The internet is ruining movies

[Note from the editor: This article is by prospective staff writer Nathan Kerner. Enjoy!]

The state of movies today seems to be a sad situation, depending on who you ask. The movie industry appears to be doing fine at times. Of the 23 movies that have grossed over a billion dollars, 19 were released in the last ten years, and four of them were released this year. So at least someone is laughing their way to the bank. Of course, the quality of those films is questionable. There was only one billion dollar movie last year, and it was Transformers: Age of Extinction.

Sequels and tentpole franchises seem to be the norm, and despite the complaints I keep hearing about the lack of originality in blockbusters, looking at a list of the highest grossing films of all time is just reading a list of sequels with a few original films sprinkled throughout (notable examples among the top 50 include The Lion King, Independence Day, Titanic, and Avatar. Of those four, only one has never had a sequel greenlit. Guess which one!).

So how did we get here? How did we reach a point where remakes, reboots, and sequels of negligible quality are the only thing Hollywood seems interested in making?

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I could place blame with the studio executives, but you’ve heard it all before, and indeed, I can’t blame people who make a product worth billions of dollars. I could also blame the fans for being a little too eager to be optimistic, but that’s a column for another day. There are many factors, but here’s one that most people ignore.

The internet.

The internet has made watching movies easier, and made distribution easier, but the internet has also played a large role in the decline in quality of mainstream American movies, especially among blockbusters. Let’s talk about it in three quick points, shall we? (And yes, I am aware of the irony of bitching about the internet on the internet. Please feel free to point that out in the comments.)

Point one: The internet has destroyed the cultural influence of film critics.

One of the positive things the internet brought to the film world, one could argue, is the democratizing of film criticism. Film criticism used to be a closed community. In fact, there didn’t seem to be any set way to get into the game. Roger Ebert was a journalist, Gene Siskel got a B.A. in philosophy, for crying out loud, and Pauline Kael was a bohemian writer. There was no real path to becoming a film critic; you just sort of fell into it.

The internet is ruining movies

The internet gave aspiring critics a chance to try their hand at it and find an audience. James Berardinelli and this very site are examples of this. I do not begrudge these ventures their success, and many internet critics have added articulate voices to the world of film criticism.

That being said, it also opened the floodgates to people who frankly don’t have any business being critics. Free speech aside, film criticism is a lot like acting. It looks easy on the surface, but it requires understanding of a subject and certain skills. And sadly, not everyone with a YouTube channel possesses those skills. It’s a lot like young standup comedians thinking that cussing and offending people are automatically funny because that’s what George Carlin and Bill Hicks did.

Negative criticism is fun to read and listen to, and it seems like it would be cool to be a voice with something cogent to say about film. However, not everyone can do it—not that this has ever stopped anyone from trying. The internet is now littered with people with lots of opinions that aren’t necessarily informed or well-articulated. It’s not uncommon for my Facebook feed to recommend some hacky post that lists films or examples of films that say nothing more than “this film sucked”. Or to see user reviews on Metacritic that say “this movie was AWE3SOME!! I don’t know why the critics didn’t like it!! Had lot’s of good action and the plot was really great. IT’s the best one yet!!!” (Intentionally bad typing based on actual examples.)

This opening up of film criticism to basically everyone has weakened the influence of traditional film critics. There was a time when Siskel and Ebert were household names. Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate, two of the most notorious bombs in box office history, suffered because of harshly negative reviews. Film criticism is more of an academic pursuit now than anything. And for you readers who accuse me of exaggerating this effect: Please go down to the comments section and tell me the names of five critics whose reviews you read before you decide to see a movie. Seriously, I’ve got time.

A little-known fact is that the 1998 Roland Emmerich Godzilla film actually made money. But the negative critical reaction hurt its box office take, and bad word of mouth shamed TriStar into giving up on its plans for a franchise. Fast-forward to today, where no amount of critical and public condemnation could prevent Transformers: Age of Extinction from breaking a billion dollars worldwide. I have yet to meet a single person who can say they liked all four of the Transformers movies, or even describes themselves as fans, but the box office take keeps going up. It seems there are hundreds of millions of people who don’t care what the critics have to say.

