Before my rant begins, let me be clear by stating I, in-no-way, consider myself a “professional journalist”. In fact, I am merely a journalist in the most literal sense of the world in that I am a “person who writes” as an entirely independent commentator and reviewer. I am more of a “hobbyist journalist” than a paid contributor or a critic contracted to any major media outlet. To be entirely honest, I will never consider taking such a job without the express condition that I will be absolutely free to offer my own opinion on any product regardless of what others may feel about it. So, with that capricious disclaimer out of the way, let me express to you why I am so pissed off at, sick of, and downright appalled by the major media both online and in the dying legacy sources…
When I was a kid in the 80’s and 90’s, even at a very young age, I adored watching Siskel & Ebert At the Movies. They were my first exploration into the world of film criticism and gave me a stronger perspective of how film works on us; How movies should and do affect the audience and how these effects influence our attitudes towards popular culture at large. Have no illusions, no matter how objective a critic may claim to be, we all have biases that manifest in one form or another. Take myself, for instance: I really dislike (and often despise) how CGI has affected storytelling in movies and the filmmaking process as a whole. I find it funny that movies like Avatar and the recent Star Wars movies actually look like video games and, as if it were some Freudian expression, we then get a movie in which Adam Sandler and Peter Dinklage actually battle giant video game characters from the 80’s (regardless of the quality of that film). That bias does subconsciously affect both my suspension of disbelief and my subjective reaction to special effects as they happen on screen. My brain processes an 80’s action flick with a real exploding car differently than a massive CGI monstrosity oozing across a screen. So, when I see most CG special effects I tend to be put off of them and it does change my interpretation of the qualities of the film I am watching.
So, given that I will expect all critics to express their own biases in any report or review they scribe for any site out there. Even things like political leanings may change one’s interpretation of the content of any media, which is fine as long as these personal determinations are clear to the reader/watcher in some context. However, where I draw the line is when a reviewer expressly defines to the audience how they should feel about something. I’m sure I have exercised this fallacy in the past at some point, possibly even recently, and I do appreciate being called out for it whenever possible. It is important to avoid cognitive dissonance in general, but when you are trying to convey feelings and reactions to media, as trivial as that media may be, if you are unable to provide some objective observation without skewing things to a bent, the factual information provided about the film (basic plot, names of actors, locations, etc.) that may prove useful to the reader or watcher becomes overshadowed with their implicit biases that fire subconsciously during the consumption of said review.
In the past year, we have seen more and more reviews that rely solely on identity politics as qualitative variables to determine the value of a product. It’s important to accept that all films, video games, TV shows, comic books, and novels are just that: products. The studios releasing a film do not care about how their product makes you feel, they only want your money. That’s their job. Art is subjective and it does act on us whether we want it to or not or even realize it. This is now apparently being used by major studios and the media to manipulate and even attack potential consumers based solely on their reactions and opinions on something as minuscule in value as a movie trailer.
I hate to say it, but I can’t help but feel like media outlets are using some manipulation tactics to drum up grassroots support for products before their release. I can’t be certain that is the motivation, but that is certainly happening. I would say, if you have a movie with a message, that’s fine. However, a movie that should be accessible, enjoyable and just be entertaining like Ghostbusters or Black Panther being used as a marketing gimmick for studios is not uncommon, but their being brandished as some sort of weapon against potential consumers is unacceptable behavior by a major media company and I do feel this is going to backfire. This may seem like a new trend, however, these promotional tactics have been used in the past to manipulate audiences into seeing movies. Sensationalism sells and Hollywood knows it. This goes back to horror films that were sold as “Banned in ‘x country’!” and “The movie your parents don’t want you to see!” This isn’t a new tactic and consumers must be wise about how they are being marketed to.
The key to all pop culture is enjoyment. For every truly awful film, there are fans (I know I have a few bad movies I like) and that’s okay. It’s just important to remember that not everyone will always share your sentiments towards a particular movie, TV show or game. This is not going to change in an age where subjective ideals reflected in various mediums are treated dogmatically or even as empirical truths. So today, Hollywood and major media outlets have begun campaigns to lock out and outright attack independent reviewers for sharing their opinions. This isn’t exactly a new trend, but it is absolutely obvious why it is being done. With movies becoming more and more expensive to make, burnout for franchises like Star Wars and various superhero movies at an all-time high and fan cynicism hitting new depths, studios have an incentive to make their movie appear as promising as possible. If emotional manipulation of consumers is what it will take, then dammit, they’ll do just that.
There is an active campaign by Hollywood to discredit and block reviewers who aren’t part of the mainstream press. The reasons for this are not entirely transparent, but an obvious point could be they realize that independent pop culture journalists are not beholden to any major corporation or media outlet which shares corporate ownership of, or has some ad deal with, a studio or publisher. As a result, there is less skin in the game when it comes to liking or disliking a movie, therefore their opinions are likely to be more honest. If I’m not getting a check from Disney, I have no incentive to write a positive review of one of their films if I do not actually enjoy it. The same goes for any form of media. So, it behooves a major corporation to be methodical in how they deal with negative reviews. For instance, a Rotten Tomatoes score can be called a “snapshot” into the quality of a movie, but it in no way actually provides a sound rating of what critics thought of the movie, only an average of critics who liked or disliked the movie in a thumbs up or thumbs down sort of way. A movie with a 75% doesn’t mean the movie got 3 out of 4 stars, it only means 75% of critics who reviewed the movie liked it. It’s also important to note that the site deceptively divides reviews based on “trusted” critics versus everyone else. As a result, it isn’t uncommon to see a dramatic dichotomy between fans’ and journalists’ respective scores, especially in the case of projects with a lot of money on the line.
Because of this, we are starting to see fan ratings of movies become more and more denigrated and with that so are the independent reviewers who just write a quick blurb on IMDB or run their own blog. The “fans do not matter” mantra that we know Hollywood has held up for decades has never rung truer. In the end, most of these big budget movies will make more money on merchandising than overall ticket sales anyway, especially in the case of major brands like Marvel. It’s doubtful a producer is going to scoff at a bad review of a mediocre MCU flick like Thor: Ragnarok, instead they’ll laugh their brand licensing all the way to the bank. They already have your money, they certainly do not have to care if you liked it or not. This is why fans’ scores are becoming more and more important on websites. A reason a lot of sites are removing comment options and disabling ratings for advertised products is that fan ratings, comments and reviews work. They are proven to have a significant impact the perception of a film and they do have a natural effect on the way people see the final product, even if it is in retrospect. A person who liked The Last Jedi in the moment but disliked it more and more upon reflection (such as myself) is less likely to jump on the merchandising bandwagon for the long term, so it is essential that my views on such a product be kept hidden as best as possible to ensure maximum sales returns.
I know all of this may come off as a more than a little jaded but given these past few years of nonstop fan-shaming and vitriol coming from creators, actors, etc, towards detractors of various entertainment products who are merely sharing their own opinions, I do not think this is unwarranted. I do not agree with every view put out there, but I also do not want anyone to feel like they should be afraid to offer that very view. This concept that one is not allowed to have an opinion of a product because of entirely arbitrary or superficial reasons is asinine and unacceptable. It’s time to start treating these little pieces of entertainment as they are, oft-nonsensical distractions that entertain at the moment. If we allow our tastes to be tied to what major corporate outlets dictate, the public loses its autonomy, and in the end, our choices in what entertainment is out there for us.