Movie Websites Are in a Race to the Bottom

Nick Nunziata, editor-in-chief at CHUD, has written his take on how the role of movie websites has changed over the past decade or so. It rambles a bit, but there are some genuinely good insights about how studios have been increasingly selective about who they grant access to and how they distribute their information to the masses:

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.

There's also a great deal of thinly-veiled contempt for sites (which I assume includes /Film) whose purpose is, at least partially, aggregation:

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. 

I think Nunziata is primarily responding to the nagging feeling that the internet is both getting dumber, and making us dumber. It's hard not to sympathize with this point of view; when some 20-year old is raking it in by posting a photo of a cat who looks like Hitler, while the 2,000 word essay/interview you just slaved over is getting 10 pageviews per hour, the whole of humanity loses something.

But I think Nunziata makes a number of wrong turns in this piece, even if they're not made explicitly. First, there's the unspoken conflation of film news and film criticism, a conflation that seems to occur time and time again in the discourse on this topic.

I have a great deal of respect for the concept that there are experts in certain fields, and that art and culture can be serious areas of study. And while I think we are all learning, some people have clearly been learning for longer than others. We should all revere film expertise, whether we disagree with it or not, and we should all respect the concept that some people may be more equipped to expound about film than others, and that there can be true cultural value in this act of expounding (even though I'd argue there's still some value to throwing around lay-opinions).

But many film websites also choose to write about film news as well (/Film included), and the "news" moniker raises the parallel idea that film websites do "journalism." To quote Maude Lebowski, I think writing about film news can be a fun, zesty enterprise. It can entertain people and stir up lively debate and discussion. However, only in certain instances should this be considered seriously as journalism. What those instances should be is probably worth another post. But will the world really lose out if it doesn't know what your take is on ____ being cast in _____ movie? I'm not so sure.

What I'm trying to say is that film criticism is not the same thing as covering film news. And even though many websites do both, these two things should not be viewed as equals or equally valuable.

The second thing I take issue with is the implication (again unspoken - and maybe I'm incorrect in how Nunziata feels about this) is that there's something wrong with aggregation. Setting aside the fact that some of the most successful websites on the internet started out as aggregators: I don't know about Nick, but a lot of us got into this because we love films, and we love geeking out about them. Go to slashfilm.com and you'll see film news and movie reviews, but also viral videos and posters. Sure, some of the latter might get more traffic than some of the former. But does that mean our site should be looked down upon? What I love about /Film is that, at its best, it restores in me the joy and excitement of movies. If that's all that a site aspires to, does that make it worthy of scorn and derision? I say no.

Finally, there's the idea in Nick's piece that somehow, external forces have conspired to marginalize movie websites. But it is nowhere written that those with the best writing or the best ideas or the best content should expect to rise to the top. In the wild west of the internet, those that are most successful have been able to combine these elements with business and technological savvy, which allows them to reap page views and revenue. Just because you are old does not mean you have to be irrelevant. Likewise, just because you are the best does not mean you should expect that to be enough.

Update: Nick has responded to this post via Twitter:

Thus, I take back the relevant parts referring to /Film that I've written above. Any misconstrual is my fault, though I think that many of my points still stand.

7 comments :: Movie Websites Are in a Race to the Bottom

  1. I suspect Nick is taking a shot at my new site with that stuff about viral videos.

    As for covering news but not being journalism - well, whether or not it's 'journalism,' we have a duty to our readers to give them:

    - good information
    - properly contextualized
    - with original content

    Running every bullshit story that comes out of Showbiz Spy is breaking rule #1 right off the bat. I've heard people say 'Well, readers like talking about it' - so why not just make up your own rumors? Why would a site run a Batman rumor they know is false but not just make up one. I mean, the readers just want to talk about it, so why have a middle man like Pajiba or Showbiz Spy when you could make this stuff up yourself and get the hits and comments?

    The second part is the other part that is broken all the time. The problem with a huge swath of people writing movie news on the web is that they don't know enough about anything to properly contextualize a story.

    Aggregation is dead. Gawker figured it out - scoops and original content are the future. Aggregation is being taken over by Twitter and Facebook for the regular people and RSS for the savvy people. Follow rules 1 and 2 or end up washed up.

  2. Devin,

    As usual, good points. And for what it's worth, even though we don't always agree on things, we at slashfilm always strive to achieve the "good info - proper context - original content" trifecta, although some parts of it can be challenging (particularly the last bit).

    Regarding your points about Gawker: I would hardly say that aggregation is dead. Scoops and original content are the GROWTH industries, certainly, but I don't think /Film is looking to achieve the same growth as the Gawker network. We don't have a centrally located office, and the site does not offer 401(k) plans or sick/maternity leave (all things that Gawker either has or is looking to have). For sites of our size and ambition, I'm guessing that aggregation will probably work just fine or a long time to come.

