Laid-Off Movie Critics, the New ‘In’ Focus Group

A new venture pays out-of-work film critics $100 to weigh in on arthouse films


Hollywood has found an inventive use for all those unemployed movie critics out there: focus groups.

The online research company OTX and public relations group mPRm have joined forces to create Critical Focus Exchange, a service in which critics and film reporters offer their expertise to producers and studios looking for feedback on niche and arthouse movies.

The service uses the statistics-based methodology that Hollywood has relied on for more than two decades to test movies, trailers and posters in order to predict consumer choices.

Now the idea is to provide independent producers and niche moviemakers with a similar research tool.

“We know that a ‘definite recommend’ score at a screening results in a real multiple at the box office,” said Kevin Goetz, president of OTX Worldwide Motion Picture Group, in an interview with TheWrap. “Why not take the same idea and bring it into the world of critical response?”

It will also provide a small income for a number of out of work, or freelance, critics. (They’ll get $100 per screening.)

Mark Pogachefsky, a veteran indie film publicist, came up with the concept a year ago, when many critics he knew were being laid off. “I thought, ‘How can we take advantage of all that expertise and create a business around it?” he said.

Dozens of the nation’s most prominent movie critics have been laid off or induced to retire in the past few years – their profession killed by the Tomatometer and the armchair blogger.

Among the prominent names that are steadily disappearing are Leah Rozen soon-to-be formerly of People, Michael Wilmington, formerly of The Chicago Tribune, Scott Foundas ex of the LA Weekly, Jack Mathews former N.Y. Daily News, Glenn Kenny ex of Premiere, Stephen Hunter, the Pulitzer-winning ex-critic of The Washington Post. (Update: Rozen writes to say she took a voluntary buy-out, and will be there until the end of the year. People intends to keep a full-time critic, she says.)

“I have no agenda to employ out-of-work critics,” said Goetz. “My motivation is to help our clients.“

Goetz said he grew convinced that he could create a statistically significant sample of critics’ opinions based on groups of 10 to 20 critics in New York and Los Angeles.

They declined to name the critics participating in the panels, but said many of them were well-known freelancers or currently unemployed.

The screenings, which have been tested over the past six months, will be aimed at movies that are seeking distribution. Critics, who remain anonymous in research results, fill out standardized questionnaires similar to those of participants in classic focus groups.

Among the questions they anwer are:

