Commentary : TV Film Critics Go for the Glitz. Roll Clip, Please

"I'm not so sure there are any important film critics left in America," said the studio marketing executive. "Once you get past Siskel and Ebert, it's a short list. And if there are any others, you can bet they're almost all on TV."

Is it time to say goodby to the once-prestigious role of the "important" film critic who pontificates for a living?

Is TV killing film criticism?

Just look at an obvious indicator--the movie ads.

Movie marketeers go far afield these days to find critical boosters for their pictures--and top billing often goes to TV film critics. "Nuts," starring Barbra Streisand, has an ad running in these pages with eight raves-- all from TV film reviewers. Current ads for "Three Men and a Baby," "Fatal Attraction" and "Running Man" also quote exclusively from TV critics. (Likewise for recent ads for "Overboard," "La Bamba," "Surrender" and "Someone to Watch Over Me.")

It's not that the studios can't locate a good print review--they seem to prefer the TV ones. When Warner Bros. opened its prestige Christmas release, Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun," guess whose quote got top billing--Time magazine or "At the Movies?" Right--the TV show.

But the ads are just the tip of the tip of the iceberg. The ascendancy of TV film critics has changed the rules of the reviewing game. Thanks to the potency of television, critics--both thoughtful print essayists and the glib tastemakers who populate the airwaves--have been absorbed into Hollywood's star-making machinery.

Homing in on Clips

A veteran film director recently admitted: "If I were just coming out of film school today I'd find a different line of work. It's hard to decide what's worse--having to get a green light from production execs whose notion of film history begins with 'Chinatown' or needing opening-weekend reviews from a bunch of TV critics who sound like they can't take notes and read subtitles at the same time." (The film maker insisted on remaining anonymous, as did our studio exec, which shows how much clout TV's critics wield today.)

Which brings us to an intriguing question. Are TV film critics simply great marketing foils, or are they shaping the tastes of moviegoers?

It's no surprise that most TV critics (see Scouting Report on the next page) have largely middle-brow tastes. Most have become film commentators for the same reason Edmund Hillary said he climbed Mt. Everest--because it was there. Few have any scholarly film background, some have never written for a living--and then there's KABC-TV's Gary Franklin, who joined the critical ranks after a career as a nightside radio reporter for KFWB radio (AM 980).

Of course, that's the point--writing and TV are completely different mediums. The New Yorker's Pauline Kael may be a dazzling stylist, but would her richly descriptive criticism play on TV? Probably not. TV critics have their own descriptive weapons--film clips.

"The biggest complaint you hear about TV film critics is that they don't use words like dense and film noir, " said KNBC-TV news director Tom Capra. "But I'm not sure we want to get into that level of criticism on our show. It's not our job to tear a film apart and decide whether Robert Altman's at the top of his game or not.

"My feeling is that TV critics--like our David Sheehan--should be consumer reporters. What makes David so good is that he knows how to use TV--and how to use clips on TV to make his point. That's the big difference between print critics and TV ones--here we've got all these pictures to work with.

"David sometimes does seem to have a pretty bizarre selection system, but he's basically there to steer you to the good films and away from the bad ones."

Still, the key to TV critics' influence isn't what they say so much as what they show--the images (in this case the film clips) have far more impact than any critical opinion-making. That's why marketing execs love them--they've provided them with priceless free advertising by essentially taking movie studio trailers out of the theaters and into people's homes.

"There's no doubt that we're slaves to the clips that the studios give us," said Capra, who's knows the industry from inside and out--his father is the legendary film director Frank Capra. "The studios basically have the attitude--say whatever you want just as long as you spell the film's name right. They get a hell of a lot more mileage out of the clips that David shows--for free--than anything they could ran in a paid 30-second spot."

And what kind of 30-second film clips play best at home? Easy--those that immediately grab your attention, either through kinetic action scenes, jokey humor, familiar TV sitcom situations or brand-name star power. Once you've mastered the formula, the movie itself sometimes seems like an afterthought. Maybe that's why Disney Studios' recent batch of yuppie comedies ("Down and Out in Beverly Hills," "Outrageous Fortune," "Ruthless People" and "Stakeout") frequently make more satisfying trailers than full-length films.

The TV critics' film-clip system is great for easily digestible mainstream fare. But it works against more adventuresome, demanding movies that rely on more ambiguous drama and less comfortable imagery. Can you imagine trying to figure out the appeal of an exotic thriller like "Blue Velvet" from a couple of film clips?

Numerous TV critics praised the film, but its clips may have actually discouraged casual moviegoers from seeking it out. In fact, when asked why they shied away from seeing the film, several friends immediately pointed to clips they'd seen, which--out of context--made the film seem unduly bizarre and incoherent.

