The Disappearing Local Film Critic

The demise of the film critic has been reported in media sources from the august to the obscure.

The butcher's bill from the last few years reads like a Reviewer's Hall of Fame: Nathan Lee (The Village Voice), David Ansen (Newsweek), Stephen Hunter (Washington Post), Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago Reader). Hell, even quote whore emeritus Pete Hammond was dropped by Maxim in a cost-cutting move (and not, as one might assume, in response to howls of outrage brought on by his shitty reviews). The (for now) still-employed movie critic for the Salt Lake Tribune, Sean P. Means, is keeping an updated list of the departed on his blog.

He'll need to add the Chronicle's Eric Harrison to that.

In an e-mail the members of the Houston Film Critics Society (of which yours truly is a member), Harrison says he has accepted the paper's buyout, though he'll continue to work as a freelancer and write for his blog, Daily Smackdown.

Harrison follows 20-year Chron vet Bruce Westbrook, who departed the paper last year. The move leaves Albany, NY-based Amy Biancolli as the only movie critic actually employed by the Chronicle, though a quick look at their capsule review listing
of ten current releases shows only three bylines for Biancolli, with the rest supplied by the likes of McClatchy Newspapers and the AP.

This is in no way a slight against Biancolli, who's now the sole remaining critic for a major local news outlet (one could also count Great Day Houston's Jake Hamilton, I suppose), but there's no denying that the number of Houston movie critics covering screenings for Houston outlets is dwindling rapidly (full disclosure: Houston Press parent company Village Voice Media doesn't employ local critics for its papers either).

According to the HFCS roster, a little more than half of its 17 members provide reviews for Houston-area outlets ("Houston-area" includes Conroe, Victoria, and Beaumont). The rest -- including myself -- are primarily online reviewers. And this doesn't count the dozens of other aspirants writing for their own sites or *shudder* Ain't It Cool News.

The waning number of critics isn't just an issue in Houston, but our problem is demonstrative of the larger, national issue: nobody cares what movie critics think (okay, except for Ebert). In terms of audience influence, a favorable review has nothing on a snazzy trailer. And for some movies, no amount of negative criticism will keep audiences away (hence, Brett Ratner).

Much of the blame lies with the studios themselves, who realize they can simply not screen certain movies (mostly horror and comedy) in advance with no negative consequences for opening weekend numbers. This trend will only continue, leading to print (and to a lesser extent, TV and radio) establishments to spend even less money on movie critics than the
pittance they're offering now.

In other news, Beverly Hills Chihuahua was the #1 movie at the box office last week.

-- Pete Vonder Haar


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