The internet is ruining movies

Really, it’s because the internet made it possible for studios to isolate themselves from mainstream criticism, and the average Joe doesn’t know who to listen to, so they fall back on what they like and what’s familiar. Speaking of fans, that brings me to my next point…

Point two: The internet is a buzz generator. Any buzz is good buzz.

Going along with the theme of loud voices drowning out everything else, let’s talk about a word that gets thrown around a lot: buzz. Buzz is traffic on the internet. You see it randomly on your Facebook timeline, or on Google under the heading “trending now”, and it’s simply a way to gauge what people are talking about. Not what they are saying, just what they’re talking about.

However, in our 24/7 news feed world, the studio heads are only hearing people talking about what they’re making, and are not looking for constructive criticism. The fact that you’re talking about their movies is all they care about. Hence, the treating of the release of trailers like they’re movies themselves. It gets people talking, and that’s all the studios want to hear: talking.

This is a point where louder voices drown out everything else. Personal example: I’m not much looking forward to the new Star Wars movie. There are many reasons for this—not a fan of J.J. Abrams, Harrison Ford is too old to be a good Han Solo, my noted disdain for long awaited sequels—but foremost in my mind are two things. First, if you discount the animated Clone Wars movie (and you should), then this is the seventh movie in the franchise. Once again, take to the comments section and let me know how many “Part 7”s in any franchise are bona fide classics.

Second is the fact that Disney didn’t buy Star Wars because they had a great idea for a story to carry on the franchise; they bought it because it’s a guaranteed revenue stream. Combine this with all I said above and the yearly release schedule of Star Wars movies, and I have doubts that the forthcoming movie will be very good. I know I’m not alone. There are other fans who agree with me.

But good luck hearing our doubts and uncertainty among the throng of enthusiasm from rabid fanboys who are just happy there’s going to be more Star Wars on the big screen. There are God knows how many YouTube “trailer reaction” videos where there are grown men practically crying tears of joy at seeing Han and Chewbacca in the Force Awakens trailer. (Side note: I don’t want to hear any fanboys whining about artistic integrity when you’re practically crying over a glorified commercial.)

The internet is ruining movies

Variety magazine has found that 63% of fans polled are convinced that The Force Awakens will be the best Star Wars movie yet, and all this based on two trailers and a lot of buzz. We don’t even know what the story is, but the fanboys took the bait, and buzz has taken over.

The problem is this is all part of the strategy to “generate” said buzz. The point of buzz is conversation. But we aren’t talking about whether the movie is going to be any good. When people talk about Star Wars nowadays, they’re talking about the movie coming out in December and how it’s going to be an instant hit. So more cautious voices like my own and others are drowned out by the cacophony of blind enthusiasm for the new movies.

But what does Disney care? They’re getting what they want: everyone talking about their new product, which leads to the biggest problem…

Point three: The studios fall back on the one thing they can measure: money.

I don’t think I’m a naïve man. I understand that moviemaking is a business, and like all businesses, its primary goal is to make money. Hollywood has always been about business, and there’s always been a conflict between art and commerce. But it was always a balancing act, and studios at least wanted to release good movies.

Now, the Hollywood corporate machine is more soulless than ever. With the internet diversifying film criticism into oblivion and making the world of film discussion noisier than ever, studios are looking to the one thing that can be measured: box office receipts. If a movie makes money, it might as well be a masterpiece.

For an example, Colin Treverrow didn’t get hired to direct Star Wars Episode IX: Whatever We’re Calling This One because he was the best director for the job, or because Jurassic World was a masterpiece, but because Jurassic World was the highest grossing film of the year. He made a financially successful movie, so in the eyes of the studios, he’s the best director for the job, because he’ll make an unchallenging film that people will line up to see regardless of quality.