Now that's a marketing riddle for the wondrous Age of Glitz Criticism--what do you do with a film whose images undercut its own free-advertising campaign?

Starring Siskbert

How has TV transformed criticism? The evolution of the Siskel-Ebert combo is a perfect model. Ten years ago, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were rival Chicago newspaper reviewer/reporters (at the Tribune and Sun-Times, respectively). Both were just as eager to outleg each other to a star interview as they were to dissect the latest Hollywood releases.

The men moonlighted as critics on local TV, but their reputations rested on their wordsmanship. Ebert was known as a deft stylist and advocate of daring films, even winning a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1975. Siskel was dismissed by some local observers as a clumsy critic whose pieces were sometimes dotted with egregious factual errors--he once praised a star's performance in a film in which the actor didn't appear.

As Chicago critic Neil Tesser complained, "Siskel's reviews usually read as if he'd simply typed his notes and added some rudimentary grammar; the prose flows like scrap metal."

Siskel and Ebert are more than just critic-celebrities. They're a brand-name commodity. To a film executive, their thumbs-up endorsement on "Siskel & Ebert & the Movies" delivers as much status as a new Mercedes hood ornament.

As "Broadcast News" has eloquently dramatized, the Land of the 20-Second Sound Bite is geared to personality, not profundity. Everybody has an act on TV, and especially film critics. Siskel and Ebert simply have the best act, having carefully transformed themselves from scruffy newspapermen into engaging entertainers.

In the case of Ebert, who still reviews for the Sun-Times, the cosmetic transformation is complete. Watching him surrounded by movie posters and bric-a-brac, touting a new film on his WLS-TV news-show segment in Chicago, a visitor remarked, "Wow, what a great idea--having Roger do his reviews from a video store." Wrong--he was sitting at his newspaper desk.

Siskel and Ebert (Siskbert, as they're collectively called) host TV specials, crack jokes with Johnny on "The Tonight Show," do shtick at advertising conventions and probably earn more money than most of the stars they cover on their shows.

It's fitting that Siskel and Ebert are paid handsomely, because they're stars. They might even get a gold star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame before Bruce Willis. And why not? TV is far more hospitable to images than ideas. Is it any wonder that when nearly everything in America is a carefully constructed media package (from political candidates to young literary lions), that TV film critics take the stage with a lively act of their own.

Watching Siskbert doing their thumbs-up or -down routine, bantering with each other, you get the impression they're really not so much critics as talk-show hosts, with each film clip in effect the new guest.

Hollywood is delighted! All this gift-wrapped criticism has changed the once-independent film critics into sleek, subtly powerful marketing tools.

Wanna Be a Critic?

Watching KNBC Channel 4 critic David Sheehan is like viewing a TV image doubling back on itself. With his arched eyebrows and vague air of superiority, Sheehan most closely resembles the reviewer character that Bill Murray used to play on "Saturday Night Live." He's not a critic. He's a parody of a parody of a critic.

And what does that make Rex Reed--now a veritable fright mask of foppish mannerisms--who was spoofing himself nearly 20 years ago in the film "Myra Breckinridge?"

Reed and his "At the Movies" partner Bill Harris certainly don't seem to expend much brainpower on their quickie reviews. With their chirpy, used-car-lot smiles and high-decibel plot descriptions, they seem more intent on promoting the product than making any sense of what they've seen on the screen.

But making a sale--as a performer-- is what separates TV critics from their print peers.

In fact, as long as they cut it as TV performers, anyone can be a film critic today. And we mean anyone.

That includes Yogi Berra (yes, the Yankee Hall of Famer!) who will debut in April with "Yogi at the Movies," a syndicated series of 30-second TV and radio spots where Yogi will review new movies. His scale: home run, triple . . . strikeout.

Also taking a swing at film criticism--New York Mayor Ed Koch, who has just signed with WOR-TV to do "Ed Koch's New York," a regular TV feature where he'll review movies, plays and restaurants.

Remember when critics used to write scholarly texts and lecture about the auteur theory? Remember when critics were slobs? When rumpled Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris would pop up on a PBS show, so disheveled that you could almost smell the coffee stains on his jacket?

With TV critics today, what counts is Armani, not auteur. Who cares if you don't have anything to say--just make a fashion statement.

However, this Calvin Klein-consciousness sometimes obscures the real issue here: It's the medium, not the personalities, that's killing film criticism.

Newspaper critics rely on words, TV film critics use images. When Gary Franklin or David Sheehan reviews a film, we largely receive visual information. In the course of a two- or three-minute "review," the majority of airtime is devoted to studio- selected clips from the film, a healthy chunk of carefully controlled--and very free--promotion.

