Analyzing The Last Two Decades of Online Film Criticism

Image via Moriel

There was the end of an era, recently. CHUD.com, the irreverent movie news and reviews website run by Nick Nunziata since 1997, closed in March. The site spawned several notable writers, most infamously the contentious figure Devin Faraci, formerly of Birth.Movies.Death, but had been under the radar for several years. As it turns out, however, Nunziata had been been building a new website. 

“When I ran CHUD I vowed to do it until the death,” says Nunziata. “But in order to keep it going I had to make a lot of choices that were geared around paying the staff and covering the increasing operating costs. That cost freedom and the ability to allow it to be a fun and easy part of life. Some of those choices ended up being the wrong ones and it was obvious that the site had to ride off into the sunset.”

Trouble City is the new website, sharing a very similar ethos to CHUD of humor and movies, but with its own twist. “Trouble City is my compromise,” Nunziata explains. “The decades of content and community is able to continue but without the constraints of business. No ads. No partnerships. No X-factors. We’ll probably have minimal crowdfunding to cover some costs but otherwise it’s a low impact way to keep the dream alive.” That community is a message board that once served as a kind of hub for the online film community as a whole, with such members as writer/director Kurt Wimmer (Equilibrium); Phil Nobile Jr., who is now the Editor-in-Chief of the newly resurrected Fangoria; and Drew McWeeny, the film critic once known as Moriarty, formerly of Ain’t It Cool News, HitFix, and currently The Tracking Board. That hub has long since moved on, however, to Film Twitter, a corner of the social media platform that's been carved out for “hot takes,” arguments about what is and isn’t problematic, and the occasional good-natured discussion. 

Turns out it's emotionally draining to write a memoir, and you don't necessarily get the closure you were hoping for when you started.

Strangely enough, this evolving internet landscape hasn’t gotten much macro consideration. In two decades, print has all but died and film writers have consequently migrated online, butting up against the Wild West propagated by Harry Knowles and Nunziata. That ebb and flow has been the anarchic amateurism of online writers going pro and, in the case of the recent LA Weekly layoffs, some professionals getting forced out. All of this roiling and turmoil has made for a tumultuous community rocked by scandal in recent years.

Within that ecosystem is a divide between fans and critics. This can be seen with the narrative perpetuated online that critics are paid to give Marvel movies good reviews, or that critics who loved Star Wars: The Last Jedi are out of touch with a fanbase that rejected the movie. On the flip side, there’s the fanboy love of Netflix’s Bright, a movie with a 26% on Rotten Tomatoes. Or, as Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, based on the fanboy-friendly novel by Ernest Cline, put it, “A fanboy knows a hater.” But in the 1990s, in those nascent days of the Internet when AOL was the browser of choice and the erratic sound of a modem dialing up could be the ultimate source of frustration, the critics were the fanboys. 

There is one writer attempting to tackle the subject, and that’s Jeremy Smith. The former Mr. Beaks of AICN, having left that site in August 2015, has also written for The DVD Journal, Collider, CHUD, Birth.Movies.Death. and others, and also published a book, George Clooney: Anatomy of an Actor, released on February 29, 2016. And nearly two years ago he announced he was working on a new book, one that would serve as the “online movie writing world’s Swann’s Way”: When It Was Cool: A Personal Journey Through 20 Years of Online Movie Writing. He calls this a ‘warts-and-all recollection of the rise, stumble, and, in some cases, fall of online movie journalism’s “first wave” (including, but not limited to, AICN, Corona’s Coming Attractions and Dark Horizons)’ that isn’t meant to be mean-spirited, but rather function as a memoir and collection of some of his previous writings. But if Smith is writing about the first wave, that raises the question of how many waves have there been, what wave is online film criticism in right now, and how does CHUD’s passing fit into all this?

Smith started an Indiegogo page in August of 2016, with crowdfunding being a perfect snapshot of the modern online writer. He reached his goal in just three days, and since then has provided nine updates. The last was from December 14, 2017 and says that he finished the book and was editing it in November, although setbacks resulted from controversy over the Austin film critic scene at the time. The last update provided a link to an article of his for Thrillist, about early-Internet scooper SuperShadow, who wholesale made up reports on Star Wars, that he referred to as a “deleted chapter” from the book. The last five months, however, have been radio silence, but Smith assures his readers that the book is on track.

