What follows is the raving of a movie webmaster whose most relevant and sharp years are behind him.
We evolve. We’re forced to. Sometimes it’s outside circumstances and others it’s because the status quo is something that is very hard to embrace. We don’t know a good thing when we’ve got it and the nature of the internet is one of rapid change and shifts in what the audience wants.
Running a movie website [CHUD is not a blog] is a privilege. It’s a special thing to be able to have our words reach a sizable group of people and have it entertain, infuriate, or at least help pass the time of complete strangers. When you’ve been doing it for as long as I have it’s also a gauntlet, and there are many situations where you have to not only question why you’re doing it but also how the business keeps shooting itself in the foot while sites like mine take our medicine with little or no fuss. Now more than ever the entertainment business doesn’t “get” sites like this one. Granted, despite our duration on the scene and reliability, CHUD’s not one of the sites that gets massive traffic or is on the tips of people’s tongues when they discuss movies and the internet. We’re a brand, but a niche one. Like that fun record shop that sticks around or the beat up little movie theater that has the decency to play great old horror movies. We’re in a great place to observe change without very much participating in it.
There are sites they in the “business” do get, but that usually entails unfair compromises, favoritism, and the inability to see the big picture. We’re in a weird place now when it comes to the relationship between “fan” sites and the business we cover. The “if you can’t beat them, join them” rhetoric cannot be any better stated than in the fact that two sites have pretty much become Hollywood’s conduit to the masses. Deadline and Heatvision are basically the official filtration device for Hollywood news gained through normal means. Both of those sites are manned by top notch writers and people and I don’t begrudge them one bit. They do a great job (I am a huge fan of The Hollywood Reporter and I think their site’s design is the best in the business) but it’s hard not to be befuddled that the “system” has allowed this to be when there are assets all up and down the information boulevard.
I am perfectly content to link to these sites on every “official” news item we run (sometimes with a little jab or two, but I save most of that for the annoying Variety), but I think the readers quickly ignore those links after a few visits to the source site. They serve a purpose and there’s no substitute for being that close to the hub of the entertainment world, but my eyes glaze over every time I peruse the RSS feeds of my favorite sites (and I few I hate and begrudgingly visit) and see the massive difference between what they’re able to run and what other sites have to settle for.
In its best days as a scoop site (which is truly not the point of CHUD), we could never aspire to compete with the access and quality of info Deadline and Heatvision have but I wonder how it’s affected other sites who build massive audiences and phenomenal amounts of contacts based on their ability to get scoops. I think Aint it Cool is a big enough brand to survive that kind of change but there are plenty of other hard working and worthwhile sites that must have been affected.
The thing I’ve noticed now (it’s good to get the point in paragraph six, FINALLY) is how many of the sites are covering stuff that previously would have had no place in our editorial visions. Viral videos. Homemade spoofs. Minutia that is at best tangentially connected to what the sites are intended for. The kind of things we’d typically run on our message boards or link from our Facebook accounts. There’s a part of me that feels it’s cheap and beneath many sites (and we’re guilty from time to time with stuff in our ‘Watch it Now’ section) but it’s also survival.
It’s just plain survival.
It’s cheap content and people respond to it, a fact that incenses me. A quick glimpse at the pageviews and comments on our message boards shows much more emphasis on incendiary and lowest common denominator topics than in discussion of actually relevant topics. A discussion on one of, if not the best film of the year (The King’s Speech) simply cannot compete with a discussion about a pop star getting “her box munched”. The same goes for the cheap content I mentioned earlier as I’ve had more people send in “scoops” about a Yogi Bear spoof of The Assassination of Jesse James than any real movie news that we hadn’t yet covered on the site. I wonder how much of it the evolution of the web and how much is that people would much rather see something they can digest quickly and on a superficial level than a very well-written and thoughtful article that the author spent an enormous amount of time creating for their audience. That’s a killer for us here, because it never fails that the things we put a tremendous amount of time into end up getting the least eyeballs.
Renn recently unloaded both barrels into the new Tron movie in a long and sprawling review that I personally found to be one of his better contributions to the site. Yes, it’s long. Yes, it meanders, but this is the work of someone not only emptying their personal feelings for a film that was important to them but it’s actual film criticism. Go to some other movie sites and see what they’re calling reviews. I’m not a great film critic by any stretch of the imagination but at least I review the film without making the review all about me. Hell, I recently was blown away by the grammar errors (and yes we have a lot but they’ll be greatly diminished come January) and lack of depth in a few recent Roger Ebert reviews, so it seems that the work that went into Renn’s article would be appreciated. Understood. A breath of air.
