MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

Pulitzer Day

When the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1975, I was working at a small newspaper a few miles down the interstate, editing copy and reviewing the occasional movie. No other film critic had been so honored, and I suffered no delusions about following in Roger’s footsteps any time soon, if ever.

In 1973, Sun-Times critic Ron Powers had won a Pulitzer for his coverage of television. It wouldn’t be fair or accurate to say that Ebert and Powers were cut from the same cloth, but their appeal was similarly universal. From a distance of about 45 miles, I envied their ability to write intelligently about popular media without condescending to anyone in the S-T’s broad urban readership or wearing their IQs on their lapels.

Even today, that is a rare quality among winners of the prize. The vast majority have gone to pundits writing for right- and left-coast newspapers about dance, books, architecture, art, theater and classical music. While other television critics would be so honored in 1980, 1985 and 1988, another 28 years would go by before another film critic, Stephen Hunter, would take home the prize, with Joe Morgenstern to follow two years later. In between, writers about automobiles, fashion and food were included in the populist trend.

This year’s prize went Monday to Mark Feeney, an arts writer and photography reviewer for the Boston Globe. Washington Post movie critic Ann Hornaday was a finalist. It will take another millennium, probably, for a rock or hip-hop critic to impress the judges in the same way.

With movie critics being jettisoned from newspaper payrolls, like so many bangs of sand from a hot-air balloon, it’s an appropriate time to assess the state of the art in American newspapers. If cost-cutting continues apace, the next Pulitzer for film writing might necessarily go to a critic toiling for pennies on their own website, or one dedicated to cinematic endeavors. Only a handful of ink-stained critics are likely to be left standing when the blood dries.

Instead, the majority of movie lovers will be served by the AP’s crack corps of faceless reviewers, the minimalists at USA Today, syndicators of content and a newspaper chain’s critic du jour. If a reader in the hinterlands is fortunate enough to see Ebert’s reviews in their morning paper, it’s likely they’ve been sliced and diced to fit the odd hole in a space-deprived feature section.

So far, the critical purge hasn’t had the same impact on deep-thinkers about television. That’s likely due to the fact that newspaper editors want someone on hand to answer questions about a local anchorhotties’s new hairdo and wax indignant about reality shows. They dutifully run wire copy on the weekend’s top-10 movies and feign a freakish curiosity in the Oscar hysteria, but blindly assume their subscribers have little interest in indies, documentaries and subtitles.

MCN’s David Poland already has expressed his opinion on the implications of the purge, and the studios culpability in it. MCN also has provided a link to Roger Ebert’s visionary 1991 essay on the difficulties of writing serious criticism for a diverse readership base. Perhaps, I can offer another perspective.

In Ebert, not only did Pulitzer judges honor a still-blossoming journalist’s writing and commitment to the medium, it demanded that other newspaper editors take movies seriously, as well. The timing couldn’t be better for readers and critics, as this new mandate not only coincided with the rise of such directors as Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg. Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, but also the emergence of a generation of independent filmmakers inspired by John Cassavetes, the French New Wave and Britain’s “kitchen sink “ movement. The explosion of blaxploitation and martial-arts products also required analysis.

No longer were editors simply able to grab the youngest-looking guy or gal from the copy desk and assign them to the film beat. Suddenly, reviewers also were required to assume the role of critic, even if their backgrounds were limited to taking Film History 101 in college and an ability to pick Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard out of a lineup. More enlightened editors went out and hired genuine students of the art, even if the only newsroom they’d ever seen was in The Front Page.

Ebert had already demonstrated his proficiency in awarding stars to movies and backing them up in prose. In 1975, the imagistic approach was extended to his and competitor Gene Siskel’s “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You,” with summations of “yes” and “no” and bark of Spot the Wonder Drug. The local hit would begat the nationally televised “Sneak Previews,” which would begat “At the Movies,” with Aroma the skunk, which begat trademarked thumb-ratings and “Siskel & Ebert & the Movies,” which begat “At the Movies With Ebert & Roeper.”

And, therein, was laid the seed that grew into Great Critical Purge of the Mid-‘00s.

