A delicate dance for movie critics and filmmakers on Twitter

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In a world where Twitter is a film critic’s office, playground, news source.

A mysterious force spreads from coast to coastinto cubicles and coffee shops. A director follows them. An actor lobs an insult. A screenwriter lists his favorite Spike Lee films.

A choice must be made.

For film critics, the boundaries of cordiality and professionalism are being tested in the ever-evolving public forum. They must create their own guidelines without losing sight of who they’re writing for—moviegoers, not moviemakers—even if at times they’re one in the same. For the most part, everyone gets along. Except when they don’t.

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“I used to have a strict policy about not following back anyone involved in making TV shows or films,” says Matt Zoller Seitz, editor in chief of RogerEbert.com and a TV critic for New York magazine. “But after a certain point I decided to hell with it, they’re not really my friends unless they’re actually my friends, and if they think we have a relationship because we follow each other on Twitter, the next time they do a project that I pan, they’ll figure out the reality.”

 

“This is America, dude. Learn the rules.”

Sam Adams, senior editor at Slate and a longtime film critic, interacts with directors and other artists on Twitter. But he makes it a point to not discuss their work. It’s more interesting and polite to discuss other matters.

“It’d be like if you were at a party, and somebody introduced you to [director] William Friedkin,” Adams says. “If the first thing you did was three paragraphs about how great The French Connection is, he would probably curl up like a dying plant and go find someone a little less of a raving fan to talk to.”

Others subscribe to what Tim Grierson, who reviews movies with Will Leitch for The New Republic and at Screen International, calls a “church-and-state” relationship.

“Once you start becoming chummy with people you’ll invariably have to write about, it invariably leads to a mess of conflicting and compromising issues/impulses I’d prefer to avoid,” says Nick Schager, who contributes to such publications as Variety. “My job is to critique art, and for me, that’s more honestly and objectively accomplished if I’m not influenced by any personal feelings (born from direct interaction) about the subject in question.”

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Leitch, also a sportswriter, has a driving principle in corresponding with athletes and filmmakers. He will only tweet at them if they initiate the exchange.

“It’s a little embarrassing to watch supposed journalists court favor with the people they’re supposedly being impartial observers of, and even a bit untoward,” Leitch says. “It’s almost like they’re trolling for clicks.”

Policies on social media vary widely among news organizations. The AP Stylebook’s approach amounts to a shrug. “There are no one-size-fits-all answers to how journalists should manage their social media accounts with respect to their personal privacy.” Journalists, the AP adds, should consider other factors, “including their newsroom’s conduct and ethics policy.”

 

 

For Sean O’Connell, movie content director of CinemaBlend, contributors cross the line when they they use social media to talk and comment “with talent about something that they are directly involved in. I would see that as an issue, but we haven’t run into that, thankfully.”

CinemaBlend does not have guidelines banning such behavior, but “now you’re making think we should,” O’Connell says, laughing.

“There is a big number of critics who keep a distance and consider it a matter of journalistic integrity,” says Alissa Wilkinson, Vox’s film critic. Some topics—awards coverage, blockbusters—can get “pretty cozy, and turns into a different kind of writing.” The kind that features a writer posting a selfie with a celebrity, which she says does not promote critical distance.

Film critics navigating personal feelings that interact with professional duties isn’t new. Roger Ebert maintained friendships with directors such as Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman. The late critic addressed the issue in his 2011 autobiography, Life Itself: “These friendships weren’t sought, but they happened.” Ebert, though, advised against film critics becoming friendly with their subjects. He wasn’t concerned with a conflict of interest “so much as with my own ability to see a film at arm’s length.” Other critics, he believed, must take their own stance.

 

 

The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, another vaunted critic, basked in the power of friendships with artists. To read Brian Kellow’s 2011 biography of Kael is to see critical distance become a farce. Kael had a “harmonious relationship” with Altman, whose  rough cut of Nashville Kael reviewed—he spoke at a memorial tribute to her in 2001.  According to Kellow, she corresponded with Sam Peckinpah and Woody Allen, both of whom she regularly wrote about. Kael hurt her artist friends—and critic acolytes—as much as she helped them. She savaged a friend and former protégé, the screenwriter-director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Auto Focus), in print and in conversation. New Yorker film critic David Denby, in 2003’s “My Life as a Paulette,” described having lunch at a Chinese restaurant with Kael, who eviscerated Nicholas Ray’s filmography—with the director present.

