “a world of film criticism that thrived below the radar. These writers are never linked by the conglomerators, but one of their reviews might be better than anything linked on IMDb—and I include my own work.”

He later asked some of these reviewers to contribute guest reviews to his site, and subsequently invited them all to his yearly Ebertfest film festival. They all attended on their own dime, Ebert notes, because all of them had day jobs that paid them well enough that they could review movies as a hobby.

Ebert reminisces about his own early days in journalism:

Yes, I’m sad that traditional newspapers have come upon hard times, and traditional print venues for film criticism are disappearing. I thank God I got into journalism at 16, that I edited pages over turtles in the print shops of hot lead operations, that I felt the rumble of the building when the presses started to roar, that I worked beside reporters who had a hat on their head, a cigar in their teeth, a bottle in their drawer, and shouted "BOY!" when they needed a copy kid. All that belongs to the past in the same way as horse-mounted cavalry and India clipper ships.

But, he says, he is “feeling good” about being a part of a “truly World Wide Web” of film criticism—a web that includes many talented writers writing on many specialist sites across the Internet.

He concludes by talking about advice he and others had given to people who wanted to be film critics. It boiled down to becoming an intellectually-well-rounded individual so that those people would have a good basis from which to write about films, as well as be able to find a career that will pay something so they can review films as a sideline.

It occurs to me that film criticism is one of the journalistic fields probably most endangered by the Internet. Ebert himself refers to a list kept by one of his friends of professional film critics who have lost their jobs; it’s up to 65 so far.

Movie reviews do not require much in the way of original reporting, travel expenses, or even professional expertise. They only require one to have seen a film and be willing to write about it. There are enough people out there doing that for free that it has become harder to get paid for it.

But as Ebert says, for those people who delight in reading, writing, and talking about the films they’ve seen, there are so many people out there doing it on-line that it essentially is a “golden age.”


  1. For a different perspective, I recommend an opinion piece written by Chicago Tribune columnist Clarenc Page (which appeared in my local paper today) called “Quality Suffers with Rise of Amateur Critics” (http://tinyurl.com/2a2htqq). Perhaps with film critics watching a movie is enough, but I find book reviews where that is the extent of the reviewer’s knowledge are very insufficient.

    Interestingly, as I think about it, what I look for in a book review is significantly different than what I look for in a movie review. In a movie review, I don’t care if the director is using techniques first introduced by Charlie Chaplin and refined by Alfred Hitchcock. What I want to know is a synopsis of the story, how violent the movie is, whether the violence is graphic or simply suggested, whether the dialogue is just a litancy of 4-letter words, and whether the actors can act.

    In contrast, I want much more from a book review. I not only want to know about the story but I want to know how well written it is; whether the characters are wooden or full of life; whether this is a better or poorer rewrite of someone else’s book from 10 years ago; whether there are better (or worse) books available on the same subject and why; if nonfiction or historical fiction, some of the pertinent history; and more.

    Perhaps the difference is that I see a movie as a generally transient nonparticipatory experience — 90 minutes of escapism that I am unlikely to see again — whereas I view reading as a participatory repeatable experience. Or perhaps I’m just different (stranger) than most folk when it comes to movies and books.

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