I’ve always found the subject of causal fans and critics failing to see eye to eye a fascinating subject. Many people have speculated on why these disconnects exist. Some say the critics are out of touch; others feel the common moviegoer is lacking in taste. In all honesty, this phenomenon couldn’t realistically be boiled down to a single reason. Because critics inevitably watch every noteworthy film that goes their way, it stands to reason the odd, experimental titles would stand out more than the crowd-pleasing summer blockbuster – even if the former has glaring plot holes and the latter has no execution issues whatsoever.
However, I have to say that 2018 was a particularly strange year when it came to critical assessments. In 2017, I could count on the critically acclaimed films to be, at the very least, passable. Indeed, the weakest film I saw that year in theaters was Atomic Blonde, which wasn’t bad by any means, but had little to offer outside of its stellar action sequences. Not coincidentally, it had also amassed the least amount of critical acclaim of any film I saw that year. In 2018, however, I found critical consensuses to be all over the map. Several times would I walk out of the screening of a unanimously acclaimed film thoroughly unimpressed. One such disappointment was Ari Aster’s debut film, Hereditary.
Fortunately, it turns out I wasn’t in short company. According to CinemaScore, a market research firm that surveys audiences to rate their viewing experiences, the general public was unimpressed. Hereditary received a D+ grade, rivaling Drive (C-) and mother! (F) in terms of maligned critical darlings. Unfortunately, one particular Hereditary fan couldn’t leave well enough alone and saw fit to write an editorial on Variety about the film’s poor reception with audiences.
Yes, it gets worse when you actually read the article.
The saddest part is that when I read this article for the first time, I assumed it was penned by a cinephile in his thirties who was just starting to develop his own taste in films independent from the mainstream. This is because it came across as something an educated, yet inexperienced person would write to prove how much they’re not like those people. Then I checked his Wikipedia page and learned he was 59 when he wrote this. That is too old of an age to be writing pieces like this – then again, so is 25. This particular one was so bad that someone who liked Hereditary called the author out on his blatant display of gatekeeping.
Indeed, this poster, who goes by the e-handle taumatropo, makes a particularly interesting point that seems to identify one possible cause of these frequent disconnects. The stereotype of the ostensibly high-minded critic who believes their words carry so much more weight than those of the unwashed masses exists for a reason – even if they’re hardly in the majority. As taumatropo says, these critics can’t accept that people might think differently from them. Rather than actively challenging these dissenting opinions and trying to reach a better understanding, they choose to put up barriers. These people don’t like the latest A24 film? Guess they lack culture and celebrate their inhumanity on a regular basis. They can’t possibly have developed their own disparate taste in films over a lifetime of experience. No siree Bob.
However, the purpose of this editorial is not to rebut Owen Gleiberman’s post, as taumatropo sufficiently covered exactly what was problematic about it. No, instead, this think piece and subsequent reaction to it got me thinking. Exactly when did certain pockets of the critical circle become so openly hostile to their readers? Much like with the actual cause of these disconnects, I don’t have a definite answer to that question. However, I feel I can pinpoint one specific moment that, if not a catalyst behind where we are now, at the very least cemented the surprising lack of empathy certain film journalists have.
This story goes back to 2015 when South by Southwest, an annual conglomerate of film, music festivals, and other conferences, was taking place. On Tinder, one man named Brock was using the online dating app when he happened upon a woman named Ava. On her profile she claimed to enjoy drawing and was fascinated with busy intersections in cities.
From there, the two struck a mostly normal, if decidedly mechanical conversation, and Ava invited Brock to check her Instagram profile. Said profile led to a poster for a film called Ex Machina. Ava wasn’t a real person, but rather a sophisticated bot. Her name was a reference to the artificial intelligence in that film. In other words, Ava’s profile was an elaborate attempt at a viral marketing campaign in order to raise awareness of the film’s existence, which was set to debut a mere few weeks later. This is easily one of the most misbegotten marketing ploys ever devised. Did the ones who thought it up feel that the victims would forfeit their money to buy a ticket as a prize for successfully being catfished? The exact thought process is not clear.
So naturally, with this highly unethical marketing scheme brought to light, film journalists did the right thing by calling out it for what it was.
Just kidding. Most of the film journalists who wrote about A24’s marketing campaign had nothing but praise for it, displaying an amorality eerily similar to that of those who concocted it. A common thread among them was highlighting the similarities between the film’s plot and how Brock and any other man who had the misfortune of swiping right on Ava’s profile were fooled into believing the bot was a real person. None of them mentioned how immensely creepy this was.
The piece that stood out to me the most for all the wrong reasons was written by one Mark Ritson for Marketing Week. I’m just going to let it speak for itself.
The takeaway is that Mr. Riston was a complete a loss for words as to why people would respond negatively to being catfished and virally humiliated on the internet. I feel as though I shouldn’t have to explain why this campaign was morally reprehensible, but in light of the overwhelming evidence, I apparently must. A friend of mine cut right to the chase when he pointed out that had the distributors implemented a male bot and tried to rope women into seeing a film, it wouldn’t have gone over nearly as well. These very same people who had nothing but positive things to say about the Tinder campaign would have been furious – and rightly so. Indeed, in such a scenario, it would be a miracle if whoever came up with the campaign didn’t get arrested. But no, it was a man using Tinder who got punked, so it’s a brilliant, avant-garde marketing technique.
Even taking gender out of the equation, there is still an egregious double standard at play. If Ex Machina didn’t resonate with critics so deeply, there is little chance they would have kind things to say about this marketing campaign. Could you imagine anyone being pleased if, for example, Michael Bay’s marketing team had resorted to a similar stunt to promote the latest Transformers film? I know it would be far more likely for these exact same journalists to scoff, and I can imagine some of them going as far as using it as evidence that the true art of filmmaking is dead, humans are getting dumber, the end times are coming, or whatever pessimistic narrative they happen to be pushing in a given week.
While I don’t necessarily think that the Ex Machina viral marketing campaign directly caused this severe divide, I can believe it was one of the earliest instances in the internet age of the critics actively choosing to throw their audience under the bus because the film they loved came first. It’s a real shame because the art of film criticism is extremely valuable. When it’s done well, it can give the audience a greater appreciation for what they just saw. However, none of the people in the above screencaps seemed interested in treating their audience with respect. It’s as though they want people to bow down before opinions, accepting them without question. Though I won’t deny the many times fans have acted out of line, it’s arguably worse when those whose opinions carry a significant amount of weight don’t appreciate the responsibility that comes with such a position. Credibility is the lifeblood of any good critic, and the exact second they praised the viral marketing campaign of Ex Machina, much of it was left to spill.