There is nothing new about the “new guard” in movie criticism
The New York Times sent a ripple through the movie zeitgeist with its article “They Review Movies on TikTok, but Don’t Call Them Critics”. The sub-heading of which reads: On MovieTok, reviewers can reach an audience of millions and earn tens of thousands of dollars per post. “Critics,” they say, are old news.
Understandably, established critics and voices found this laughable/offensive/not worth their time/outrageous. Of the TikTokers mentioned in the article—Maddi Moo, Straw Hat Goofy, Cinema Joe, cvnela, Stoney Tha Great, jstoobs, Cameron Kozak, and Sethsfilmreviews—a few were very happy with the recognition and distinction, congratulating themselves, their fellows, and their communities on building something new and fresh.
There were two quotes from Reggie Ugwu’s article that jumped out to me as absurd. That was before I went and watched dozens of videos by each creator. After I did that, the quotes became astounding.
First, from Cameron Kozak: “When you read a critic’s review, it almost sounds like a computer wrote it. But when you have someone on TikTok who you watch every day and you know their voice and what they like, there’s something personal that people can connect to.”
Second, from Stoney Tha Great: “A lot of us don’t trust critics. They watch movies and are just looking for something to critique. Fans watch movies looking for entertainment.”
If critics are old news, untrustworthy, and sound like computers—what are these MovieTokers doing that’s so fresh and astounding?
They’re doing the same thing every other critic does. They like some movies. They dislike others. They talk about it. There’s no unique approach to their reviews. In fact, they offer less depth, less insight, less analysis, and not much in the way of education. Many of the reviews are 95% plot synopsis followed by some form of “I recommend it. Go watch it.”
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think established critics are perfect. Mick LaSalle hated Attack the Block because he didn’t understand the idea of setting up anti-heroes. Wesley Morris won the Pulitzer Prize in criticism the year he wrote a review of Tree of Life that completely missed the point of the film. Rex Reed trashed the movie 50/50 because, and I quote, “the film reveals nothing new about advances in cancer research, addresses no issues like the drug companies that suppress alternative treatments to profit from human suffering.” It’s a movie about how a 27-year-old handles the existential weight of a cancer diagnosis. Not some expose on the cancer-industrial-complex.
As someone who became a film critic because I was so angry at other film critics—I get it. But, come on. “When you read a critic’s review, it almost sounds like a computer wrote it.” Not really. At all. That’s a nonsense statement. Especially when most of the MovieTokers all repeat the same thumbnails and use the same structure to their videos. And the idea that you get to know a TikToker’s voice and what they like? What do you think happens when you follow a specific critic? You don’t think people knew the voice and tastes of Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert?
The thing that bothered me the most wasn’t the review content. Weirdly, the reviews made up only a small portion of what the MovieTok people post. Some did just a few a month. Here are examples of the majority of their posts:
- Who should have played Willy Wonka
- We need a sequel to The Nice Guys
- Door Dash Story
- My First Tequila Shot
- Actors we’ll miss when they retire
- Gwen Stacy’s universe is the best designed universe
- Actors who did voice work for Studio Ghibli
- The best dog breeds ranked
- Movie sequels BETTER than the original
- Come with me to face my biggest fear
- My top jumpscare movies
- What was your gateway horror?
- Pg-13 horror movies
- The greatest movies you’ve (probably) never seen
- 10 “filmbro” movies that deserve all the hype they receive
Those are BuzzFeed headlines. That’s not changing movie discussion or dialogue. It’s taking a style of content that is, at its core, curiosity crack, and applying it to short form movie conversations. There’s nothing wrong with it. But it’s also not some great paradigm shift that’s bringing film discussion back to the people.
Can critics be arrogant and frustrating? Yeah. Are you any better than them? No.
Perhaps the most annoying thing of it all is the fact that every single one of the MovieTok creators do paid promotion for the studios. Every one of them. Even as the article author, Ugwu, likens the MovieTokers to the trailblazing of Truffaut and Godard and elevates them as giants of these times, there is a brief mention of and quote from one those darn critics, Carrie Rickey. “[She] said she refrained from working too closely with studios to avoid even the ‘appearance of impropriety. It would mar my reputation as an independent writer.’”
So, no, the MovieTokers aren’t film critics. They’re content mills farming views to acquire an audience so they can promote products and earn more money than 99% of the people watching the videos. Again, there’s nothing wrong with it. We’re all, in our own way, trying to do the same. And, to be fair, their audiences do discover movies through MovieTok and watch things they otherwise would have skipped. Their content deepens the relationship their fans have with cinema as a whole. That’s great. I’ll always say cheers to that. It’s just not anything more dynamic, loftier, nobler, or less cliche than the average film critic.