A critic is everyone

I wrote about this insidious new trend on the Radio Times website a while back, but today’s papers have added to my evidence file. Let’s reiterate first. In March, two ads for new films appeared within a couple of pages of each other in the London Evening Standard, and together, they almost formed a trend. The first was for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, already a hit, but understandably being advertised off the back of positive reviews, to ensure continued box office. These were some of the quotes on the ad:

“British film at its best … whoever you are, go and see this film!”

“The must-see film of the year!”

“A truly wonderful experience.”

Such notices are the sort that money cannot buy. The ad, which ran over half a page, was a colourful collage of such positive, gushing quotes. It was a very effective plug. However, if you looked more closely, you discovered that the reviews were not from critics, but members of the public:

Sheena, 55, Pudsey, West Yorkshire

Richard, 52, London

Anne, 51, Glasgow

At which point, I thought: “Genius.” Just like those TV ads where satisfied customers coming out of cinemas are buttonholed for their reaction. Not only was the ad saying: Forget the critics – this is what YOU thought of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, it gave the ages of the cinemagoers polled, not just underling the film’s older demographic but also subtly expanding upon it, so as not to limit its reach. The marketing department was shrewd enough to include people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. (I’m in my 40s and I enjoyed the film, although I would urge anyone over 50 to go, as it is squarely aimed at them.)

A few pages later, I saw an advert for Project X, a much less marketable comedy, in that it has no famous people in it (a deliberate policy, as it’s presented as a home video), but came from “the producers of The Hangover” – always a bit of a desperate connection. It, too, had some rave reviews:

“Absolutely brilliant! I didn’t stop laughing. A game-changing film.”

“One of the best movies ever, everyone should watch it.”

It also had some high star ratings from magazines like Nuts, Heat and Loaded (spotting a trend?), but the quotes quoted above were from … Twitter. The first was posted by @larawadey, who I looked up. She seems to exist – although in March her avatar was of a sunbathing woman whose head is cropped off, usually the mark of a pornbot (it’s now a picture of a lady boxing, with a head on) – she’s in London and as of the last time I looked she has 157 followers, but no other biographical information is forthcoming. Who is she? One assumes she saw Project X and was independently moved to rave about it.

The other quote was Tweeted by @TheBigQas – a London band “using music to spread the message of Islam” – who today have 135 followers, which might have risen as a result of the ad in March. Their quote is nonetheless being used to “spread the message” of Project X. Why should I care what they think? Equally, why shouldn’t I care? And why should I care what Anthony Lane in the New Yorker thinks? (I could answer that but it would take too long.)

Two questions arise.

One: are ads in which the reviews and quotes come from members of the public poised to oust the once-regal film critics from their ivory towers? The internet is, after all, an egalitarian democracy – sometimes deafeningly so – where everybody’s opinion seems as important as everybody else’s, and none carries more weight than another.

Two: why should we trust these quotes?

For legal reasons, let it be known that I’m not suggesting for a moment that the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel reactions aren’t from real people; I’m certain they are! If I’d stood outside my local cinema after seeing it and harvested quotes from my fellow patrons, I’m sure I could have filled two adverts with raves. (Some critics were a bit sniffy, some not, but it is, at the end of the day, a people’s film.) However, I find the Twitter comments more worrying. Anybody could start an account on the social networking site, give themselves a stupid name, and write a great review of Project X, which could then be passed off as genuine. Who’s to know? It’s impossible to check.

Again, I’m sure the two quotes used by Project X are 100% independent and genuine. But it’s a technique that’s wide open to abuse.

Today, there’s an ad for the film Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, a quirky, feelgood, adult-aimed comedy whose professional reviews have been fine, but so-so, but whose marketing is wall-to-wall raves. Again, as well as repeating nice notices from Woman & Home and Easy Living, they have polled real moviegoers, presumably ones who’ve been to preview screenings, which are not uncommon. Here are some:

“An incredibly funny and sweet film I have no hesitation in recommending it to everyone”

“Delightfully charming and laugh out loud funny”

“I loved it as much as Marigold Hotel.”