Shortly after the Pulitzer judges awarded the first prize for film criticism to a 32-year-old movie nut (and occasional Russ Meyer collaborator) from the heart of the heartland, graduates of the Sarrisite and Kaelite schools began infiltrating the pages of newspapers, as well. Not having newsroom roots, as did Ebert and Siskel, these first-wavers naturally assumed that clearly reasoned criticism and bright prose would satisfy even those grumpy editors and mainstream readers who couldn’t pick Warren Beatty out of a lineup. Some even dreamed about having a show of their own someday.

The huge success of Jaws and Star Wars not only signaled a new way of doing business in Hollywood, it also revealed the stirrings of disconnect between critics and audiences. If it weren’t for Titanic – and Kenneth Turan’s sadly overhyped feud with director James Cameron — the gap might have gone unnoticed for a few more years. The debate would continue well into the next decade, as Oscar nominations and top-10 rankings failed to duplicate the list of top-grossing movies. If no one else was paying attention to the squabble, budget-strapped editors certainly were.

The most vigorous disagreements often were inspired by so-called “tentpole” pictures. Released primarily in late spring and summer, tentpoles gave youngish audiences all the action, pyrotechnics, CGI heroes and villains, and porous storylines, they could possibly handle … at least, until the next week’s new releases. Instead of being platformed out and be allowed to build on critical and popular buzz, potential blockbusters began to open on thousands of screens simultaneously. The impact of same-day newspaper reviews was thereby minimalized, and all that seemed to matter to studios were the first two weekends’ grosses.

From Jaws on, studio marketing campaigns would target opening-weekend audiences. Negotiations over premium space in Sunday and Friday features sections would grow fierce, and become highly influenced by publicists and a newspaper’s circulation department. By agreeing to participate in junkets, and running a puff interview ahead of a potentially negative review, an editor essentially would have sold the soul of his paper to the studio.

In the most competitive markets, personal and studio publicists now could barter exclusivity for access to their biggest stars, whose appearance, theoretically, would help sell papers on Sunday. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times trumped everyone else within a 100-mile radius of their printing presses. In Chicago, however, Siskel and Ebert’s newspaper and television (local and national) presence was deemed of equal importance to publicists, who learned to play a different game in Chicago.

Rather than alienate either of the fiercely competitive Bigfoots, the publicists for a prolific artist like Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese would make their clients available to the boys on alternate films. A bone would be thrown to the loser in the form of an interview with another high-profile client, a prominent co-star or some other quid pro quo. Even if Ebert and Siskel were among the few critic/writers who refused to let studios finance their junketeering, a newspaper might be able to save money by piggy-backing on a trip financed (or not) by a local TV outlet. In our under-budgeted shop, at least, it was wink-wink, nod-nod all the way.

The major flacks toyed with other media in the same way, and, by 1990, paramilitary firms like PMK dictated coverage from Times to Times. The writing already was on the wall for newspaper circulation, and, in a few short years, only the NYT, LAT, USA Today and Wall Street Journal really mattered to the studios. In addition to those outlets, publicists limited their browbeating to the morning and late-night talk shows, Newsweek and Time, ET andExtra, 60 Minutes and Barbara Walters. Everyone else could fight over the scraps.

The constant in this equation were the critics who had no desire to do anything but write about the movies themselves and pen the occasional Sunday “think piece” and obit. Their job was difficult enough, without also having to secure a Sunday pufferoo with a Robert Redford or Julia Roberts, knowing full well they might be required to lambast their movie the following Friday. Eventually, the actors and directors wised up and refused to agree to do interviews with critics who routinely trashed their work.

As an editor and writer for the Chicago Tribune, I spent a lot of time walking a tightrope between publicists and section editors, critics and readers, news side and business side, all of whom had a separate agenda when it came to movies. In a perfect journalistic world – The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, perhaps – there were enough reporters and freelance writers to maintain a separation of church and state. Critics could critique, while feature editors could budget a balanced mix of puff and think pieces … in turn, the publicists could brag about driving a hard bargain with the editors, and their studios would keep the Sunday sections fat with ads.

Even in the good ol’ days, this was a far from perfect world.

