Critic Peter Rainer on Blockbuster Movies, Rotten Tomatoes and 30 Years of Film (Q&A)

Peter Rainer - P 2013
Photo by Inae Bloom

Peter Rainer - P 2013

The Christian Science Monitor film critic has seen 300 movies a year for three decades -- in his new book, the former Los Angeles Times pundit culls his best reviews from that “turbulent and transformative era."

Peter Rainer is among the last of a dying breed: A newspaper film critic.

Since the 1980s, he's served up consistent commentary with a literary style, and a gentle but firm touch -- even as film criticism has changed as dramatically as the movie business. He's written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Magazine and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, where we first met. In those days he was a spark plug in what I remember as the best style section in L.A., when our HerEx was an alternative voice to this coast's Times.

Rainer is currently the film critic for the online-only Christian Science Monitor, a film columnist for Bloomberg News, a regular on KPCC-FM’s Film Week, as well as president of the National Society of Film Critics. He wrote Biography episodes for A&E about Sidney Poitier and the John Huston clan. A Pulitzer Prize finalist, he won Best Online Entertainment Critic in the 2010 National Entertainment Journalism Awards.

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But the profession of film critic in 2010 is very different, especially over the past decade. There are fewer of them -- in the 20th century newspapers, magazines, networks even local TV stations had in-house movie critics, a lively bunch perhaps personified best by the late Chicago duo Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.

Now, in the 21st century, professional critical opinion is aggregated -- the website Rotten Tomatoes offers a "freshness rating" based on assigning numerical grades to dozens of critics, and aggregating that score. Widespread adoption of social networks like Twitter and Facebook prove the old truism that everyone's a critic -- and now everyone has a megaphone. 

With an eye toward his legacy, and that golden age of film criticism, Rainer has collected the best of his 30 years of work, recalling a rich brew of movie magic and movie hype: Rainer on Film: Thirty Years of Film Writing in a Turbulent and Transformative Era.

Rainer spoke to The Hollywood Reporter after an appearance and signing at the Steve Allen Theater for the Los Angeles Press Club. 

The Hollywood Reporter: You said the role of movies in our culture has changed. What did you mean by that?

Peter Rainer: I don’t think movies are central to the culture in the same way now as they were in the '70s when you had in the late '60s and '70s films like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, and The Godfather and Five Easy Pieces, and all of these were films that sort of mattered intensely to the 20, 30-something generations. I think it’s because those films touch the nerve in the way that people could relate to these films on a very deeply personal level. The difference, I mean they were great films, but I think they were films that seek to mirror the life experiences of this coming-of-age generation. But that generation passed, and the generation that was making those movies became more globalized and made different kinds of movies and the studios themselves sort of became much more popularized and they take fewer chances. So, what I consider to be a renaissance in film from that era largely rests at about eight or nine years then passed onto something else. I think to the extent that quality and films that mirror one’s life experiences has anything to do with being central to the culture, I think that explains why that passed. But I also think that, yeah, there are many more choices that people have now for entertainment than they had before. That television, in some ways, is more central than movies are. People will talk about The Sopranos or Homeland or the zombie show, or American Idol; these are all famous and I think probably much more into the national consumer psyche than movies. You have a much wider range with cable and now Internet shows to watch that offer than they ever did before.

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THR: The buzz has moved from movies to TV, it seems.

Rainer: I think the buzz has moved to television from movies. I don’t think that television is central in the same way that movies were in the '70s either, but I think it’s a lot closer. You hear people talk about Downton Abbey and Arrested Development and all these shows, many of which have movie people attached. You know, this stigma of going from movies to television no longer really exists. David Fincher could do television work, pilots, just as easily as he can do movies now and Kevin Spacey and all these other Oscar actors are much more prominent on television now than they were in the movies. The move to television has an immediacy that movies often lack because they can be made much quicker, they can be on subjects that are more timely, and so that matters more to people’s lives than movies, which can take years of development. So I think it’s just a combination of the changing habits of the generation, the more popularized culture influencing the movie business, the more personal media has become and the shifting to television of just a greater range of choices and only going to be more so when people are going to be able to access all sorts of entertainment on their screens as opposed to going into theaters. That also increases your range of choices. It’s also going to degrade the movie-going experience, even in theaters, because people are making movies knowing that their film has at most a week and a half and most of it’s after life on plain screens then why pay so much attention to the visual image anymore. You know, if David Lean were alive today, what would he be thinking? So even good movies now, a lot of these indie films that come out at Sundance and so forth, they may be very well-acted, -scripted or –directed, but what’s often lacking is any real visual excitement. I’m not talking about pizzazz, I’m talking about the beauty and quality of the compositions, the attention to detail and this is also the greatest vice when films moved to digital.

