[Update: The creators of FilmPulse have responded to the tidal wave of criticism leveled at them]
Yesterday, I started seeing a few isolated tweets about a new online show named "FilmPulse" pop up on my Twitter feed. Most of them were incredibly derogatory in nature, so I sought out more information on Google. I couldn't easily find anything, but this morning my colleague Devindra informed me of the details: FilmPulse is ComingSoon's attempt at a new video film talk show "focused entirely around today's hottest and most interesting topics." ComingSoon is a pretty big, heavily-trafficked website, so any attempt that they made into the film commentary/media space was going to be closely watched. In this case, I think the amount of attention went far beyond their expectations.
The first episode just debuted on Tuesday, April 19th, and people had some pretty strong opinions about it. Legendary blogger Anne Thompson was no fan, and Quint from Ain't It Cool News declared that if AICN had launched a similar show, he would have quit. Even the commenters at ComingSoon didn't seem to enjoy it. One of them wrote, "This is the worst thing I have ever seen on the internet, and I saw a video of that American hostage being decapitated in Iraq."
Let me preface the following by saying that I pretty much never write about other podcasts/shows unless it's to praise them (look through the archives of this blog and you'll hopefully see that I've consistently held to this). I believe that as professionals, it does us no good to tear each other down. That being said, the intense interest and hatred for this show leads me to make an exception, and to try to critically evaluate what is it about this show that inspired such a strong reaction.
I've watched the entire 15-minute episode, which consists of a 3-minute discussion between two unnamed hosts about film ranking service Flickchart, followed by a 12-minute interview with Morgan Spurlock with one of the hosts (Update: As Will Goss points out in the comments below, they are actually named with a quick lower-third at around 3 minutes into the show. Their names are Vic and Julian). Let's take these segments one by one, starting with the latter:
The Spurlock Interview - This is a fairly boiler-plate interview with Spurlock, who is almost always a dynamic speaker. I found nothing particularly offensive about the interview and it seemed as though the interviewer actually took the time to do a little research into Spurlock's career and tried to ask some probing questions. It's not the best interview I've ever watched with Spurlock, but there is very little that makes this interview worse than what dozens of film/entertainment journalism outlets put out on a weekly basis (except maybe for the host's egregious mispronunciation of the word "meta").
The Flickchart segment - This is really what seems to be generating much of the controversy for the show. FilmPulse begins with a rambling 3-minute discussion of how films are ranked, leading to an endorsement of FlickChart. One tweeter remarked that "according to FilmPulse, pre-90s films have no cultural relevancy/artistic merit. I'd have a joke about that but it makes me too fuckin angry." So what did they say that was so offensive? Here's a rough transcript of how it opens:
Host #1: When someone recommends a movie, there's a few things you can do to avoid wasting an hour and a half of your time. First point is, is that film privileged as a classic? Is that the context in which the recommender heard of the film? If so, they may be privileging it because it would be politically correct to do otherwise.
Host #2: I think the problem is that we were born at a time when films were getting really interesting. I think there was a lot of really interesting independent filmmaking going on in the early '90s and we were around for that. Before that, if you actually watch some movies from the '70s that are considered classics like Bullitt or The French Connection, they're incredibly boring to people our age because we saw The Matrix when we were 10.
Host #1: And IMDB reflects the trends of those '70s films particularly strongly. Those were very likely rated by people who saw it when it came out. If I saw a black-and-white film today, it would knock my socks if that's all I had to compare it against.
Host #2: ...it's a new generation. It's time for the next generation of voices.
Host #1: That leaves room for a tool that actually does a better job of ranking, leaving out the cultural aspect. And that would be Flickchart...
There are a couple of things in this exchange that are worth noting. First of all, the hosts never actually say that they subscribe to the views of this "new generation." But they do strongly imply it. It's this kind of tone deafness that I think internet film writers are lashing out against. From a presentational standpoint, you only have one chance to make a good first impression. If you devote the first two minutes of your first episode to explaining why the knuckle-dragging yahoos from your generation (which you heavily hint that you are a part of) think some of the sacred cows of film history are "boring," you are probably going to catch a lot of crap from it.
What's sad is this: the hosts kind of had a point! The generation of today DOES view films differently. They do expect more flash, more action, quicker edits, better special effects, and so on. But rather than delving into the root causes of this, or evaluating this from a normative perspective, the hosts focus on how to give people what they want, i.e. how to use a service (Flickchart) to circumvent conventional wisdom about classic films. That's what people find so galling about this opening salvo.
More broadly, I believe the hate against these guys highlights a number of trends. Online film critics are constantly fighting an uphill battle in the realm of legitimacy and credibility. Can quality film criticism still survive in the internet age? Several prominent film critics have decried the democratizing power of the internet, how it gives a megaphone to anyone with an opinion, and how it financially rewards those with attention rather than those with quality. The sight of these two hosts discussing the datedness of black and white films was a direct provocation for these people. After their brutal criticisms were out in the open, the bandwagon-hopping was swift and brutal.
Beyond that, FilmPulse's first episode, and the furor surrounding it, is instructive in terms of how difficult it is to make a good show as a general matter. From the outset, one needs to be able to answer the question: why should the audience care about what you are about to say? The most unequivocal thing I can say about this show is that the hosts failed to adequately answer that question. That being said, I speak from experience when I say that starting a show is a tricky, difficult, harrowing proposition. If you heard my first podcasts, you'd probably opt never to listen to me again. But that's what is so great about content-creation: it's always a process of refinement, of bettering oneself and one's product. It's this learning experience that makes the whole enterprise so exciting. And it's why I can forgive even the crappiest of first episodes, so long as you learn from your mistakes and try to move on.
Will these guys get a second chance to do the same? Only time will tell. Here's their initial episode. Judge for yourself.