On the rare occasion a senior editor would actually deem to see a movie in a theater, there would be times when a divergence of opinion would result in a phone call and official questioning of our critic’s sanity. It’s difficult to ascertain whether a big shot’s willingness to criticize the content of a review ever clouded a critic’s opinion, but it’s true that David Kehr, who succeeded Siskel as lead reviewer, almost wasn’t awarded the job because he hadn’t treated ET as if it were Citizen Kane.

By now, thanks to Entertainment Weekly and People magazines, feature editors were putting ratings on everything that moved in their departments. Movie ratings assumed the form of tiny rosebuds, clapping hands, letter grades, popcorn boxes, reel canisters and thumbs. All provided excuses for readers – and editors – not to read the text, as did capsule reviews of the movies in weekend guides. Worse, a star’s value was based on hugely subjective criteria. At the Tribune, a single-star review meant a movie was bad, while a single-star restaurant grade meant a discerning dine might want to take a chance on it, at least.

One critic I know “over-starred” his commentaries, while another would “under-star” to camouflage suspicious critical tendencies. Only those readers who actually took the time to peruse a review from byline to bye-bye would know precisely how closely their opinions might jibe with those of the critic and the star grade. Newspapers were making it easy for readers to fall out of love with reading.

In Ebert’s 1991 essay, he addressed the question of how his ratings might not always reflect his true feelings about a film, and how he could encourage readers to attend a movie about which he had a strongly negative reaction. Minus the stars, the debate would have been moot.

Ebert also bemoaned the added competition – such as it was – of the Tribune’s “Teen Movie Panel,” which ran in the paper’s Friday section, but wasn’t under the supervision of the entertainment editor. It was a gimmick, pure and simple, intended to appeal to those hard-to-reach niche readers of a certain age. Turns out, other media were more interested in covering the panel than Chicagoans were in reading the reviews. While innocent, in an Archie & Veronica sort of way, the short reviews cut into space previously reserved for grown-up reviews. The timing was less than perfect.

Instead of being selective about the movies that warranted full reviews, every dopey genre and exploitation flick was being given the star treatment. No title was too obscure or cheesy to relegate to the capsule bin. If anything, critics were expected to give Hollywood fare more attention than it deserved, relegating significant indies to the corners and shadows.

Last week, while cruising through RottenTomatoes, I chanced upon an example of just such a discrepancy. It came in the form of Vincent Canby’s analysis of Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night 2, which, two decades later, has just been re- released into DVD. I have no idea what possessed Canby’s editor to pass along the assignment … if the critic harbored a secret passion for slasher movies, none was revealed in the text. Then, as now, it was a nothing horror movie, re-titled as sucker-bait for fans of the Leslie Nielsen and Jamie Lee Curtis original. If the Times felt it necessary to review such products, there was no hope left for any of us.

Nothing in the Tribune lent itself so easily to exploitation as movies. No space would be diverted to a Teen Editorial Board, Teen Baseball Writer or Teen Classical Music Critic. Movies were fair game, primarily because no one in a position of power took them as seriously as the Tribune’s critics, and, of course, a pretty decent number of readers.

After a year or so, people stopped paying much attention to the teen panel, one way or the other. Of the dozens of participants, only one young woman demonstrated any talent at criticism, and, at 17, she would have made a terrific lead critic for half of the dailies in the country. Despite this, similar panels began springing up in media outlets around the country.

Digital technology would further dilute the gene pool.

Websites and discussion boards that focused on movies were among the first to energize the Internet. Long before Hollywood publicists and newspaper editors recognized the web’s potential for exploitation, movie-crazy netizens were exchanging opinions, gossip, box-office analysis and files on the web. How else could a schlub like Harry Knowlesbecome a mover and shaker in a multibillion-dollar industry? Where else, besides and, could fans, scholars, trivia geeks and perverts find a common ground?

Sadly, the Internet also would provide newspaper publishers with a convenient excuse for the precipitous drop in readership and advertising. It would be cited as the primary reason for necessity of eliminating the positions of hundreds of seasoned journalists, including many of the same critics who, editors assumed, were being ignored by readers and studios.