We could demand smarter films from the studios, but those of us who do are drowned out by the internet buzz machine, and the studios have learned that money is the only rubric they can accurately measure. So that’s what they’re going with. So the fans who gush over how the new Star Wars is going to be the best yet are either going to come to their senses and demand better, or they’re going to keep lining up, hoping that the buzz will be justified this time. Go to the internet and come back and tell me which one you think it will be.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to use the internet positively by streaming Star Trek VI to drown my sorrows.

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  • Murry Chang

    This is status quo for Hollywood. How many monster movie sequals/remakes did they do over the years? How many times was Wizard of Oz made before the 1939 version(at least 3)?

    Star Wars is a bad example, it’s ALWAYS been about the money with that franchise.

    • Nathan kerner

      I’d argue that there was a time when the studios at least WANTED to make good movies. Producer Robert Evans is an example of a producer who seemed to care about the films he made being good AND financially successful. I don’t think studios care about quality anymore. The point I am hoping to make is that the gulf between art and commerce is now larger than ever.

      • Murry Chang

        Eh, I wouldn’t say that. The entire studio system as it existed for the first half of the 20th century was set up to generate profits. Thousands of movies have been made over the years strictly to cash in on trends…I’m thinking of a bunch of ’80s movies like Mac and Me. There were loads of Benjy movies because people threw their money at them, not because they were amazing artistic accomplishments. Star Wars itself is 90% based on merchandising money. There were producers like Dino De Laurentiis that were all about making cash…and shoehorning a giant mechaspider into any movie he possibly could. Or Golon-Globus.

        And then we have movies like Fury Road, which proves that studios are still willing to risk loads of cash on niche products. Even the Marvel movies, while being all about cashing in, are almost all good films in their own right.

        Basically, my point is that the majority of motion picture output has always been about making lots of cash. You’ll get a renaissance like the Coppola/Spielberg/Lucas kind of thing every once in a while, but it’s mostly gonna be about the almighty buck and how to get the most butts in seats for the least amount of initial outlay.

        • Well, in the “studio system” era, Hollywood didn’t have to compete with TV and the Internet….

  • CaptainCalvinCat

    *waves* Hello Nathan – can I call you Nate?
    You’ve yet to meet someone, who liked all four Transformers-Parts? Well, search no longer. Here I am.

    You say:”There was no real path to becoming a film critic; you just sort of fell into it.”
    And I think, that still is the case.
    At least, there is no real path to become a good film critic – the persons on this site, the personnel on Channel Awesome, SFDebris, they were not waking up one day, pointing at the nearest star and said: “I’m gonna be a film critic and I’m gonna be the best one at that.” – they had something to say, they wanted to do something and now they’re reviewers / critics /whatever you wanna call it.

    Concerning Star Wars: I’m sure, it’s not because of all the buzz, they’re sure, that this is gonna be the damndest awesome piece of movie, that people ever saw – it’s because it’s Star Wars. And even if “the phantom menace” did underperform story wise, it’s still a good movie, at least in my book. But then (points at the beginning of this comment of mine), I like all four Transformers-Parts.

    Slightly related: Internet critics are still beating that dead horse that “batman and Robin” is supposed to be a bad movie, the worst of the worst, not even worthy of being named in one league with “Plan 9 from outer Space” or some of the “so bad it’s good movies”….

    I don’t think so, I’m more a person for the more campy versions of that lore – so, Batman & Robin was right down my (crime) alley, while I really found “Batman Begins”, with all the tries of “grounding it in reality” more cringeworthy. ^^

    Greets

    Cal

    • Gallen_Dugall

      I know people that like those films. They’re smart professional people who just want to watch something that helps them shut their mind off. I can respect that.

      • Curtis Evans

        Seconded, I watch the first one and stop because of the dumbness. I think this is a major divide with audiences and reviewers. The viewers just want to be entertained. The reviewers want art and different because this is their 30-50+ movie this year and their job makes them sad because all the bad/same movies.

