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What is the job of a film critic? Well, Kevin Smith and James Cameron just want them to promote their films

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First of all, check this out: Movie ticket prices are going up.

Many movie theaters across the country plan to raise ticket prices this weekend, particularly for premium-priced 3D tickets, The Wall Street Journal reported today (Thursday). It noted that 3D IMAX tickets in Boston for How to Train Your Dragon will rise to $14.50 versus $11.50, the price charged last weekend in the same theaters for Alice in Wonderland. Ticket prices for the 2D version of the movie will rise 3 to 4 percent.

Wow. That is a big jump. Three bucks for 3-D tickets. I’m not much of a mathematician, but that is at least, um, a 20% increase. This is coming at a time when movie studios are increasing their 3-D movie output. Warner Bros, for instance, is releasing all of its “tentpole” releases in 3-D.

Warner Bros will be releasing five movies in 3D in 2010 and nine movies in 2011. Alan Horn announced at ShoWest that all the studios tentpole movies, superhero films, and big special effects releases, will be distributed in 3D. He called it the new standard for the company. And yes, he was clear that this includes all of the future DC Comic Books films. That means that the new Superman and third Batman will be released in 3D.

Oh, and we’re going through a recession, and people have to make hard decisions as to whether or not to pay for their mortgage, or to buy ramen noodles, so that they can actually eat.

These new movies are released in both 3-D and 2-D, but who wants to watch a 3-D movie in 2-D? One-eyed people. That’s it. The rest of us two eyes are going to want to pay the premium to see these films the way they were meant to be seen. In dizzying, nauseating T*H*R*E*E*D*I*M*E*N*S*I*O*N*S! We’ll feel cheated out of part of the experience if we don’t. Movie theater owners know this, and are going to a lot of trouble to increase their number of 3-D screens.

The three largest U.S. theater circuits recently secured $660 million in financing that would double the number of digital 3-D screens, but it will be months before the technology is installed, causing an acute shortage. There are about 3,500 3-D screens in the U.S. and Canada, less than 10% of the total. That’s not enough to accommodate two 3-D movies at the same time, let alone three.

The problem is acute for smaller regional theater chains that often have just one 3-D screen in a multiplex, forcing them into a tough decision, potentially alienating a studio upon which they rely for movies.

Nonetheless, with audiences showing a preference to see spectacles like “Avatar” in 3-D and ticket price surcharges boosting revenues, studios are teeing up one 3-D film after another. Nineteen 3-D movies are scheduled in theaters this year, up from 14 in 2009.

So get ready to spend a lot more money on your movie-going experience. And if you’re going to spend a lot more money on your movie-going experience, you’re going to want to do a little research on the product, to be a little more discriminating. If I’m going to forgo making my mortgage payment on time, I want to make sure I’m getting the biggest bang for my entertainment buck. Presumably, that is where film critics would come in.

But, are critics becoming tools of the movie studios– part of their promotional apparatus? Take a look at what happened recently to New York Press critic Armond White, who was “disinvited” from a screening of the new Noah Baumbach/Ben Stiller film “Greenberg”:

An anonymous “film critic” was sending out an email yesterday asking for other critics to not review Noah Baumbach’s latest film, Greenberg, because Armond White had apparently been “banned” from attending a screening prior to the film’s opening because director Noah Baumbach and producer Scott Rudin didn’t want White to see the film. It was tweeted. It was blogged. It became a thing for a quick second.

I contacted Armond White and asked him if there was any truth to the matter. He said that Focus Features publicist RJ Millard phoned him to disinvite him from the Focus Features press screening of Greenberg. “I was told this rescinded invite was ordered by director Noah Baumbach’s… publicist [Leslee Dart]. They objected to my previous reviews of The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding.”

The article linked above makes the point that it was the publicist who made the call to prevent a film critic from attending a screening of a film because she didn’t like said critic’s previous reviews of the director’s work.

Said critic, Armond White, is a controversial figure, especially among the Rotten Tomatobots, the angry commenters who rush to defend favored films like “Star Trek” and “Up,” when he gives them negative reviews. The Rotten Tomatobots have posted comments at the movie review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes calling for Mr. White’s death, among other things. Whether you agree with Mr. White’s opinions or not doesn’t really matter. There’s a larger issue here, as Mr. White says in his review of Greenberg:

This matters because the public needs to know the strange symbiosis that exists between publicists and journalists: They Promote, We Write-and with no further obligation to write positively or negatively. This is basic journalistic independence, if we care to preserve such a thing. It was an honorable, cordial system until-after the mid-’80s rise of entertainment media-studios and their publicists exerted greater control over media access to films, insuring favorable/biased coverage. Publicists’ power increased as the media gave itself over to non-inquisitive, low-integrity forms of celebrity news and gossip.