THR: What do you think about the conversion of movie theaters to digital, from the critical point of view?

Rainer: Well, I’m not happy with the notion that film is going to disappear. It sort of has already, and the movies that we’re going to be seeing from here on in are strictly digital. I just think that quality, the resonance, the grain, the richness is something that, at least in the foreseeable future, just cannot be duplicated digitally. And that’s a loss. Films are primarily a visual medium. If you’re watching a film where it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference if the quality of the images is beautiful or not, so be it; but it does mean that the visual beauty that the film can provide will no longer be available in theaters and that’s a real loss. As someone who sees over 300 movies a year, in theaters, it does wear on one.

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THR: What about movie theaters today?

Rainer: Movie theaters have become important for people who want to essentially duplicate the experience in home viewing in the theatrical setting. That means lots of talking and texting and everything else that goes with the public arena in a private space and that’s unfortunate; that’s been going on for a long time. The only ushers you see in theaters are those people with night ray goggles looking to see if you’re pirating a movie…, There’s degradation with what’s going on that’s unfortunate. I do think that, not to be sentimental about it, but if you grew up in a time of cinema and a lot of films that I remember from those years I remember in connection with those theaters that were part of the whole ambiance. I think that with a lot of the multiplexes and the 16-plexes, you walk in, and it feels like you’re in an airport, when does my flight leave? You look at this board of screenings and what’s the ETA? I think that I’ve never really been much for this concierge service where you get special seats, get wine delivered to your chair, I mean that’s sort of an interesting but probably doomed attempt to get people to go to theaters who might not go otherwise.

THR: What do you think about Imax big screens in 3D?

Rainer: I think that there’s a place for those films. I think it’s been overdone. There are a lot of movies that have no reason on earth to be in 3D or they were sort of souped-up 3D. But Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was souped-up 3D and that made a fortune. It costs more for people to see 3D. A lot of the animated movies are in 3D, that means that families rack up a big bill to see these movies and it may be that if these films aren’t going to deliver, that trend is going to go south. But I like Imax. I like the bigness of the screen. I like reaching out in 3D and feeling like I’m in some other world. I’m not against 3D, I just think that it’s been overused and under-imagined with the exception of people like (James) Cameron and sorts, who spend many, many years on these things. But for most 3D filmmakers it’s more of a commercial consideration than an aesthetic consideration.

THR: Like The Great Gatsby, right?

Rainer:Yeah, well The Great Gatsby should’ve been in OD — Zero D.

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THR: I have a theory that if you want to be a better movie goer, you should get to know the filmmakers and when they see a film with their name on it, they should go see it. Who are  filmmakers that you would go see?

Rainer:  Trying to name a single director whose work has made the biggest impact in my 30-plus years of reviewing movies is a toughie. I would say that Robert Altman, from M*A*S*H in 1970 right up through his death in 2006, was the most extraordinary creative force in American dramatic film. He made at least a dozen masterpieces or near-masterpieces, or just plain terrific films, many of them genre-bending: M*A*S*H; McCabe and Mrs. Miller; The Long Goodbye; California Split; Thieves Like Us; Nashville; Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean; Secret Honor; Vincent & Theo; the Tanner TV series; and The Player. In the documentary realm, or any realm, for that matter, there is no living American filmmaker with a greater body of work than Frederick Wiseman. His best films, such as High School, Hospital, Welfare, Juvenile Court, Law and Order, and Domestic Violence, are as rich as any major novel.

THR: What is the state of movie criticism today?

Rainer: If you’re talking about how film criticism has changed in print media, then I think it’s obvious what has happened: the number of outlets that publish film criticism, especially serious criticism of some length and value, has gone way down over the last 10 years or so and that has to do with the economy, with people’s reading habits, and obviously, most important, the Internet. So, the consolidation of news organizations using one critic over multiple outlets instead of hiring local critics, and so forth. So,  all of that has made a big difference. A big difference would also be sort of a more abstract answer which is that I think in general when people run a news organizations and the arms) pages, since they are in print media now, tend to be much more bottom line-oriented and less concerned with the value of criticism all together.

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THR: So big newspapers no longer cover as much critical territory?