        • CaptainCalvinCat

          Well, Augen auf bei der Berufswahl (pay attention when choosing your field of expertise or Job) then. ^^

          • Chewbacca

            Really? All 4 transformer movies? That puts me in an awkward place to.. really agree with a lot you’ve said. I think Phantom Menace wasn’t the worst thing that has happened ever, nor was it Batman and Robin. Actually, now that the Nolan movies exists (btw Batman Begins is my favourite of them ) I can forgive the campy Batman route we were pushed down in the late 90ies.

            Since you’ve pointed out Channel Awesome Critics… watching a Blockbuster Buster video right after seing Leons Renegade cut makes you really think if one of these guys die Augen bei der Berufswahl doch etwas weiter hätte aufmachen sollen.

          • CaptainCalvinCat

            And the fun thing is – sometimes it’s changing. Sometimes it’s ERod, who hätte die Augen besser aufmachen sollen, sometimes it’s Leon.

  • Gallen_Dugall

    This raises a lot of interesting points and I’d like to add to them rather than attempt to contradict or disprove. I find the points above valid, but not quite the whole story.
    Point One: Professional critics destroyed their own profession by heaping praise on films it requires a degree in film making to understand and disparaging those with simple entertainment value. I read Ebert’s reviews because they were well written opinion entertainment – I certainly didn’t let them decide what I wanted to see.
    Point Two: Bad buzz doesn’t help films like Fant4stic or Jem but not the Holograms – it destroys them. Free flow of ideas has allowed consumers to become better informed. TV is providing a clear alternative for deeper and more complex storytelling. All while the scant months between theater release and arrival on home formats for a tenth the cost has become extremely competitive – look at Fury Road desperately grasping at free Oscar buzz to help pump disc sales.
    Point three: China. They’re the biggest market and movies are only now being tailored for them with “The Martian”‘s ending being the most recent example. 3D is going to stick around for a long time even though it’s not all that profitable in the west because Chinese audiences don’t care about plot or dialog; they only go for the spectacle. The inanely rigid plot structure of Western films doesn’t appeal to them. So if your main audience only cares about spectacle why bother to create something original?

    • Nathan kerner

      The points you bing up are valid. I wanted to focus on internet culture, however, and the effect it had. And while bad buzz does not help a film, bad buzz usually comes from within the industry after a bad test screening or behind-the-scenes issues. I genuinely feel that the internet has added a new set of problems to the film industry, the same way it has created a new set of problems with anything.

  • Thomas Diehl

    I blame the American approach to creative writing, churning out people who actually learned creative wiriting in a sort of school, leading to masses of writers all having learned the craft the same way, removing much of individuality and encouraging producing stories the way you produce cars. This also ties into the sequel problem: Having an IP available means you can just use that and apply one of your story patterns to it – sequel ready!
    Another (?) weird trend I started to notice is the appearance of sequels that make sense as a story within the franchise’s world, but not as a story told to us, because they’re devoid of any meaning outside its internal world. Terminator had that problem from the third one onward, Alien v Predator lives that problem, but even Jurassic World and Avengers are stories that (in my eyes) lack any meaning for the world the viewers live in. They’re fun movies, but they’re ultimately pointless.

  • It’s an interesting point, but in my experience, the influence of expert film critics has always been a secondary factor at most in the decision to go see a big commercial movie. When I was a teenager, I went to see Godzilla 1998. I didn’t read a single review beforehand. But my circle of friends was going to it (and there were only 5 movies being shown at that establishment anyway). Back then the internet buzz wasn’t a factor in us going, of course, but the studios’ usual high level of marketing certainly was. The democratization of film critics doesn’t matter much to the undemanding movie-goer because, well, film critics don’t matter much to the undemanding movie-goer.

    Except…when the movie is almost totally despised by critics of all stripes, loudly and repeatedly. That at least might cause someone to rethink whether going would be a plain waste of their time and money. The internet has actually enhanced this aspect. With the internet, it’s easier than ever to gauge the general sentiment. One example is The Giver. It was clearly meant to exploit the public’s familiarity and affection for the book. Based on that alone, I might have gone to it…until I absorbed the internet’s collective “meh” reaction to it. And I didn’t bother going as a result.