And here are the names of the non-critics who assessed the film:

Anthony Sharpe, Bournemouth, 34

Penny Philpott, Southampton, 54

Susan Hockey, Norwich, 61

Again, the ages. Again, the towns. Assuming these are genuine, which we must, how clever to give this much information about them. We don’t just know how old the citizen critics are, we know where they live! And one of them has had the marketing nous to compare Yemen to Marigold Hotel.

Now, you have to believe me, I am not against this new methodology because it threatens my job, as I don’t think of myself as A Critic, I just write about films and sometimes review them. (I review more films on my blog than I do for magazines, and if I’m not being paid, I say I’m not a professional critic.) It’s democratic to ask “civilians” to review films, although in the case of Yemen, they can’t have paid to see it, and must have seen it at a special screening, which suggests a freebie. I guess this makes them even more like professional critics, who do not pay either. (I pay to see films at the cinema more than I attend screenings, so once again, I am less of a critic, more of a punter.)

I still find it a bit odd. What do others think? Do you, as punters, want other punters to review films, just as customers star-rate books on Amazon, or restaurants, holidays, electrical appliances etc. on other websites? Does the seasoned film critic have any place in this democratic world? Should the Guardian pay Peter Bradshaw to review films when it could just ask members of the public to do it for free?

Perhaps – fingers crossed! – this new, democratic form of advertising will, in fact, return film critics to their ivory towers, where they can continue dispensing their opinions from positions of privilege but with verifiable credentials. You may not agree with my views on a film, but at least I’m real, and you can check my CV. How are we to contextualise Penny Philpott, Southampton, 54?

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15 thoughts on “A critic is everyone

      • I’m not sure how I feel about having my comments used in this way though..Flattered because someone may take notice of them ? Annoyed with myself because I have left myself open to scrutiny- and others looking to find out about me? Not really.sure- feeling a little bit stupid that I left myself open to invasion of privacy but too late to worry about that now I guess. Also feeling that my opinion should count for as much as any other person watching a film or reading a book and annoyed to feel that should be dismissed by someone who wants to wave their cv at me. I knew when I made the comments they could be used to promote the film but I had enjoyed it, and like I would at the theatre wanted to give my applause.It was a free screening in that you are correct.I wonder if you have enough information now to contextualize me any more than I have to ponder whether I would accept your views on a film. Personally when choosing what to watch I rarely take note of what others have said when deciding where to go and what to see I have reached the age where I know what will appeal to me. Having said that I would probably not have seen “Salmon Fishing-” because the actual topic of the film didn’t grab my attention and I would have missed out on a great film. So for that I will suck up this unwanted attention and stick by my first impression-it was a good film and I enjoyed it.
        Oh and as for the CV and your right to be called a critic the only difference really as far as I can see is that it gives you the right to expect someone to challenge your views in a public forum with the knowledge it is happening which appears to be something the free screening general public do not have.

      • It’s good to hear from you, Penny, especially as this proves you are real! It’s also fascinating to learn that you have mixed feelings about having your name, age and hometown made public in an ad in the national media. Your opinion was clearly honest, and – as I hoped I made clear – as valid as any professional critic’s.

        However, you write, “Also feeling that my opinion should count for as much as any other person watching a film or reading a book and annoyed to feel that should be dismissed by someone who wants to wave their cv at me.” I hoped I’d articulated that nobody’s opinion counts for any more than anybody else’s; it’s just that film companies using “citizen” critics is a new thing, and it has implications for all of us.

        I personally enjoy reading critics – or the best ones – for the simple entertainment and stimulus of their writing. That’s enough a reason for it to continue, long after the once-revered critic has outlived his usefulness to film marketing.

  1. Your last sentence hits the nail on the head, Andrew. I’ve read enough of David Denby’s or Anthony Lane’s or Mark Kermode’s or Andrew Collins’s reviews to know just how much to trust them. (A process which is entirely independent of my enjoyment of their and your writing, of course.) Equally, among my own friends and family, I’ve acted on or ignored their recommendations in the past, so know where I stand. My tastes might coincide entirely with those of Susan Hockey, 61, Norwich, or they might not. Without that knowledge her review is about as valuable to me as a PR release.

    If you’ll forgive me quoting you back at you (and possibly getting it wrong) I seem to remember you did an article about this in Word a while back, with particular reference to a feature in The Independent (?) called “You Write The Reviews”, to which your reply was “No. *You* write the fucking reviews.” Seems about right to me.

