Can film critics make or break a film? Should critics have minimum qualifications? It was good to revisit these questions — so seldom asked nowadays — as the marketing juggernauts of big studios and social media overwhelm our senses and decisions to see a film, often sweeping aside critics in their wake. These and other questions were raised at a Critics’ Campus for young Australian film critics, organised by the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), which had invited me as an International Mentor on the campus, along with David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter, Daniel Kasman of Mubi.com, and others.
Eight bright critics had been chosen for a five-day lab during the festival, organised by the festival’s Artistic Director Michelle Carey and coordinated by Ghita Loebenstein. It was a well-organised programme, involving viewing films and discussing reviews, features and interviews with the mentors.
The critics had access to festival films, publicity material, guests and networking opportunities. There were also talks with print, TV, radio and online film critics, entertainment editors, film distributors and PR people. Lucky ‘mentees’, I thought (first time I met this word, somehow it sounds like a menthol-flavoured lozenge). I wish I could have done such an orientation programme when I was young. The reviews and articles the critics wrote were published online on The Age, a major Australian newspaper, and the MIFF website.
Although this was MIFF’s inaugural Critics’ Campus — and I’ve been a mentor on the Berlinale Talent Campus before — I believe such critics’ labs are extremely useful for both mentors and mentees. I’ve long felt that film critics are somewhat Jurassic, and must find ways to keep themselves relevant in an age when (a) everyone is a reviewer (b) high pressure marketing buzz around a film often influences viewers’ decisions to see and/or like a film (c) the media devotes acres to imply that any film without a “100 crore” tag is by default a pariah.
That’s why a boot camp for film critics—common in festivals worldwide -- is not so much an add-on festival offering, as sheer survival strategy. Informed critics’ opinions are a crucial way to build the next generation of informed film audiences, that are able to appreciate good films (which can mean a variety of things of course), which is good for the film industry, festivals, the media and viewers, so it’s win-win for all.
Given that nothing’s going to stop a viewer from seeing a film trashed by critics anyway. Too many film critics are just a habit, but not really guides offering engaging discovery, opinion, analysis, context and insight. Many people read film critics, but don’t actually go by their recommendations. It’s a bit like reading recipes: a pleasure to read, but you wouldn’t bother cooking it.
Film is so much more popular than art, theatre, music or dance, that film criticism seems to have more dumbing down, than critics for the other arts. As Shane Danielsen, one of the Critics’ Campus mentors, recalled, “At The Guardian, when film critic Derek Malcolm left, he was replaced by Peter Bradshaw who was then motoring correspondent. The editor felt he did not want a film critic who was too knowledgeable about film or talked down to the readers. It’s a different matter that Peter Bradshaw is a good film critic.”
I had a wonderful, if oblique, insight on judging films when I was on the National Film Award Jury this year. Fellow juror filmmaker Chitraarth observed, “It takes so much talent and skill to make even a bad film, imagine how much it takes to make a good film.” I find that a very useful guiding principle as a film critic.
Meenakshi Shedde is India Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, an award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide, and journalist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.