  • Sykes

    I don’t get why “reaction” videos are so popular. Is it like a laugh track, where some people feel happier when they are shown when and what to feel by others?

    • Muthsarah

      It’s just a way for fans to insert themselves into the products they care way, WAY too much about. They’re recording themselves reacting to something that took far, far more effort than they could possibly imagine. It’s still egotism. Or fear of mortality. Same thing that drives so much else about social media.

      • Sykes

        I should have been more specific…I don’t get why people WATCH reaction videos. 🙂

        • Chris Palmer

          Because they’re a proven thing. People watch because they might stumble onto something of interest.

          • Sykes

            That’s what the trailer itself is for.

          • Chris Palmer

            But Reaction videos like React are also proven things. And React is a shining example of how to do it right.

  • This is a well written article with a good rhythm to the delivery of its content.

  • Muthsarah

    Don’t forget the growing internationalization of the box office. Movies that can translate easily to other languages and other cultures are assured to make more money than those who can’t. Shallow, flashy action movies translate the easiest (and not just in one direction, think the dense, subtle, sublime, existentialist epic that was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), so Hollywood will keep pumping that out, know that it will sell 10x better than anything else overseas.

    It’s kinda like a downside to democratization: More people are given a chance to participate in something, but, statistically, those people are more and more likely to not know the slightest bit about that something, or at least not at the level of the people who had access to it their whole lives. But this new audience will try to appreciate this as best they can, even if it’s just as SFX and noise, and so the studios make movies based on SFX and noise. For us (the old school Anglophonic film buffs since childhood), we’re seeing a Hollywood product once tailored for us being watered down to be more easily-understood by others. It may be bringing billions of new viewers into the audience, but it also means a less-substantial, more homogenized product in the end. Movies get more sophisticated technically, but get less sophisticated structurally, dramatically, thematically, because those are hard to translate, and may not even by desired by (new) audiences who only look to Hollywood movies for flash.

    Good news: There’s only so far something can be watered-down to broaden its appeal. Hollywood has already achieved something close to peak saturation in the last decade.

    Bad news: I’ve thus far never been correct in predicting the depths to which Hollywood will sink for a buck.

  • Curtis Evans

    All good points, but back in the day it was Ebert and Siskel or word of mouth. Only now in 2014-5 could I name 5 reviewers and yes most are internet types. Secondly, between Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB, a few reviewers, and the franchise I (You, Anyone) should be able to figure out if you want to watch it. Also,without the internet, I wouldn’t watch/read any reviews most likely.

    I glad I’m not the only one with mixed to bad feelings for Star Wars. The next 3 should be ok to good, but I have doubts. The first tease trailer left me with a big SOOO WHAT!!!! The several spin offs sound like bad ideas.

    • Curtis Evans

      One more thought if you want art watch TV.

      • Nathan kerner

        It’s amazing how the places of TV and Film switched places over three generations.

        My reticent feelings toward Star Wars today is that with so many films in production, I don’t think Disney is really going to be too concerned with quality. They are more concerned with getting all the movies out in Bulk rather than crafting each one individually. Same thing is dragging down Marvel Films if you ask me….

  • Toby Clark

    “And for you readers who accuse me of exaggerating this effect: Please go
    down to the comments section and tell me the names of five critics
    whose reviews you read before you decide to see a movie. Seriously, I’ve
    got time.”
    Nell Minow
    David Stratton (before he retired last year)
    Margaret Pomeranz (before she retired last year)
    Scott Ashlin (though not so much recent movies)
    Leigh Paatsch (sometimes)

    • Nathan kerner

      well done.

      I don’t actually have five, But i do read the reviews on metacritic. I usually read the top reviews, the ones with the average score, and the lowest scored, just to get a feel for the two extremes and the “consensus”

      if I have to name five today,
      James Berardinelli, Rex Reed, A.O. Scott, Lou Luminick, and Peter Travers

    • Lennart

      Isn’t the question a false dilemma in the first place?
      Who has the time to read up 5 different sources for any movie? And why should I? In the same time I could have just gone watched it. And I have never seen a critic with whose views I agree 100%. So I use internet reviews in three ways
      a) meta scores to identify potentially really bad movies
      b) have a short look over the worst reviews, see what their argument is
      c) unexpected recommendations from a few selected youtubers
      I already know, what interests me, I only need a and b to check for unexpected problems with a film and c to sometimes find a pearl I’d have otherwise overlooked.

