Stream ’Just Seen It’ - Film Criticism circa 2013
On September 4, 1975, two Chicago film critics - the late Gene Siskel and the late Roger Ebert - began a movie review show on PBS called "Opening Soon at a Theater Near You." It was only on locally in Chicago and aired once a month. In 1977 it was renamed as "Sneak Previews" and began airing biweekly. By 1979 it was on every week on over 180 PBS stations around the country and, at the time, was the highest rated weekly entertainment series in the history of public broadcasting. The show changed names and formats over the years and ran until 1995. "Sneak Previews" made household names of Siskel and Ebert and their trademark "thumbs up/thumbs down" rating system entered the public consciousness as "the" way to give a film a good or bad overall rating.
Over the years, other movie review shows (with Siskel & Ebert and without) ran on a variety of different networks. But with the advent of the internet, movie reviews could be given by anyone at any time, regardless of his or her background or schooling. Suddenly, everyone could have his own forum for giving an opinion on film. Which is pretty great. But as a result, the weekly television review show seemed to be headed toward extinction.
That is, until David Freedman (co-creator of "Moviefone") had the bright idea to enter the marketplace again. "I was sitting at a USC café," Freedman explained, "listening to three film students who had just seen a movie (for the life of me I cannot remember it), but they were very passionate in their arguments about it and that sparked the idea for "Just Seen It."
The little show that could
The show started as a small web-series filmed entirely in Freedman’s Baldwin Hills, California home and populated by USC Film Students. Week after week the reviewers would go to the movies and then come back to discuss them in what became six to seven minute segments where three reviewers gave their opinion on the film. But in 2012 it all changed. By creating a thirty-minute show, Freedman pitched the series to local public broadcasting station PBS SoCal who agreed to air the show in the Southern California market. The show was a hit; so much so that a mere four months later the show went nationwide. It started small, but as of today, it airs on 200 PBS channels across the country in 92 markets and in 35 states. In essence, "Just Seen It" has become the little show that could. And nostalgically seems to be mimicking the success of the legendary Siskel and Ebert show.
I met one of the reviewers - Liz Manashil, a USC Directing graduate - at a screening of the Russell Brand animated comedy "Hop." Bright and funny, she quickly befriended me and told me about the show. Shortly after, she asked if I wanted to be a guest reviewer on the show. I was thrilled, but giving one’s opinion on camera and without a script is a bit daunting. Written reviews -- which are what I do here for EDGE -- are a different animal. You have time to figure out how to formulate your opinion and word it in the best possible way to get your point across. Live on camera is a different story. You have to battle with two other people for sound-bite time, and sometimes your opinions get knocked down right on the spot. Also, conversations can last anywhere from ten to twenty minutes, but in editing they get cut down to six or seven minutes which means some of your points can be left on the cutting room floor. But honestly, that’s the fun of it.
’See It,’ ’Stream It,’ or ’Skip It’
About nine months later and after a few guest spots, Freedman asked me to join the already diverse cast. Cast members come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, ages, and fields of study. The one thing we all have in common is that they all love film. The cast and crew of "Just Seen It" -- a fantastic bunch of people -- make coming onto the set every week an enormously fun time.
Conversations off-set rarely go to anything else but what movies people have seen, what they love or hate, and there’s generally someone somewhere off quoting a favorite line of dialogue. "The best thing about [the show] is hanging out with my fellow reviewers and crew members," said Reviewer Aaron Fink, a USC Sound Design graduate. "They are some of the brightest and most hilarious people I know."
But as much as it can be fun and games on the set, we are serious about what we do. The "Just Seen It" rating system is a "See It / Stream it/ Skip It." Manashil explained the philosophy behind the gimmick. "Often I look at ’See It,’ ’Stream It,’ or ’Skip It’ as reflections of Thumbs Up, Thumbs in the Middle, and Thumbs down," she explained. "I don’t often think of the medium in terms of how I’m rating a film. If a film is a high quality film, support it by going to see it in the theaters. It has nothing to do with seeing it on a big screen. It has nothing to do with big budget spectacle or CGI or giant robots that need to be projected at a larger than life size. In the end it comes down to money. Do you want to give full price to something? Half price to something? Or avoid it altogether?"
Film students forever?
The cast of the show consists of about nine regular cast members with guest critics from various local media outlets such as Scott Mantz from "Access Hollywood" and Zorianna Kitt from "The Huffington Post. " Films are reviewed with a three-person cast and are constantly rotated and mixed up.
Initially, Freedman sought out his cast by putting out a broadcast message to film students at USC to see who wanted to audition for the show. "I knew we would not be film students forever and would start working in the industry," stated Freedman. "I believed that having industry professionals as reviewers would bring a fresh perspective to the reviews which has proven, two and a half years later, to be the case."
