Yesterday, my mail consisted of two bills, a DVD from Netflix, a flyer from a local Congresswoman, and a small padded envelope. Inside the envelope was a T-shirt and messenger bag emblazoned with a caricature of Roger Ebert, perks for contributing to the Indiegogo campaign for the documentary about Ebert, Life Itself. The timing was accidental but uncanny; today is the one-year anniversary of Ebert’s death. The great film critic passed away on April 4, 2013 after a long battle with cancer. He was 70 years old.
Ebert’s death prompted an outpouring of grief and remembrances from filmmakers, fans, and other film critics (like me) who’d been inspired and in many cases (like mine) directly encouraged by Ebert. It also sparked a wave of pieces about the shabby state of film criticism; in the International Business Times, Christopher Zara called April 4 “the day film criticism died” and “the end of a profession.” Ebert, Zara said, was “the last of a now-extinct breed: a professional movie reviewer whose opinion actually mattered.”
One year later on the anniversary of Ebert’s death, that conversation is beginning again. On Wednesday, Entertainment Weekly fired Owen Gleiberman, its film critic for more than two decades and a founding member of the magazine’s staff. Days earlier, EW had announced a plan to turn a portion of its site into an online publishing “platform” like the Huffington Post, where unpaid writers can contribute as part of something called “The Community.” Rather than receiving money for their efforts, bloggers will, according to Digiday, “be compensated in the form of prestige, access to the brand’s editors and a huge potential readership.” Do well enough for free at EW, the thinking goes, and someone (who is most likely not Entertainment Weekly) will notice you and pay you to write for them. But the Community guidelines specifically forbid “no self promotion” in anything they publish—because God forbid someone who provides a website with valuable content for free actually try to promote themselves or their hard work.
There is an old expression that seems appropriate here: “you get what you pay for.” Make no mistake: Unpaid writers don’t gain prestige from big publications. Big publications lose prestige when they resort to using unpaid writers—particularly when they do it at the same time they’re laying off their best and most insightful critics. The questionable business decisions of a single company will not make or break the world of film criticism, but these are certainly distressing signs of the times, when chasing traffic has become the most important (if not the only) determining factor for many web magazines’ content. Yesterday at RogerEbert.com, editor Matt Zoller Seitz reacted to the news of Gleiberman’s dismissal by writing an essay about the state of online journalism, where “an eerie mix of bean counting, soul-rot, and page-click pseudo-science gone mad” has warped many outlets’ priorities.
I don’t have any easy solutions for these problems. I do know that when faced with these questions in the last year, I’ve thought a lot about Roger Ebert. On my way out of a great movie, I would find myself wondering what Ebert would have made of it. I wouldn’t presume to know what Ebert’s opinion would have been about any of 2013’s big movies, but I would have loved to have read his reviews of 12 Years A Slave, Gravity, Her, and The Wolf Of Wall Street. Though Ebert notoriously hated making lists, studying his year-end top 10 was one of my favorite December traditions. Last year simply didn’t feel the same without it. We are a poorer film culture now than we were one year ago today.
One of Ebert’s most famous movie mantras was “It’s not what a film is about, it’s how it is about it.” What’s become clear to me on April 4, 2014, in light of all that’s gone on in the last year both good and bad, is that this is not only true of films; it’s true of film criticism as well. We're nearing a day and age when anyone with a computer can write 300 words about Captain America: The Winter Soldier, post them on a site like The Community, and call themselves a film critic for Entertainment Weekly. That’s the what. But now, more than ever, the how is the important part. It’s how that person writes about Captain America—and Under The Skin, and The Unknown Known, and Nymphomaniac, and classic films—that matters.
Roger Ebert didn’t become the most successful film critic of his era because he had a television show or a desk at a major newspaper. He succeeded because of his talent as a writer, his knowledge of the film medium, and his tireless work ethic. He didn’t become beloved because of his wealth and fame. He was beloved because rather than selfishly coveting his lucrative position, he encouraged and nurtured young writers. I’m wearing a shirt with Ebert’s face on it not because of what he did, but because of how he did it. That’s something worth remembering, today and every day.