      How well spoken a critic is and how analytical he is can be helpful to articulate own opinions, but the opinion itself should of course not be adapted from a critic.

  • jbwarner86

    People honestly think Episode VII is going to be the best one ever? Really? I’ve yet to hear anyone voice that opinion.

    Personally, I don’t expect it to be a masterpiece that surpasses the original trilogy – I just expect it to be good. Better than the prequels, at least, ’cause if nothing else, now they know what not to do.

  • Ashantai

    Hi there Nathan,

    This is a nicely written article, however I can feel the waves of dislike about the modern machine coming off it.

    What I must ask is; did things used to be better?

    1) Was/Is the cultural influence of film critics a good thing?
    To
    be honest, as someone in Australia, the names you cite meant little
    growing up. We had our own reviewers and critics though, but I’ve found
    most professional reviewers are not looking for what I was or am. Now in
    the internet age I can see a wide range of opinions. I look at the
    average, sure, but I have a few names I respect the judgement of because
    they align with my views, and get their opinions. The only reason
    professional critics used to be a thing is because the print and
    television media made their views seem more important. I actually prefer
    it now.

    2) Is internet buzz a bad thing?
    It’s certainly true
    that the internet can hype things up out of all reason. People going in
    are often disappointed because it doesn’t live up to expectations. But
    really, was this ever any different? If there’s one thing I remember
    growing up with was the dominance of the print media. The hype was
    there, if you were looking for it in magazines and newspapers. The
    difference is that now more information is available for free to anyone.
    So sure, people get hyped up, but it used to happen 20 years ago too,
    it was just less common and less well known because of the lack of easy
    ways to spread the word.

    3) How else can studios measure success?
    It’s
    true that Hollywood is becoming less adventurous, more homogeneous,
    more obsessed with sequels/prequels/reboots. I get that; I just don’t
    get how the internet plays into this. Companies always and only ever
    care about money. Remember the 1980s where Transformers, GI Joe and
    other ‘Toyetic’ shows filled the screen? Remember the early 1990s with
    their crop of derivative sequels and knock-offs of successful films?
    That was before the internet.
    Companies go back to known franchises
    because they know there’s a build in audience. Original films (such as
    Jupiter Ascending) have an element of risk in them. Companies exist to
    make money, and it’s hardly the internet’s fault if that is their goal.
    Also, since now people have so much access to social media, if people
    didn’t like it surely we’d see a backlash?

    As for Star Wars, I’m
    sure you remember the hype and expectation leading up to Phantom Menace.
    Similar situation, in a time before much internet, and people were
    still excessively hyped over it. We all remember the news stories of
    people queuing around the block for tickets, so I’m not really seeing
    the difference.

    You are not happy with the established Hollywood
    system. That’s fair, and I’m not a huge fan of it either, but blaming
    ‘the internet’ seems misdirected. Your last point is the most on target,
    but it’s not the internet which caused them to love money, it was the
    success of the existing system in delivering it. A system which goes
    back to the 1980s and beyond.

  • raital

    greed killed movies. when star wars and jaws came out studios realized how much money could be made, before that a movie that made 100 mill was almost unheard. so they were happy to make smaller movies and make smaller profits. as much as lucas and speilburg made great stuff early on, they transformed the whole industry. in order to get those huge profits they had to dumb down the material to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. now its been going on for so long hardly anyone remembers when films made u think.
    ask most folks and they dont remember anything older than 6 months ago.

    • Awesome Welles

      Hi, sorry to reply to an old post. Just thought I’d let you know that a lot of the guys who were banned from aicn are over at The Man Who Saved Movies now in case you hadn’t heard.