As ticket prices increase, we need to be able to trust film critics. Are they independent “journalists,” or are they just part of the studio’s publicity machine?

There are a couple of major film makers who believe that film critics are part of the publicity. These critics get to see the films for free at press screenings, and are paid by newspapers and television stations that are often part of the same megacorporations that own the movie studios, so they should promote their product. Kevin Smith, who recently released a film called “Cop Out” with Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan, took his twitter feed to go after those critics who didn’t like his film.

In a series of posts on his page, he writes, “I gotta say that every day I hate film theory & film students & critics more & more. Film fandom’s become a nasty bloodsport where cartoonishly rooting for failure gets the hit count up. Watching them beat the s**t out of it was sad. Like, it’s called ‘Cop Out’; that sound like a very ambitious title to you? You REALLY wanna s**t in the mouth of a flick that so OBVIOUSLY strived for nothing more than laughs. Was it called ‘Schindler’s Cop Out’?

He adds, “Realised whole system’s upside down: so we let a bunch of people see it for free & they **** all over it? Meanwhile, people who’d REALLY like to see the flick for free are made to pay? Bull****: from now on, any flick I’m ever involved with, I conduct critics screenings thusly: you wanna see it early to review it? Fine: pay like you would if you saw it next week. Why am I giving an arbitrary 500 people power over what I do at all, let alone for free? Next flick, I’d rather pick 500 randoms from Twitter & let THEM see it for free in advance, then post THEIR opinions, good AND bad. Same difference. Why’s their opinion more valid? It’s a backwards system.”

Where would those “500 randoms” come from? Perhaps Mr. Smith’s twitter followers? He’s got over 1.6 million followers (that’s a heck of a lot more than me). I’m no mathematician, but that is enough “500 randoms” that he could make, oh, um, maybe at least ten more movies before he ran out of followers to give free passes.

Mr. Smith seems to suggest a sliding scale of criticism based on the ambition of the filmmaker. That’s bizarre for a couple of reasons. First of all, doesn’t an artist attempt to make the best art he can every time he picks up a brush, or pen, or camera? Moreover, why should critics “go easy” on a movie because they sense a lack of ambition on the filmmaker’s part? Shouldn’t they be more critical, in that case? Mr. Smith is a talented guy, right? So why is he aiming so low?

Mr. Smith is in good company. Perhaps the most powerful filmmaker in the world, James Cameron, also doesn’t like to see criticism of his films, and he hasn’t been shy about calling out anyone who doesn’t like some of the choices he made when making his film Avatar.

JAMES CAMERON has hit back at criticism of the way he portrays the military in his blockbuster AVATAR, insisting they are thinking about the plot “too simplistically”.

The hi-tech adventure movie, already the second highest-grossing picture of all time, was panned by right-wing critics for being anti-military.

Cameron claims he’s offended critics have misinterpreted his message .

It’s not an artist’s job to explain his work. Put it out there and let it stand on its own. Some people are going to like it, some aren’t. Some are going to agree with your message, some aren’t. When you’re creating something, you have control over it. It’s yours; you can put into it anything you want. But once you release it out into the world, it belongs to everyone. You can’t control how people react to it.

Responding to every critic who “misinterprets your message” is a waste of everyone’s time, most especially the artist’s. The critic is creating an art form as well, by interpreting your work through the prism of his/her own experience and knowledge. You’ve already got one of the best jobs in the world,  why do you want to spend your time reacting when someone criticizes what you’ve made? They’re probably all just jealous anyway.

Besides, Mr. Cameron is working on (two!) sequels to Avatar. He will have ample opportunity to clear up any “misinterpretations of his message.”

Both Mr. Smith and Mr. Cameron are part of the system, and they are attempting to use their power and influence to ensure that critics present their products in a specific way that will benefit them. This is a natural inclination– there’s a lot of money at stake for the filmmakers, for the corporations that release their films, for the fast food restaurants that do the promotional tie-ins. I’m not sure how much influence film critics really have anyway, but as the amount of money required to produce and market a film grows, even as our “disposable income” decreases, it makes sense for the studios to use every tool at their disposal, from the publicists to the filmmakers themselves, to ensure as much control as possible.

That is why I am offering the following advice to the movie-going public: believe no one, about anything. Trust me, you’ll be better off for it.

Ricky Sprague occasionally writes and/or draws things. He sometimes animates things. He has a Twitter account and he has a blog. He scripted this graphic novel about Kolchak The Night Stalker. He is really, really good at putting links in bios.
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