    • Ah, if only Word published its articles and columns online! (I agree with you, of course. Also, as I believe Peter Bradshaw himself stated, his job is also about writing in an entertaining manner. I enjoy his reviews whether I agree with them or not, so they serve a stand-alone purpose right there.)

    • Yes, context is everything – you have to spend a little time getting to know professional reviewers, their tastes and quirks. Which you can’t do with anonymous Twitter users.

      That said, who pays attention to quotes on film posters anyway? I always block them out – the silly tricks distributors use to manipulate and distort those quotes have been well documented.

  2. This tactic renders the whole process of quoting on film adverts utterly pointless. I’m surprised they’re allowed to do it, actually, given how very easily open to abuse it is; in fact it’s less open to abuse than just plain abuse. Weren’t film posters prohibited a few years back from using quotes disingenuously (i.e. if a critic wrote “The fact that this script ever got made is frankly astonishing!”, the poster was not allowed to just quote them as saying “Astonishing!”)? And if I’ve remembered that rightly, isn’t this just a way of circumventing that?

    For me, it’s another example of how the bad of Twitter at the very least outweighs the good. (I’ve been saying for years that the democratisation of communication that the internet brought is not necessarily a good thing. The liberal within me says it is, but the reality is different. But that’s a whole other can of worms.) My pet Twitter hate at the moment is the ridiculous proportion of ‘news’ stories now padded out with quotes from it. The Daily Mail will justify one of its anti-BBC articles by finding a couple of dolts who agree with it, and thereby claim to be representing the silent majority. The silent majority that never bleedin’ shuts up.

    • Sounds to me like what you’re complaining about is the media’s use of Twitter, which is a more than fair complaint to make. My point is, the fault lies not with Twitter.

      • I’m pretty good with Twitter. The fault is never with the medium, it’s the way the medium is used, or abused, as you say. But it’s awash with anonymity, the verification equivalent of a hotmail account, which is a problem if you’re using it commercially for testimony.

  3. How depressing. I like to think I’m not a slave to the professional critics but like most people there are a handful whose views interest me, even if I don’t always agree with them (you for one, though I take your point about not necessarily seeing yourself as “a critic”.). I’ve been reading most of them for years, and have some concept of where they tend to broadly be coming from – and the quality of their writing/broadcasting is as important as their opinion to me. What you’ve just described here is the diametric opposite of that. But of course, it’s cheap, and presumably provides a passing thrill of inclusion and importance to Susan Hockey, 61, Norwich and all the others. There’ll be no shortage of eager punters happy to get their names on a poster – an endless supply, I’d wager.

    It just reminds me again of why I’ve always given Twitter a swerve. In the main, it’s always struck me as the online equivalent of a load of people shouting in a pub. Gah!

    • I take your point re Twitter ‘noise’ but given that you largely choose who to follow, and can block those who ‘shout’ at you unbidden, then there is no reason why Twitter cannot be more quiet, warm local boozer than high street megapub.

      • Yes, it’s a bit like people who complain there’s so much bad stuff on TV. Sure there is a lot of crap, but with a tiny bit of planning it’s quite easy to avoid the dross. Same goes for Twitter – you’re supposed to pick and choose.

  4. Do people really rely on adverts for films to make their minds up whether to buy a cinema ticket? If I’m not drawn in by track record alone, then a quick look at Rotten Tomatoes will usually give me a good idea of what is the general take on a film.
    Recently I read a review in the Guardian (not Bradshaw) panning Headhunters, the recent Norwegian thriller/black comedy. As it turned out, on Rotten Tomatoes that review was the only negative ‘professional critics’ review listed. The percentage mark for the film was 90%+ positive. On the strength of that polled vote of confidence I went to see it. It was marvellous.

  5. The only way I would trust the general public’s opinion is in aggregate, ie – a movie that got a 90% positive response from test audiences (and even then with a grain of salt). Cherrypicking three positive quotes from the public is nonsensical, surely
    the makers of the worst film ever made surely can find THREE deluded individuals out of the thousands/millions who watched it who would genuinely say “Best film ever”…

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