How to stem the erosion in advertising revenues? A few years ago, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times dropped to their institutional knees to fellate the major Hollywood players. It was an overtly desperate effort to woo them back to the print medium. Both of the august newspapers launched sections that promoted the Academy Awards and, God help us, the Golden Globes, as if they had meaning beyond the ritual announcement of nominations and presentation of awards. Even if Nielsen ratings demonstrated declining interest in such self-promotional vehicles, editors found new ways to slobber over the ceremonies and stars.

And, yet, circulation kept plummeting. With so many reviews available virtually for free, via the various wire services and syndicates, publishers began doing something once considered to be unthinkable: kill the messengers.

If anyone really wanted serious criticism, after all, he or she could subscribe to The New York Times, New Yorker or Film Comment. It wasn’t likely that fans of horror movies were turning to the morning newspaper for guidance when Fangoria was so readily available on the web and magazine racks. A perusal of and RottenTomatoes.comoffers more reviews of movies than there are stars in the heavens, even if most were plagued by horrifying grammar, poor spelling and absence of any noticeable copy editing.

Until recently, alternative weeklies were the place discerning movie lovers would go to read about titles the dailies generally gave short shrift. Even if it was fair to argue that newspaper readers, with the exception of those in major markets, couldn’t care less who reviewed movies opening at the local megaplex, the same wasn’t true about the weeklies. The critics had identifiable personalities, traits, tics and passions. As with Siskel and Ebert, in their more argumentative days, one’s thumb-down almost would guarantee you’d enjoy the picture, and vice-versa.

The recent consolidation of the Voice’s critical staff will provide a test as to whether movie buffs speak the same language no matter where in American they live. I suspect the Tribune papers will follow in kind before too long, eliminating all but about three or four of the critics in the chain.

The consolidation and homogenizing of radio only made the medium worse, prompting listeners to flock to satellite and Internet services, or create digital playlists for their iPods. If the newspapers follow suit, what will drive readers to their websites? Canned reviews from some bozo in Orlando? Roger Ebert will remain a primary destination for the Sun-Times, but for how long?

Television networks invest many fewer advertising dollars in newspapers than their counterparts at movie studios, and, yet, movie critics are the ones paying the price for their publishers’ short-sightedness. Movie advertising pays the bills needed to keep sports sections and editorial pages virtually ad-free. Is it too much to ask of the studios that they use their considerable clout to promote criticism, in addition to slobbering profiles of Oscar nominees? That, or re-direct some of their dollars to websites that are dedicated to the medium all year round, not just during awards season. As it is, the studios appear willing to rely on hit-and-miss viral campaigns for their niche products.

Whenever the subject of print criticism raises its ugly little head, I’m reminded of a conversation I had nearly a decade ago with the top editor at my former employer. I was working out of SoCal at the time, and the subject was the paper’s stature in Hollywood.

After explaining the new pecking order among studios and publicists, and the growing hassle of gaining access to their top clients, my boss voiced his disappointment at not seeing his critic’s pull quotes in more ads for upcoming movies. While arguing that using such criteria to judge the value of a critic — or his thumb, as the case may be – was counterproductive, at best, I tried to explain how the game worked: Sunday double-truck ads invariably were filled with the quotes of junket whores, and therefore were meaningless, while an opening-day rave from a someone in Albany or Fargo only meant the picture stank. Our critic’s name could be found in ads for plenty of pictures, if not the ones he was likely to notice.

Not being an avid filmgoer, I’m pretty sure he didn’t grasp the fine points of my argument. He certainly couldn’t be convinced that readers could discern the difference between a pull quote from the Tribune and one from a deejay in the Upper Peninsula. Even my then-teenage kids saw through that ruse.

Soon enough, I fear, newspaper readers will be fed a steady diet of pre-sold pap from junketeers and the opinions of a few generic critics working for newspaper and magazine chains. If the studios are short-sighted enough to support publications that care so little about their products, they’ll deserve each other’s company. With or without advertising support, the Internet’s vibrant movie community will be there long after the lights are turned off at the local newspaper.

April 8, 2008
– Gary Dretzka

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon