Erik Lundegaard discusses the importance of movie critics.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
July 3 2008 5:33 PM

Let's Review

Erik Lundegaard discusses film criticism and the link between a movie's popularity and the press it receives.

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It may be true that people do actually follow critical reviews. However, what's more likely is that the internet is making hundreds of reviews available and websites are ranking movies more objectively by combining a large sample of reviews. Consumers are able to make a more informed decision as to where to spend their entertainment dollar. There are STILL instances where a great marketing campaign and targeted advertising can overpower the conglomerate of critics.

Also, if the Washington D.C. area listened to its newspaper, it would hardly ever go to see movies as their inefficient and biased method of selecting critics for films often results in negative reviews.

Erik Lundegaard: Again, correlation not causation.

If I'm pleading in the piece, it's for all of us not just critics. "Please, give us good movies to see. It will be in our interest (we'll see a good movie) AND yours (you'll make more money)."

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Rockville, Md.: Who's your favorite movie critic? Least favorite? Or do you just stick with the Rotten Tomatoes aggregate data to decide whether or not a movie is worth seeing?

Erik Lundegaard: My favorite movie critic—admitted bias here—is my father, who was the movie critic for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in the 1970s and '80s, and was, a nice little side-note, the inspiration for the name Jerry Lundegaard in the movie "Fargo." The Coens grew up in St. Louis Park, MN, used to read him, etc. They used a few other critics' names in that film, too.

These days, I like both David Denby and Anthony Lane in The New Yorker (Lane makes me laugh out loud). A few years back it was David Edelstein of Slate but I haven't read him as often now that he's at New York magazine. Manohla Dargis is sharp. Oh, and I love Dave Kehr's DVD reviews in the Tuesday NY Times. So much of our culture is geared toward the moment, to the point where much of the "news" is actually prediction rather than reporting, but Kehr spends time on a lot of classic and foreign films, many of which I haven't heard of. There's a noisiness to our culture but Kehr's column feels quiet to me. I don't feel as anxious when I'm there.

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Boston: Can you remember which of the particular movies' per-screen grosses most surprised you?

Erik Lundegaard: I was most surprised that the tentpole films remained at the top even after sorting by per-screen average. Shows, to a certain extent, that the distributors know what they're doing.

An Indian film, distributing by Eros, called Om Shanti Om, did surprisingly well in both per-theater and per-screen averages. A lot of Indian films did well last year. They showed up in 100-200 theaters, played for three weeks, left, but made good money. Not a bad model.

What surprised me the most, though, was how poorly some wide-release films did. The Seeker: The Dark is Rising opened in over 3,000 theaters but made only $8.7 million. Its per-screen average was $1,087.

You look at those kinds of numbers and realize that it's all still a guessing game. In fact, films like The Seeker are the reason studios cling to their tentpole films. They live for the sure thing, or the "as-sure-as-we-can-get" thing: your Shreks and Spider-Mans and Pirates. And it may be why they're too cautious in their distributing with other films. I don't know. I'm not a Hollywood insider.

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Alexandria, Va.: What's the deal with movie trailers? It seems like studios shoot themselves in the foot by giving away all of the best stuff before the film even hits the screen. Maybe we should have someone out there review the trailers!

Erik Lundegaard: I'm sure someone somewhere is doing this. I know Entertainment Weekly often grades trailers.

But I'm with you. I think it got pretty bad in the late '80s and early '90s. That's when I began to plug my ears during trailers of films I knew I wanted to see.

It's part of the safety-net game. People want the familiar so let them know exactly what a film is—almost from beginning to end—so they'll go. Might help, generally. Hurts moviegoers like you and me.

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