*Would you definitely recommend to your readers?
*Does this movie have awards potential?
*Is this movie appropriate for festivals, mainstream movie houses or indie houses?
*Who are your favorite characters?
During the testing period of the past six months, the concept has won some admirers.
“I believe that to keep independent film alive, you need to depend on critical response,” said Liesl Copland, who with Graham Taylor runs the William Morris Endeavor independent film division. “We need this desperately. If we had relied on the Variety review of ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ to sell the film, we’d never have made a deal.”
But not everyone is enamored of the concept. There’s such a small percentage of movies where critics matter,” said Patrick Goldstein, columnist at the L.A. Times. “So, sadly, it’s for a very narrow slice of movies. They matter for Oscar movies or occasionally adult drama. I’m a skeptic.”
“I wouldn’t think of doing it,” said Joe Morganstern, veteran critic at The Wall Street Journal.  “Because then I become part of the merchandizing machine. It’s what I’ve resisted all my life. I value my independence. My independence is what I’ve got to sell, as much as my knowledge.”
Still, he observed, “I can’t judge anyone else’s need to survive and sell their knowledge.”
Pogachefsky and his partner Rachel McAllister said that no critics at national newspapers were part of the focus groups, but that many might be writing about the films later on. They would have to agree to see the film again in order to write about it critically.
The screenings cost $10,000 each, tailored more to the budgets of the indie world than the hundreds of thousands of dollars that are commonly spent on big-budget movies.
Goetz disputed that this is applicable to a small number of movies. The critical focus screenings would be of use, he estimated, for about 300 of the 600-some movies released annually, and for an additional number of films that will be seeking distribution.
But Morganstern, while skeptical, found the concept oddly heart-warming.
”I can’t resist saying I’m touched that people want our opinions these days, “ he said. “It’s the best news of the day.”
Here’s a full list of recently unemployed critics, courtesy of Sean Means at the Salt Lake City Tribune.
1. Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times, buyout, 2006
2. Steve Ramos, Cincinnati CityBeat, position eliminated, April 2006
3. Margaret A. McGurk, Cincinnati Enquirer, reassigned, spring 2006
4. Jami Bernard, New York Daily News, contract not renewed, May 2006
5. Philip Wuntch, Dallas Morning News, buyout, fall 2006
6. Bonnie Britton, Indianapolis Star, reassigned, fall 2006
7. Dennis Lim, Village Voice, laid off, October 2006
8. Michael Atkinson, Village Voice, laid off, October 2006
9. Mark Burger, Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal, laid off, November 2006
10. Barbara Lester, CityLink (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.), position eliminated, early 2007
11. Bob Ross, Tampa Tribune, laid off, April 2007
12. Robert Denerstein, Rocky Mountain News, buyout, May 2007
13. Phoebe Flowers, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, reassigned, May 2007
14. Dave Gathman, Elgin (Ill.) Courier-News, staff reorganization, May 2007
15. Eleanor Ringel Gillespie, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, buyout, summer 2007
16. Jack Garner, Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle, retired, June 2007
17. Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune, quit, July 2007
18. Rob Nelson, City Pages (Minneapolis-St. Paul), position eliminated, August 2007
19. Matt Soergel, Florida Times-Union, reassigned, October 2007
20. Bruce Westbrook, Houston Chronicle, buyout, October 2007
21. Terry Lawson, Detroit Free Press, buyout, December 2007
22. Jack Mathews, New York Daily News, retired, December 2007
23. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader, retired, December 2007
24. Ed Bradley, Flint (Mich.) Journal, buyout, January 2008
25. David Elliott, San Diego Union-Tribune, laid off, January 2008
26. Jan Stuart, Newsday, buyout, March 2008
27. Gene Seymour, Newsday, buyout, March 2008
28. Bruce Newman, San Jose Mercury News, reassigned, March 2008
29. Mary F. Pols, Contra Costa Times/Oakland Tribune, buyout, March 2008
30. Nathan Lee, Village Voice, laid off, March 2008
31. David Ansen, Newsweek, buyout, March 2008
32. Kevin Crust, The Los Angeles Times, buyout, March 2008
33. Glenn Kenny, Premiere, terminated, May 2008
34. Stephen Hunter, The Washington Post, buyout, May 2008
35. Desson Thomson, The Washington Post, buyout, May 2008
36. Hap Erstein, The Palm Beach Post, buyout, July 2008
37. Lance Goldenberg, Creative Loafing (Tampa Bay), laid off, August 2008
38. Bruce Bennett, New York Sun, paper ceases publication, October 2008
39. S. James Snyder, New York Sun, paper ceases publication, October 2008
40. Craig Outhier, East Valley Tribune (Mesa, Ariz.), laid off, October 2008 (effective January 2009)
41. Eric Harrison, Houston Chronicle, buyout, October 2008
42. Carina Chocano, The Los Angeles Times, laid off, October 2008
43. Betsy Pickle, Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel, laid off, November 2008
44: Glenn Whipp, Los Angeles Daily News, laid off, December 2008
45: Ella Taylor, LA Weekly, laid off, January 2009
46: Andy Klein, LA CityBeat, laid off, January 2009
47: Melissa Anderson, Time Out New York, laid off, January 2009
48: Larry Ratliff, San Antonio Express-News, laid off, January 2009
49: Bob Strauss, Los Angeles Daily News, reassigned, February 2009
50: William Arnold, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, laid off (paper folded to online only), March 2009
51: Soren Andersen, The News-Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.), buyout, March 2009
52: Daniel Neman, Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch, laid off, April 2009
53: Lawrence Toppman, Charlotte Observer, reassigned, April 2009
54: Ruthe Stein, San Francisco Chronicle, buyout, April 2009
55: Phil Villareal, Arizona Daily Star (Tucson), reassigned, May 2009