By the time the critic is back on screen, he or she has perhaps 25 seconds of airtime left to discuss the film. Which includes describing the plot plus bantering with chums on the anchor desk.

Get the Picture?

Does this mean appearances count for almost as much as opinions?

Of course. Is it any wonder that movie studios rarely withhold clips from TV film reviewers, even for obvious stinkers like "Shanghai Surprise" or "Superman IV."

And why not? Think of "At the Movies" as Hollywood's version of a photo opportunity.

Throughout the entire Iran-Contra affair, the White House happily allowed network cameramen shots of President Reagan meeting schoolchildren, greeting triumphant athletes or chopping wood on vacation. The Administration's media experts realized that no matter how much of a negative slant a network correspondent gave to the story, those positive visual images would have far more impact on American news viewers.

TV film criticism works much the same way. Even if a critic chews up a film and spits it out, it's hard to imagine most viewers coming away with a totally negative impression, especially because the studio, not the critic, provides the clips, insuring that the movie's strongest scenes get displayed. Most local TV reviewers (with the occasional exception of Gary Franklin) rarely take a hatchet to awful movies anyway, since any truly harsh, mean-spirited remarks would clash with the convivial atmosphere of the news program.

Siskel and Ebert's show has such a heightened visual sensibility that it's evolved into the MTV of film criticism. And not just for its dependence on clips. Its economics are a dead ringer for MTV, a seamless sales medium where it's virtually impossible to tell where the videos end and the advertising begins--they're both selling something, whether its Guess? jeans or the new John Cougar Mellencamp album.

The wonderful irony here is that Siskbert is such a great sales tool that the film studios don't even bother advertising their new movies on the show--the stars do that for them!

Fast Food to Fast Facts

Back in the days of the Nixon Administration, speechwriter Pat Buchanan attacked network news bosses for their "instant analysis" of major policy addresses. How quaint the complaint seems today--when everything about TV is instant analysis. Immediacy is TV's trump card. That's why TV is at its best covering wars, fires, Super Bowls, state funerals and beauty contests; any event where the pictures--the bang-bang-- tell the story.

If USA Today can summarize the war in the Persian Gulf in eight paragraphs, imagine what TV can do with its mesmerizing images: U.S. warships . . . oil tankers . . . missile launchers . . . noisy explosion . . . end of story.

In more subtle ways, TV has also frazzled our attention spans. Call it Information Overload. TV has conditioned us to expect instantaneous answers to the thorniest problems. Do we want our political leaders to ponder issues? Brood over decisions?

Not when the presidential campaign is conducted on the tube, where candidates create an attractive image through 30-second TV commercials, polish it with 45-second sound bites on the campaign trail and are graded in debates that are judged ultimately by which candidate offers the quickest, most easily digestible replies.

Great movies usually have their antennae tuned to trends, so if you want to spot a savvy early glimpse of the Info Overload phenomena, watch how Oliver Stone introduces "Wall Street's" Gordon Gekko, perhaps the year's most seductive movie villain. Here's a real information junkie--he's juggling two conversations while monitoring the stock market with one arm, his blood pressure with the other.

9 . . . 10 . . . 10-PLUS!

Wonder how TV critics fit in to all this? Their whole act is perfectly in sync with our atrophied attention spans. In fact, the tube's instant-analysis format has given TV critics a comfortable niche in the Hollywood Hype Machine.

With perhaps half a minute to make a point, most TV critics now sell movies like carnival barkers, using gaudy catch-phrases and feverish come-ons to express exclamation-point enthusiasm. "RoboCop" may have ostensibly been set in the future, but its running TV news gag--"Give us three minutes and we'll give you the world"--captures today's "Eyewitness News" sensibility.

This quick-fix information patter has completely reinvented the reviewing process. Just as local news anchors now hype their product--"Volcano Erupts in Malibu! Film at 11!--so do the critics. They don't analyze emotions anymore--they simply act them out.

Why go into depth about a film's piercing drama or sweeping cultural significance when you can gush: "I cried till the tears rolled down my legs and flooded the room downstairs!"

Guess where this overheated critical patois goes--straight into the studio ads. Since you can only say so many times that "I laughed till I cried and they had to carry me out on a stretcher," many critics quickly find themselves trying to top their last curtain call. . . .

For Judith Crist on WOR-TV, "The Living Daylights" wasn't just suave and sexy--it was "SUPER SPY, SUPER SUAVE, SUPER SEXY!"

For Norman Mark at the NBC affiliate in Chicago, "La Bamba" wasn't just a great rock film. It was "THE BEST FILM EVER CREATED ABOUT ROCK MUSIC!"