Rainer: Well I think it’s rancid.  If you’re a classical music critic or a dance critic, what remains is some editor asking,, ‘Why are we bothering to review this show after it has already opened?” or if it’s just a one-performance event at the Dorothy Chandler (Pavilion), or whatever. You know, in the case of movies, they would make “why are we bothering to devote much space, if any, to this (successful?) French film? It’s only playing a couple of theaters. It isn’t bringing in any advertising money for us and we would just as soon eliminate the audience of older readers who aren’t are target anyway," etc. So, that’s what has happened to the media coverage devoted to serious criticism in all the areas, and that includes movies. It’s just worse than it was before because I think a lot of people running the show feel there’s less intrinsic value in running this in the first place and there’s just no financial payoff.

THR: I know from my own experience all of these companies think “oh my God, we have to be in this new medium. We have to do social media. I don’t understand this crap, I better get somebody to do it,”

Rainer: A lot of these sort of old-school media are freaked out by new media and don’t know how to maximize it or make money off it. So it’s created this whole new job description for search engine optimizers - people who sort of roll into town and set up a whole agenda on how many hits a story should get. I think this is promiscuous in a more larger sense in the news gathering arena because if you’re only reporting on news that’s trending, then you’re going to miss out on a lot of important stuff and the whole point of investigative journalism is to try to find things that people don’t know is trendy and don’t know about. In the case of movies, it’s the same situation. Whatever’s creating the most buzz on the Internet, the most hits, the most trends, and so forth, then that’s going to be to the detriment of a lot of small, independent films, documentaries, foreign films, foreign language films, and just movies that need to stick around for a while to build an audience.  If you’re at the mercy of the search engine algorithms, then that really impacts the discovery of smaller movies. And what that means to readers is that they are at the mercy of, essentially, the advertising departments of the studios and the optimizers of the publications because they have the books and the finances and the push to put those movies out there. You don’t have to be good to get buzz. So, that presents a distinct problem.

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THR: What can you do?

Rainer: If every review started with the sentence, “This movie isn’t about Paris Hilton or Rihanna, it’s about the this French film staring Matt LeBlanc,” maybe you confuse the algorithm for a while. But ultimately, what you need is people at the top who are willing to bend to make it happen for not only the hit-able search-engine movies - and I’m stating that is part of the equation and it’s not something like disparage - but I do think that you also need the other half of it as well. You need a space for the serious producers of a film that isn’t necessarily going to be trending at that moment.

THR: How do you feel about things like Rotten Tomatoes?

Rainer:I’m high on Rotten Tomatoes because I think that it allows people throughout the country, throughout the world to access any critic who’s writing any place in the country and in the UK and elsewhere. The one clear benefit for me of being a critic in this era as opposed to the strictly print era, is that now, no matter who you write for, technically you could be read worldwide. There’s a kind of leveling. It doesn’t mean that people are going to read you the same way that they might read The New York Times, but they have access to you in the same way and that’s all spread out  for them on sites like Rotten Tomatoes. The Tomato-meter and so forth is something that sort of captures the eye and keeps it in close range, but I think the aggregator aspect of reading all these critics and having access to them is terrific. What’s not terrific is that there are people in media that feel like, well, then why do we need our critic if we could just post links to the aggregators? That’s the danger. But I think that those publications that specialize in home-grown critics with a voice and with their readers respect, that’s fine.

THR: In this era some blockbusters are considered “critic-proof,” so where does that leave the critic?

Rainer: My book goes back 30 years, and I remember 30 years ago there were people at the studios who were had disdain for critics and didn’t feel that they contributed anything except negative reviews for movies. So, why even invite them?

THR: What can you do?

Rainer:What I do have the power to do is write a really rave review of a terrific new small movie or independent film or documentary or foreign language film, it does have an impact at least locally if you’re a critic with prominence and reach. It does have a quantifiable sense at the box office and despite what people think that critics all like to tear things down, we, I love the most is championing the film and making it happen to people who might not normally see it otherwise. But the studios have always considered…It’s always been a sort of cobra-mongoose relationship between the studios and critics and I think that the studios love critics when they write for a film that perhaps didn’t think it would perform as well as it might, and then it gets good reviews, and everybody is really happy and it gets awards, and everybody’s very chummy, and it’s all wonderful. But, most of the time, I think studios would just want the critics to go away. My hand in Transformers isn’t going to matter a bit. The people who watch Transformers go out to see it opening night. They aren’t going to be people who read reviews anyway, and if they do, they need to be turned on by the fact that all these pointy-headed critics don’t like it; that’s a plus. But recently, you have to sort of call the studios to find out when the film is screening as the release is approaching and you haven’t heard anything. They’ll be screening films very late. A, a film is screened two days before it opens, and so forth. That is now the standard as opposed to the exception.