In fact, most of the cast has worked or does work in the industry in some way. Twenty-two-year-old Brenna Smith is an actress who recently appeared in the film "21 and Over." Manashil just completed directed her first independent film, and yours truly sold a screenplay a few years back and has been navigating that world ever since. Everyone has his goals and dreams, but in the meantime we are all happy relishing in the fact that we get to see amazing movies and talk about it in a public forum, something we do on a regular basis anyway.
Is film criticism relevant?
But the question remains: Is film criticism even relevant anymore in a day when a simple Google search can come up with hundreds of YouTube videos of people offering their thoughts on the latest releases?
"When a million laymen are all shouting their opinions into the internet ether," offers Smith, "it’s difficult to decide who to listen to or why their opinion is anymore valid then the next shouting madman. With the right credentials, professional reviews take out the guess work of ’why should I listen to you?’"
Leah Aldridge, who has a BA in English Lit and Creative Writing, an MFA in Screenwriting, and is a PhD Candidate in Cinematic Arts Critical Studies, proposes that film critics try to present an informed (based on research and/or education) and objective approach to analyzing film that shouldn’t shy away from including personal opinion. "On the contrary," Aldridge points out, "this should provide the professional critic with a curiosity about what sparked [their personal] reactions. Then those emotional responses should be appropriately integrated. For example, politically for me, "The Help" is a highly problematic film both thematically and formally (it’s just visually boring). But the fact that so many folks loved it and that I shed a tear at one point doesn’t mean that the filmmakers weren’t effective in their storytelling. So I can’t just dismiss the film outright without acknowledging that the filmmakers are emotionally effective at making moving melodrama."
Vitriol on full display
The problem with including personal opinion is that, well, everyone has one, critic or non-critic. So, the vitriol of the internet can be on full display when a "Just Seen It" reviewer doesn’t have a popular opinion. For example, a recent "Skip It" verdict by reviewer Sean Wright, a USC Directing graduate, inflamed the ire of fan-boys all over the net when he didn’t like the Sci-Fi actioner "Pacific Rim." Even though the film hadn’t even come out yet. It certainly can have an effect on the reviewer, but that’s not always a bad thing. "It depends on the criticism that they give," posited Fink. "If a comment has a constructive point, I will absolutely listen to it and do my best to incorporate it into the way I analyze and talk about films. If the comments are negative and unhelpful, it’s best to just ignore them." Wright, however, tends to ignore it. "You don’t know who they are or why they are saying things. It’s likely most of them are 12 or 13 year-old boys who haven’t developed any sort of educated opinion."
So what is the role of a professional critic? For me, I use my background within the industry and my skills as a screenwriter to judge a film by how successfully it engaged me or told a story. Let’s face it, we all have opinions and I try to make sure - even if I’m regarded as a professional reviewer - to keep in mind that I have my own personal taste. I can look at a film that I dislike and see that some people will enjoy it. Smith agrees. "There have been times when it’s difficult to stick to the ’Just Seen It’ rubric, particularly when I have to review a film of a genre I’m not particularly fond of. Sometimes I have to say ’this film is not my thing, but it has merits and fans of this type of film will enjoy it, so see it.’"
Aldridge adds: "Films and TV shows are a product that is consumed by the public like any other product. My role as a critic is to wade through what’s out there and communicate to the consumer whether it’s worth their time and money by offering a reasoned analysis based on a criteria that is as objective as possible."
Being a critic, being objective, having a responsibility to a loyal viewing audience... these are all factors a critic needs to take into consideration when watching film. For many of us, film is an obsession. It is what we live and breathe, and it comes from a place that began when we were young; when that one movie changed our lives and made us forever a slave to the medium. So has that changed the way we look at movies now that we see them as part of a career? "I judge films in a much stricter way than I used to," reflected Fink.
Smith adds, "The biggest effect is how friends and family interact with me about films. Now, they come to me for a private review of a film just for them when they’re trying to choose a film, or conversely they ask me about a film after they’ve seen it in an attempt to evaluate their personal critiques in relation to a ’professional’s.’"
Clearly there is still a desire from the general public to seek out the opinions of the well-informed and well-regarded film reviewer. It is what starts the buzz and gets people talking. And whether you watch on the internet or on television, the excitement about movies, the fun of "knowing what people think first" and the lively debate it engenders is what film criticism is all about. With "Just Seen It," Freedman and company have brought back a gem of the past, added a dose of modern technology, and look ahead to a hopeful long future. If Siskel and Ebert can run for twenty years on one network, why can’t they? For that, I’d give it a strong "SEE IT!"
"Just Seen It" has just started its third season and airs weekly on PBS stations nationwide. Check your local listings for days and times. You can also see them on the web at www.JustSeenIt.com or www.YouTube.com/JustSeenItReviews