“Ray, his face cast down into his shrimp and rice,” Denby wrote, “hardly said a word.”

 

“There’s a flipside to that coin.”

Relationships between critics and talent still develop. Grierson attended film school with director Rian Johnson and has not reviewed his first three features in-depth. Johnson’s next film, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, poses a challenge.

“With The Last Jedi, which is probably going to be the year’s biggest film, it’s inevitable that I’ll write a substantial piece,” Grierson says. “When the time comes, I’ll talk to my editors to decide if we’ll include a disclaimer. Regardless, my responsibility is to be as objective and unbiased with his film as with anyone else’s. I take that responsibility very seriously no matter the movie I’m reviewing.”

 

 

Go to enough film festivals, says Scott Weinberg, a veteran critic who also produced and acted in Found Footage 3-D, and you become friendly with talent. Seitz tries to keep things professional “but sometimes,” he says echoing Ebert, “you just get chummy. These things happen.”

It’s easy to see why. Film critics, says Erik Davis, managing editor at Fandango, are “fans, first and foremost, of movies.” A lot of filmmakers, he believes, would be critics if things worked out differently. Critics also have become directors, including Schrader, Rod Lurie (The Contender), and François Truffaut. James Agee, arguably the father of American film criticism, later wrote The African Queen for John Huston (whom he profiled in a 1950 feature for Life) and The Night of the Hunter. Kael was courted by Warren Beatty in 1979 to help him produce Love & Money at Paramount. She accepted. It did not go well.

Weinberg says becoming friendly with filmmakers has allowed him to be “more considerate in what I’m criticizing. You want to be more specific. You want to be more professional.”

That does not prevent him from speaking his mind. “If there’s respect for the medium and there’s respect for the film and you are critical, I really don’t think filmmakers have a problem with honest, constructive criticism,” Weinberg says. “I really don’t. I think filmmakers have a problem with petty, vindictive, childish criticisms and stuff to fit somebody’s agenda—Oh, I hate The Fast and Furious movies so I’m going to find a way to trash them—that kind of thing.”

 

I think filmmakers have a problem with petty, vindictive, childish criticisms and stuff to fit someone’s agenda.”

 

A lack of distance, says A.A. Dowd, film editor for the A.V. Club, is a hindrance to the critic doing their job, and a disservice to the reader.

“When you talk about ‘Well, I know this person, so I know what they were going for,’ you’re basically communicating very little beyond your own personal relationship with this artist,” he says. “Honestly, for me, a big part is about not opening yourself to charges of being biased. Some of it is perspective, but if it’s known that you have a close relationship with this person, or you know them well, that is ammunition for people. As an editor, as opposed to as a writer, I have to try to be aware of that. You don’t want to give anyone anything where they can question the impartiality of your writers.”

Dowd could be swayed if a critic could write an extremely critical piece of someone they know. But, he says, “It’s never good when you have this element of hurt feelings hanging over these things.”

He admits to following a few filmmakers on Twitter—most of it is an “obligatory” follow-back—but he keeps the interaction limited. “It puts you in a little bit of a compromising position in terms of trying to stay impartial. It creates an automatic conflict of interest.”

Self-restraint plays a big part, Dowd says. “As a person, I know I’m going to find it difficult to be 100-percent honest about someone’s work if I have a friendly relationship with them.”

 

“Throw one at me, if you want…

Seitz tries not to think about how a Twitter follower will react to a negative opinion of their work. Neither does Adams. A critic, he says, must write what he or she feels and not care who sees the review. If a filmmaker or actor takes offense, so be it.

“I certainly understand that,” Adams says. “Then the chances are we’re not going to be friends if they don’t understand this is what I do—except in rare cases where I find someone’s work so offensive that I actually take offense at the person behind it—none of what I say is personal. I hope that people understand that. I certainly have evidence that that’s not true in all cases, but there’s nothing I can do about that. I think if you’re going to be worth anything as a critic, you just can’t let that sort of thing hold you back. If you do, you’re dead as a critic. You’re just sunk. If you can’t be honest without hesitation, then I think you’ve lost the ability to do your job properly.”

When Charles Bramesco tweeted his scathing review of What Now for the now-defunct Movie Mezzanine in 2015, he doesn’t recall tagging the film’s director, Ash Avildsen. It didn’t matter. “He was, I would say, incensed,” Bramesco says. Adams was surprised when celebrated indie writer-director Whit Stillman bashed him. The critic says the gripe stems from a negative review of Damsels in Distress.