“It's been a battle,” he explains, and goes on to say:

I set out to quickly jot down the WHAT JUST HAPPENED of online movie writing, and found the glib tone at odds with my true feelings about our role in shaping online journalism. We really screwed up. I've taken two brief mental health breaks from the book (not a joke!) just to get my bearings, deal with unexpected life stuff and reflect on my conclusions. Is this how I really feel? Am I comfortable saying ‘this’ about ‘x person’? That kind of thing. Turns out it's emotionally draining to write a memoir, and you don't necessarily get the closure you were hoping for when you started.

So with that in mind, one wonders exactly what was the role of these first wavers in shaping online journalism, and why Smith thinks they screwed up. It’s also important to create a timeframe for that first wave, and consider the waves since. In this humble author’s opinion, the first wave ends with McWeeny leaving his pseudonym behind in December 2008 to write for the newly formed HitFix. This set a precedent of writers once known for their renegade status going legitimate. This was the same McWeeny, after all, who was banned from Skywalker Ranch and once got J.J. Abrams’s Superman movie shut down due to a bad script review.

McWeeny’s defection was followed by Devin Faraci leaving CHUD in 2010 to help form Badass Digest (what would eventually become Birth.Movies.Death), and a mass exodus of A.V. Club staff over to The Dissolve in 2013. The A.V. Club, having started in 1993 as the entertainment section of satirical newspaper The Onion, started gaining its own air of respectability after a website redesign in 2005 grew its online identity. Nevertheless, Keith Phipps, Scott Tobias, Nathan Rabin, Genevieve Koski, Tasha Robinson, and Noel Murray all left the A.V. Club for The Dissolve, filling a particular niche for a website with an academic approach to movies.   

If The Dissolve’s formation was a major turn toward credibility, its shuttering on July 8, 2015 was the start of another paradigm shift. The Dissolve represented a pushback against lists, clickbait and articles designed just for headlines to be read, a preemptive response to “fake news,” but its demise signaled the breakdown of websites defined by a community of personalities. McWeeny, one of the original internet journalism personalities, was fired from HitFix a little over a year later in September 2016. A month after that scandal rocked Birth.Movies.Death, leading to Faraci’s stepping down, and what followed was a domino effect within the Los Angeles-Austin film community, with Harry Knowles taking a hiatus from AICN and Andy Signore fired from Screen Junkies. As that whole situation has been given its due by better writers than me, I’ll defer to them and, hopefully, Smith within the pages of his book.

This was followed by CHUD itself shutting down. There was no scandal involved; it simply hadn’t been updating regularly for a while, and was a decade past making waves across the Internet. Smith remembers that time, a period in his life when he had left AICN in 2005 for Collider but hadn’t yet returned to AICN as he would in 2008, as that was when he wrote for CHUD. “Nick Nunziata and Devin Faraci saved my life when they asked me to write for CHUD,” he says. “I was beyond broke after the nearly two years I'd given to co-creating and launching Collider, and had no idea what I was going to do for money. Nick set me up with my first regular paycheck as a writer, and I had a blast writing for the site—even though I now cringe at some of the mean-spirited news stories I churned out on the daily.”

Nunziata himself has this to say about the current state of things, what can reasonably be called the third wave of online film criticism, and how Trouble City can never really recreate CHUD. “As for the state of film criticism, it’s actually a good thing the site is no longer responsible for keeping food on the table,” he says. He continues:

Today a “loudest voice in the room” or Devil’s Advocate policy seems to override the old method, which was to write for your audience. To be a tool and asset. Entertain, but write for them. Not your peers. Not your brand. But to give people the tools to justify the ever-increasing cost of tickets or discs or whatever LEGAL means used to enjoy cinema. It’s a young man’s game but it’s obvious that there needs to be a reckoning soon. If content is king, it’s time to take it away from the court jesters.

Nunziata’s thoughts give voice to a first waver that has seen the goalposts moved to a degree that has left the playing field almost recognizable. Still, with Smith’s book there is at least the promise that the past won’t be forgotten. “I have no idea what Nick’s trying to do with Trouble City, but I wish him luck,” says Smith. “I’ll always be grateful to him for giving me free rein as a writer, and, of course, keeping my ass out of the poorhouse in 2007.”

As for when When It Was Cool will be released, Smith says that it will be soon. “It will be out this summer (shooting for a couple of weeks before Comic Con; my backers will get it first), and I'm both excited and terrified for people to read it.”

Bart Bishop

Column by Bart Bishop

A professor once told Bart Bishop that all literature is about "sex, death and religion," tainting his mind forever. A Master's in English later, he teaches college writing and tells his students the same thing, constantly, much to their chagrin. He’s also edited two published novels and loves overthinking movies, books, the theater and fiction in all forms at such varied spots as CHUD, Bleeding Cool, CityBeat and Cincinnati Magazine. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with his wife and daughter.

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