Critics fall, masses of amateurs rise

Roger Ebert wants to keep "At the Movies," the syndicated TV show he started with the late Gene Siskel, alive in some form. I wish him luck. I would hate to hear "The balcony is closed" for the last time.

I say this not just because I like movies but also because I like knowledgeable and reliable critics, including the ones with whom I reliably disagree.

Unfortunately, good critics are an endangered species. ABC-Disney has cancelled "At the Movies," co-hosted in this final season by Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune and A.O. Scott of The New York Times, as of Aug. 1. Variety, the venerable show-biz newspaper, says it will keep running reviews but laid off its two best-known critics, chief film critic Todd McCarthy and chief theater critic David Rooney.

Elsewhere, newspapers are cutting back or eliminating book review sections and even book reviews. Throw in Conde Nast's decision last fall to close superstar food writer Ruth Reichl's Gourmet magazine, and you see a dire trend.

Blame the usual suspect, the Internet. Just as it has put book, record and video stores out of business, the Web also is grinding away at the very notion that critics should be respected for credentials and experience that show they actually know what they're talking about.

The Internet offers an abundance of amateur critics on sites such as Amazon, iTunes or Rotten Tomatoes.

The results can be interesting. Sandra Bullock's "The Blind Side," for example, scored higher with the amateurs than it did with the pros, an accurate reflection of how much more her Oscar-winning performance touched Middle America's hearts than it touched the professional reviewers.

Fair enough. A variety of opinions makes the world go around and enriches consumer choices. But if box office appeal alone determined quality, slasher flicks like "Saw V" would be in Oscar contention every year.

Good film critics want better than that. The paradox critics face is that the bigger a film's budget, the less difference their reviews of it make. Blockbusters like "Avatar" have publicity and distribution budgets as large as their production budgets. Critics? They don't need no bleepin' critics.

But it is the small-but-earnest effort like "The Hurt Locker," the little low-budget movie about a bomb-disposal team in Iraq, for which critics can make a big difference. Hollywood doesn't normally make movies that take chances, like "The Hurt Locker" did to tell a sympathetic, close-to-real-life story about a squad of U. S. soldiers in Iraq, that doesn't turn into sentimental schmaltz or an over-the-top Rambo action flick. But attention from critics who viewers trusted helped "The Hurt Locker" get exposure and eventually an upset victory in the Oscar race for "best picture."

A disturbing Internet-age trend is revealed in the fall of professional critics and the rise of what author Andrew Keen warned is "The Cult of the Amateur" in a book with that title. The rise of amateurs in various walks of life, empowered by the Internet, can lead to the slippery slide to "idiocracy." I detect we are creeping closer by the day.

Contact Page, a Chicago Tribune columnist, at cpage@tribune.com.