For Jeffrey Lyons on "Sneak Previews," "Dirty Dancing" wasn't just a thrill. It was "ABSOLUTELY SENSATIONAL! A TERRIFIC MOVIE! I HATED TO SEE IT END!"

Perhaps the worst Excedrin headache of all: Rex Reed conking you over the noggin with screaming platitudes. This isn't criticism--it's pitching.

You get the sneaky feeling that many critics--like housewives in supermarkets asked to do TV comparison-spots on the merits of Ajax and Brand X--simply conjure up sure-fire adjectives guaranteed to win them a spot in the ads.

"Good Morning America's" Joel Siegel always seems to dub comedies as "FUNNY STUFF!," which doesn't really make much sense, but looks great in quote ads. "Sneak Previews' " Jeffrey Lyons is big on S-words. In recent months, he's touted "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" as "SCREAMINGLY FUNNY!," "Wall Street" as "STUNNING!," "Dirty Dancing" as "SENSATIONAL!," "No Way Out" as "SEARING!," "Baby Boom" as "SASSY!" and "Stakeout" as "A SIZZLER!"

Of course, Gary Franklin tops everybody in this department with his trademarked "Franklin Scale of 1 to 10, 10 Being Best." A brilliant attention-getting device, it's a perfect kicker for Franklin's KABC spots and has made him as much a familiar part of the local landscape as the Hollywood sign.

Franklin is candid about his role as a salesman. As he told reporter John Horn at the Orange County Register, "It's gotten to the point where I will call the studios the next day after the screening and I'll say, 'Is there anything I can do to help this movie? Can I write an advance review?' And I'll write a review early and give them a line from it."

Sometimes Franklin gets so carried away with a favorite film that a simple 10 isn't enough. It seems almost routine now for him to award films a 10+--"The Last Emperor" recently got one, as did "Nuts," "Cry Freedom," "Weeds" and "No Way Out" ("Moonstruck" and "Ironweed" earned mere 10s). Still, this adulation inflation is beginning to run rampant. Can you imagine what "Citizen Kane" would've deserved--a 31.5?

For Readers Only

Who's left out of this cozy new marketing equation--TV Critic Blurbs + Film Clips = Free Advertising?

Today's print critic, who finds himself with less space--and less clout--than ever before.

Is it any wonder that many print critics seem to have a love-hate relationship with their TV counterparts. That is--they'd love to have their jobs, but they hate to admit it.

When newspaper critics get together, you can count on hearing some unprintable negative blurbs about their TV brethren. In fact, several critics routinely refuse to even sit on seminar panels that are populated with TV-crit riffraff.

Yet when "Sneak Previews" began searching for Siskbert replacements a couple of years ago, the friendly skies were jammed with print critics jetting in to audition.

Can you really blame them? It's not just the big money; many print critics seem to sense, as New York magazine critic David Denby candidly put it, that "most moviegoers don't read printed reviews, don't trust them or ignore them."

It's easy to understand why. Many movie reviewers (and this goes double for their rock critic counterparts) confuse obscurity with quality. One widely read critic's 1986 Top 10 list included the following films (all foreign made): "The Legend of Surami Fortress," "The Sacrifice," "Kaos," "Summer," "Tracks in the Snow" and "Taste of Water."

How many did you like? How many did you see? How many have you even heard of?

Goodby, Context

Many of today's critics would prefer to follow rather than lead. Director John Carpenter recently dismissed his critical foes, saying they have "a Tipper Gore mentality these days--they seem intent on reflecting whatever attitude is rampant in Middle America."

Maybe we shouldn't be so surprised that TV's influence is so pervasive these days. In the Donna Rice Decade, everybody wants to be a celebrity. The problem is that many critics find it hard to differentiate recognition from influence. Give Gary Franklin credit--he recently acknowledged: "The day I lose my job, nobody will give me a screening anymore." Some of his colleagues aren't quite so humble.

There are still plenty of eloquent print-journalism voices around, critics like the Nation's Terrence Rafferty and the Village Voice's David Edelstein, who write with verve and passion, whether celebrating a minor classic or bemoaning a high-budget fiasco.

Unfortunately, the omens bode ill. Today's young moviegoers have already figured out the message that TV critics are sending.

Journalism students often ask how much influence print critics have on moviegoers' tastes. "Not much," I usually confess. "They get drowned out by all the TV ad campaigns."

All too often the students seem puzzled by this lack of clout. "But what about TV guys like Siskel and Ebert," one said recently. "Don't their reviews help sell the movie too?"

"Sure," I said, somewhat puzzled by his seeming confusion over the role of a critic. "But the reviewer's job is not to sell the movie, it's to assess its worth."

"Yeah," the kid replied with classic 1980s bottom-line logic, "but if you like a movie, isn't it all the same thing?"

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