  3. Well yeah, aggregation isn't dead right now. But it's over. The graph is downhill now. It may take a year or so, but it's going to become obvious that people are consuming this stuff in new ways.

    The road is littered with sites that didn't keep up; you and I have talked about this all before and more than ever I believe that the next sites to start getting hit are aggregation sites.

  4. I wasn't responding to any site. I just had one of those "oh fuck this is what we've become" kind of moments. I think your piece has some valid points, Chen. No doubt.

  5. Interesting piece. I think a major issue is that you have dozens of movie sites covering the exact same stories every day, and other than reviews or podcasts, there are few to no regular features on movie blogs that make them stand out from the pack. Many of these sites have no personality. Nowadays, even the viral videos are the same on every site. Every now and then the site's writers should share their personalities and views instead of just sharing the news. Offer an opinion on a news item instead of just saying, "Here it is, just like you saw on every other site, now have at it in the comments." What is your site doing that's unique? That's how you're going to stand out and gain reader loyalty.

    I believe (cynically perhaps) that some sites avoid commentary because they don't want to threaten whatever access (interviews, early screenings, set visits) they may have to studios or filmmakers who might frown on bad publicity, even if that criticism will not be read by the vast majority of the moviegoing public and poses no threat to potential box office.

    Future growth will come from those sites that consistently offer more than simply parroting news items that were first reported by industry journalists.

  6. A little late to the party...

    Back when my site was breaking exclusive scoops regularly, I found that it was a lot of hard work to

    a) network
    b) interview/transcribe
    c) write trade news/daily news stories
    d) maintain a healthy work schedule
    e) enjoy a social life

    Which is one -- but not all -- of the reasons why I gave it up.

    Upon coming back onto the online movie scene, I find that things have greatly changed and also not for the better. I see SEO tricks, hit whoring and downplaying of other sites news stories as common tactics used by sites that report geek news. Case in point: any of the Gawker network websites. Take a look at the stories they write up about other sites' exclusives: they usually rewrite 90-95% of the original site's scoop, leaving the reader little reason to check the original article (unless there's a lot of exclusives at the original site, like photos.) Also, the link back to the source comes at the end of the article, not in the body of their article. This also reduces the likelihood for a link back to the original source.

    These are SEO/content tactics and are used to keep visitors on the Gawker network as much as possible. And let's not forget that Denton's whole revenue model is to encourage Gawker writers to make as many pageviews as possible; the writers get paid a sliding scale bonus based on the number of hits their articles get. This leads to writers wanting to pump out as many stories as they can get, which reduces the time they spend on creating their own original articles. Why spend an hour interviewing someone, and then hours to transcribe the interview/beat the article into shape, when you can just plunder all the juicy scoop stuff and repurpose it on your site in 15 minutes or less?

    This business is now dictated by how much traffic a site can get, and anything goes. That's why you're seeing so many easy to write articles go up on these sites and less original and exclusive scoops being delivered. Pageviews = traffic, and most sites will do anything to get that traffic. Why put your heart and soul into something, no matter how much you may love it, if in the end your quality of living will suffer? You burn out, you don't earn enough money to turn this into a professional career, someone else is ripping off your content or playing black hat SEO tactics, your forums get spammed by lowlifes selling penis pills and on and on. So what the fuck do you wind up doing this for? Because you love it so much? Tell that to your landlord when you owe rent, or explain that to your kids when they want to go to college.

    Getting to go to set visits and free DVDs isn't a viable business strategy, but we work in an industry where these things are considered "benefits" and "incentives". Fact: they are not. Try paying your plumber with a copy of THE SOCIAL NETWORK and an exclusive 15 minute interview with David Fincher and see how long your toilet keeps working.

  7. (con't because this blog won't let me post anything over 4096 words)

    I look back at a guy like Rob Worley, and his creation Comics2Film, and I see a prime example of a nice guy finishing last. His was a site that regularly broke exclusives about comic book movies in development. I know from talking to several producers how hard Worley busted his ass to get those contacts and maintain relationships. And what did it get him? This is a guy who, right now, should be enjoying the benefits of his hard work and success. As far as I know, he's just another one of us trying to pay his bills and find success with his writing career. Forget that; C2F was breaking *hundreds* of exclusives and was on the pulse of comic book movies. Worley should be a fat cat and a guy we look to as an example of being an online success story: doing something that you love doing and making a successful living from it.

    This whole online business model for sites like ours is broken, from the site owners/content creators up to the movie studios that won't open their wallets and take out ad buys for websites. We're being used and we're also screwing ourselves over too. And more of us should be complaining about it.

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