It comes with the territory, Adams says. “As a critic, you’re a public figure. Certainly your writing is public, and the people you’re writing about are part of that public. It’s going to get to them.”

“You have this kind of direct access to the person that is kind of unprecedented in a way,” says Glenn Kenny, who writes The New York Times’s Streaming column. “That’s part of what makes the dialogue interesting. It’s also part of what makes the dialogue potentially poisonous or unpleasant.”

Or headline-worthy. In 2011, Duncan Jones tweeted his displeasure over Movieline’s then chief film critic Elvis Mitchell flubbing a detail in his review of Source Code. Deadline reported that the error led to Mitchell’s dismissal.

 

 

GQ’s Tom Carson caught heat in 2014 for suggesting that Olivia Wilde’s naked backside disqualified her from portraying a journalist in Third Person. “With that tush, who’d need to be literate?” Carson wrote. “Who’d want to be?” (Wilde’s retort via Twitter: “Kiss my smart ass, GQ.” GQ apologized, and Carson is no longer reviewing there.) Perhaps the best-known case happened in 2012, when A.O. Scott, The New York Times’s film critic, drew Samuel L. Jackson’s furious anger when he reviewed The Avengers.

 

 

“I gained a few hundred followers on Twitter and became, for a few minutes, both a hissable villain and a make-believe martyr for a new noble and much-maligned cause,” Scott wrote in his book, Better Living Through Criticism. “It was win-win all around, and then everyone moved on.”

Scott saw an upside to Jackson’s call for Avengers fans to “help” him get a new job. “It’s always worth asking just what the job of the critic is and how it might ACTUALLY be done.”

 

“It’s like the nature channel–you don’t see piranhas eating each other, do you?”

Twitter, and social media, plays a role. It makes critics more aware about what they write. “Striving for clarity, even if some portion of that is out of fear of being misunderstood—that’s a good goal to push for, regardless of what audience you’re writing for,” Adams says. Bramesco likes how directors such as Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins provide insight and clarity to their films. “In place of an interview, it’s a great way to get a response to your work—to see if you were off-base, if they appreciate what you’re saying.”

 

 

Following an actor who uses Twitter beyond a promotional tool, such as Anna Kendrick or Rosario Dawson, has value, says Stephen Whitty, best known for his work with The (Newark, NJ) Star-Ledger.

“I don’t think it makes me go any easier on their movies,” he says. “I think what it does do, honestly, is they both work a lot and very often, I’ll be watching a movie and thinking, ‘Boy, they really deserve a better picture than this. I know that they are smart and engaged and funny people. They really deserve a better role than the ones I’ve been seeing them in.’ Maybe, in that sense, it gives you a little more sympathy for the person, because you’re seeing them as a person. It makes you a little harder on them as a performer because you’re thinking, ‘I know that you’re more intelligent than the character you’re playing.’”

Seitz and Adams will use Twitter as a laboratory to see if ideas can become full pieces. For Davis, it’s an easy way to confirm a rumor with a director rather than jump through PR-erected hoops. Helen O’Hara, editor at large for Empire, sees Twitter as a window to different points of view. “There is that danger of just listening to the same old voices and assuming that things are that way,” she says. “If criticism is going to survive as a valuable part of this new media world, then we have to be open to hearing all the arguments that are out there.”

A film critic’s work can be solitary, Whitty says. You watch movies alone either in a darkened theater—or increasingly on a computer. Twitter gets critics out of their silent profession and more connected with their audience.

That includes the people subjected to the criticism, like Brian Koppelman. He loves Twitter. It’s a chance for the co-creator and executive producer of the Showtime hit Billions to have a communal experience with his show’s viewers and to discuss pop culture topics of all stripes.

“If you’re [talking] with people who are as geeked out about this stuff as you are, it becomes a much more elevated kind of exchange,” says Koppelman, who is also an accomplished screenwriter (Rounders, Ocean’s 13). “And then you get a deeper understanding on each side of it.”

Twitter has helped foster “kinship” among artists—Koppelman for instance has developed connections with directors Guillermo del Toro and Jones—as well as fans, actors, and even those covering the collective efforts.

As Weinberg recalled Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson telling him, “Film fans, film critics, and filmmakers all pray to the same god.”

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Pete Croatto is a freelance writer who lives in Ithaca, New York. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Grantland, SI.com, VICE Sports, and Publishers Weekly. Find him on Twitter @PeteCroatto.