Features and Columns

On Film Criticism, Bias, and the Joy of Differing Opinions

Film criticism isn’t biased; it’s just populated by a ton of people who don’t really agree. That’s a good thing.
By  · Published on June 2nd, 2017

Film criticism isn’t biased; it’s just populated by a ton of people who don’t really agree. That’s a good thing.

Film criticism has had an interesting few days. Earlier this week, Deadline reported that studio insiders were quietly blaming poor RottenTomatoes scores — and therefore the film criticism industrial complex as a whole — for the disappointing grosses of Baywatch and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. In addition to that, a small (and vocal!) segment of fans used the positive reviews of Wonder Woman as an opportunity to once again claim bias on the part of film critics who used their reviews as an opportunity to poke shots at the DC Cinematic Universe. The whole thing quickly devolved into your typical assortment of social media bickering, with critics and movie fans butting heads over their perceived prevalence of editorial bias.

All of which led Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey to write a particularly thoughtful screed about film criticism, audiences, and “fake news,” culminating in a few pointed thoughts about the Hollywood hype machine and why critics are often forced to spend months hyping a film before condemning it upon release. Bailey makes some great points about the industry — seriously, you should read his article, I’m happy to wait — but he also raises some interesting questions about ‘objectivity’ that I’d like to touch upon here.

When we think of newspapers, we tend to think of them in terms of editorial bias. While most newspapers make a point — sometimes inappropriately so — of giving print opportunities to dissenting opinions, it’s not exactly a secret that newspapers skew slightly conservative or slightly liberal in their political coverage. This is most evident at the highest levels of the organization — who owns the paper, for example — and reinforced come election season, when newspapers will publicly endorse one presidential candidate over another. Perhaps because of this, there’s an impetus on the part of fans to treat most entertainment sites the same way. In the false dichotomy that exists between Marvel and DC movies, certain websites are pro-Marvel or anti-DC, and that perception skews the site’s coverage as a whole.

Online publications will sometimes muddy that water by publishing seemingly contradictory pieces on the same films or franchises. Last week, for example, ScreenCrush — a site I regularly contribute to — published a damning review of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and a thoughtful reevaluation of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels. Some fans may look at that as an inherent contradiction; how can two movies rated 54% and 45% on RottenTomatoes be held to a wildly different standard than the most recent film (which is currently holding at 30%)? If the films are all equally “bad,” then shouldn’t there be some form of editorial consistency in how a site like ScreenCrush writes about the films? Are they just throwing out a piece of clickbait to appease the masses?

What we need to remember — what is both obvious to some and misunderstood by others — is that websites very rarely operate with that kind of editorial agenda. The only apparent bias in most sites is the diversity of the films they cover. Places like IndieWire and The Playlist, for example, are more likely to cover independent or regional cinema than a site like ScreenCrush, but as Bailey notes, no site is so flush with resources that they can afford to ignore movies like Wonder Woman and Justice League altogether. Instead of treating websites like a place with organizational bias, it’s important to think of these sites as a collection of writers with their own preferences and beliefs about films. And sometimes that means, like with ScreenCrush, you have two opinions on the same film franchise that seem in stark contrast to each other.

If a site is big enough to attract freelancers, it will also occasionally publish articles that suggest why popular film X is actually bad or why unpopular film Y should be considered a modern classic. Sometimes these pieces can be openly contrarian, but for the most part, these articles exist at a beautiful intersection of passionate writing by a freelancer and intellectual curiosity by the editors (and there are a lot of very curious editors). I recently wrote a lengthy piece on why Prometheus deserves critical re-examination for /Film; I can’t tell you if that article was at odds with the site’s overall coverage of Ridley Scott’s movie franchise, but I can tell you that it was a piece I’m extremely proud of and one I believe with every fiber of my silly little film critic heart. And I’m just one of countless hundreds of freelancers who recognize that an authentic opinion and a contrary opinion aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. There’s a lot of disagreement that goes on behind the scenes at your favorite entertainment websites; on our best days, we repackage those as features and give you a glimpse at what occurs every single day in every single Slack channel.

Take us, for example. If you’ve read Film School Rejects for any period of time, you might think of the site as being slightly more receptive to genre films, but that isn’t an edict from our publisher by any means. It just so happens that our Lead Film Critic loves him some horror and exploitation cinema, so when he pitches a review or a feature, he’s more inclined to write about The Blackcoat’s Daughter than Baywatch. We each have our own individual preferences for different types of film, and as long as we put thought into a pitch and provide context for why a general audience might be interested in seeing a smaller horror film, our publisher is likely to give that article the green light. In other words, the talent drives the content, not the other way around, and whatever reputation we have as a website comes from the tastes and preferences of authors like Rob Hunter and Christopher Campbell.

Is there truth in the idea that film critics might sometimes enjoy knocking a movie when it’s down? Yeah, probably. I think most film critics would argue it’s a lot easier to write a negative review than a positive one, and sometimes that can lead to a pile-on mentality that you’ve seen with Suicide Squad or Batman v Superman. But just because a film critic takes a few shots at one of those movies in their review of Wonder Woman doesn’t mean that a site is biased one way or the other. There are so many people writing about movies online that you can find someone who genuinely loves or hates nearly every single movie in existence; the fun part for you, as discerning readers, is to think critically and decide whether a critic is providing the insights and commentary you need to make up your own mind.

Related Topics: , ,

Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)