Thursday, December 25, 2014

Miscellaneous Musings: On the Movie Section in The China Post and What It All Means

December 25, 2014

On the Movie Section in The China Post and What It All Means

There was a time when the Friday edition of the local newspaper meant something for people yearning to catch the latest flicks. It meant a special layout dedicated to the week’s releases, full reviews of the movies that the entertainment staff had been able to screen pre-release, and perhaps a brief synopsis for movies not screened for critics in advance. Sometimes when a newspaper didn’t have enough staff, the reviews came from syndicated reviewers like Roger Ebert and Christy Lemire. But still they were there, and readers could be assured that they were reading the opinions of someone who had sat down and watched the movie. It was from such Friday editions that many people made their decision about what to watch that evening and from those editions that people learned about small independent and foreign films.

Alas, in many cities around the world, those days appear to be gone.

When I arrived in Taiwan almost ten years ago, The China Post, one of Taiwan’s three English newspapers, devoted a full page spread to Friday releases, and it had film reviewers on staff. It also made use of a few syndicated reviewers from the United States. From these sources, readers got a full picture of what was new in the cinema, as well as what was still playing in theaters. The top of the page was devoted to reminding readers about the “older” films that were still in theaters, below that were the week’s new releases, each review accompanied by a short note giving readers such information as its director, main cast, and language. It always closed with a star rating. For some time, the newspaper even printed a column devoted to what had been released that week on DVD and Blu-ray.

Now this once mighty and informative page has been reduced by three-fourths, and an ever increasing number of films are introduced with mere capsule reviews. Calling them reviews may be a bit generous. To give you a picture what I mean, imagine an IMDB page made up of basic information, such as a film’s genre and length, and a one or two sentence plot summary. Of course, each capsule has a star rating, yet there is nothing to indicate what that rating is based on. For example, in the edition for December 19, 2014, a Taiwanese film entitled Endless Nights in Aurora was given three stars, Maps to the Stars 4, and a new Japanese film called Still the Water 4. I would like to have read more about these films, and they could certainly have used the extra attention. In addition, Ridley Scott’s latest film, Exodus: Gods and Kings, a movie that has been panned by the majority of critics in the United States, was given 3 stars. Yet do we get an explanation of this reviewer’s reasons for going against the grain? We do not.

The newspaper appears to have one regular reviewer on staff, Anita Yang. To Ms. Yang’s credit, her reviews are nicely written, and from them, you get a clear sense of whether she liked a film or not. There is no evidence that she has rated the movies presented in the capsules, though. In a more perfect world, Ms. Yang would review five or six movies a week, and people could use her reviews to learn about many of the films that come to Taiwan, some of which, such as Nicolas Cage’s recent film Joe, are not even lucky enough to receive a capsule on the day of its release. And if the newspaper has another “pressing” need, such as wishing happy birthday to the King of Thailand, the movie section may not even make it into the newspaper at all. One casualty of this was Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which was not reviewed in the paper for a week, and when a review was finally published, it was divided into two parts and printed over two days.

However, perhaps the newspaper’s most egregious sin is that there is no evidence that the editors of the page have even read the syndicated reviews that appear in their newspaper. To understand how I arrived at this conclusion, take a look at these excerpts from Jake Coyle’s review of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies: “now finally sputtering to an end,” “will inevitably go down as an unneeded, gratuity… to write off as overkill,” and “the filmmaker has drained the book’s dramatic momentum.” These are hardly words of praise, yet if you glanced down at the little paper clip capsule at the bottom-right of the page, you would be in for a surprise – a four-star rating!

So what does it all mean? It is almost impossible to make generalizations based on the actions of one newspaper, but if we look globally, we begin to see a pattern. Newspapers, as well as the nightly news and shows like ESPN’s Sportscenter, require waiting. This may not be something we are particularly good anymore. We can follow basketball games on our smart phones, get news updates seconds after an event occurs, and – if we are so inclined – find movies and television shows online before their release or air date. Also, we are in an age in which people seem to want quick answers, and so movies are increasingly being advertised sold to the public by their IMDB and Rotten Tomato scores. Perhaps they are this generations’ “thumbs up.”

There are some that argue that this is the golden age of film criticism, and there is some truth to this. Never have so many people been willing to write about, comment on, and analyze films. However, many of the people doing this, myself included, are doing so for free, and it is not a stretch to say that some of them would enjoy having their reviews published in the newspaper even if they were not paid for their work. I have heard of at least one major newspaper that has moved toward using reader-generated content for its reviews. The reward for their long hours of hard work: the honor of being published.

We are also living in a time in which the influence of movie reviewers has greatly diminished. There was a time when glowing reviews could bring a small movie an enormous audience or cause people to think twice about seeing a movie that reviewers considered unworthy of the public’s money. One need only look at the top films over the past thirty years to see how much this has changed. There are also a number of films that are considered “review proof” – meaning that audiences will go see them even if they are said to be some of the worst films of the year. I’d love to be able to disagree, but box office numbers don’t lie.

So where does all of this lead? I imagine it leads to more pages like the one found on Fridays in The China Post. My fear, though, is that they will get much, much smaller.

*Update: On Monday, December 22, 2014, Jake Coyle’s review was inexplicably reprinted in The China Post. This time, it concluded with his rating of the film: 2 out of 4 stars.

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