So many sites are falling prey to that willingness to just embrace whatever seems to be tangentially considered content. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; sites are supposed to let their audience define what the site (or blog) ultimately becomes. I just cringe when I see good and original sites falling prey to the Egotastic style of reporting. It marginalizes us and it certainly puts us even farther as a collective away from the safe, reliable, and cozy confines of the Deadlines of the world. The movie studios butted heads against non-corporate websites back in the late 90’s, forged uneasy alliances with them in the early 2000’s, and as we enter 2011 it seems that the studios have it just how they like it. They have their semi-official conduits to the world, sites like mine cover their coverage and review their product, and every once in a while a set visit or junket keeps the wolves at bay. It’s a great set-up for them. For us, I’m not sure. There are amazing reps at the studios who have legitimate relationships with some webmasters that aren’t a front and are actual relationships. The same goes for a lot of the filmmakers, though there are a few big names who are ‘friends’ with webmasters mainly as a means on promoting their product. It’s a weird, ever-changing dynamic but it works. It works because the smaller film companies still have a more natural relationship with the internet. The studios have won the war but the sites have won the key battle: Shining a light on the great movies. There’s always room for the balance to exist as the websites find the gems that aren’t getting forty million dollar ad campaigns. But I think we as a whole have become marginalized.
Tangent/Caveat: I know I’m not “one of them” when it comes to the kinship that exists between the online critics and webmasters. I’m a satellite. I’m not in the circle of folks who lives in Los Angeles and typically CHUD has been repped by folks like Smilin; Jack Ruby in the old days and Devin Faraci in more recent times. I’m the last person who would be considered a voice for the webmasters, at the most recent Comic Con I watched the movie webmaster panel (I was involved in the first two ever done but that was a decade ago) I knew a third of the participants and even then mostly only because they were lifers as well. This is just my relatively cheap perspective on the matter and I wouldn’t be surprised if the rest of the online movie community looked at me and this site as a dinosaur.
I like fun little diversions, as evidenced by my comic strips and other assorted goofy enterprises. I love silly videos as much as the next person. I think there’s a place for them. The site we’re launching in January will have a place for them. This site does silly shit on video, but I think it’s different if you originate the content rather than re-purpose it. And if there’s full disclosure that it’s intended as a quickie and not in lieu of actual content. It really is cheap diversionary stuff at best and though people respond more to it, I think they go a long way towards changing the role and purpose of sites like this.
What are we to be in 2011? Are we just different brands of the same idea? What do we have to do to maintain your interest and loyalty and enthusiasm? I see sites diluting themselves and wonder if it’s a matter of keeping from being burned out or if it’s a direct response to the changing market. I like what CHUD.com is and where it’s going. I like our staff. I like that we try to balance the silly shit with honest-to-goodness in-depth coverage. But there’s no denying that palates change and readers sadly respond to more base and incendiary things than labors of love.
When it comes to the internet, people are getting dumber as a whole. I think there’s a lot of unintentional effort being made to execute that. I think to some extent we have to plan for, deal with, and in some instances cater to that but it certainly doesn’t help that entertainment websites have their work cut out for them now more than ever. It’s hard enough to have a voice and try to reach people with it without being compromised by the compulsion to take all these shortcuts. There are plenty of sites that cater to that sort of content. Ones we could never compete with and there are times when it seems that some sites are basically serving as conduits to the kind of material typically reserved for email forwards from co-workers and family members. There’s a fine line between being a site and a tabloid or worse yet, an aggregator.
There will never be another “Wild West” in relation to movie websites and the business they cover. There will also never be a condition where the audience isn’t savvy enough to know when they’re being had. In many ways we’re in a really fun and interesting new era. One of change for sure. I think in many ways there’s been a very subtle game of chicken being played by movie studios, trades, and privately run websites and blogs and maybe it’s my Quixotic bliss talking but I think we may be in the midst of a storm that shakes some of the loose and low hanging fruit from the tree and restores the vigor and energy of the old days. More voices, more opinions, more community. Less bullshit. less chaff. Less Twittering and more actual writing.
At least that’s what we’ll be doing.