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Movies: Cutting costs, but paying a price, by trimming movie criticism

Published May 13, 2007 12:00 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Occasionally I talk to journalism students about the joys of being a professional movie critic - and I always include the warning that jobs like this are few and far between.

"I'm not leaving until they throw me out," I always tell the students, "and if they do, they're not likely to replace me."

Unfortunately, those words are sounding more true every day in this industry - as newspapers across the country are cutting staff, and movie critics are among the first to go.

Last year, Jami Bernard's contract with the New York Daily News was not renewed, Kevin Thomas accepted a buyout from the Los Angeles Times (though he still freelances reviews there), and Philip Wuntch took a buyout offer from the Dallas Morning News - a paper that practically obliterated its arts staff. This week, it was announced that among those taking the buyout offer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitu- tion was Eleanor Ringel Gillespie, who has reviewed movies for nearly 30 years.

In the past few weeks, the L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, Minneapolis Star- Tribune and Denver Post (the last one owned by MediaNews Group, which also owns The Salt Lake Tribune) have announced plans for voluntary buyouts of some newsroom employees.

Meanwhile, other papers have restructured their staffs and reassigned veteran critics to new beats - the most notable case being that of the Philadelphia Inquirer's Gail Shister, who lost her acclaimed TV column after 21 years because the editors wanted her to write more general features. (Shister responded by breaking the story that CBS News was ready to dump Katie Couric.)

A movie critic is a luxury for a newspaper. Papers can't live without police reporters or copy editors, but many get by without an in-house writer opining about "Spider-Man 3." And when every dollar counts in a newspaper's budget, going with a wire-service review is cheaper than paying a staff writer (especially one who's been around awhile, and therefore gets paid more than his or her younger colleagues).

Another bean counter's argument is that people can go online and glut themselves on movie criticism from entertainment-specific Web sites and bloggers. True, but quantity doesn't mean quality. Not everyone with a laptop and an opinion can write a cogent, or even coherent, movie review - and a reader must wade through a lot of stupidity, self-absorption, studio bootlicking and fanboy drooling to get to the good stuff. (Some would say the same about my reviews.)

Newspapers that aspire to be more than simply a chronicle of a city's goings-on, papers that want to get a community talking, need unique voices that readers can't hear anywhere else - not the same thing off the wire that a hundred other papers will print.

Fewer movie critics may lead to homogenized movie criticism. Most of the movie critics for the major wire services and national publications live in New York and Los Angeles. Now, I know and admire a great many critics who live in those cities - but their perspective doesn't always match that of the people where I live. It's no accident that the best-known and most-respected movie critic in America, Roger Ebert, comes from the heartland of Illinois, far from the elitism or industry schmoozing of the coasts.

Homogenized movie criticism could lead, I fear, to a further homogenization of the movies. Fewer movie critics means fewer voices shouting against the noise of Hollywood's hype machine, fewer champions for the small, interesting films struggling to break out amid the blockbusters.

Movie critics, along with my colleagues in music and TV and art, can serve as translators and explainers of pop culture - which is fast becoming the one common language Americans have left.

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* SEAN P. MEANS writes a blog, "The Movie Cricket," at blogs. sltrib.com/movies. Send questions or comments to Sean P. Means, movie critic, The Salt Lake Tribune, 90 S. 400 West, Suite 700, Salt Lake City, UT 84101, or e-mail movies@sltrib.com.