In this edition of Lon Harris’ weekly Passionfruit column, we’re exploring CriticGate—aka, the recent viral discourse about the blurred distinctions between critics, reviewers, fans, journalists, and MovieTok creators.
A New York Times piece that ran on Tuesday compares conventional critics with “MovieTok” creators, the community of popular and widely-viewed movie fans and influencers on TikTok. In the piece, by pop culture reporter Reggie Ugwu, a number of MovieTok personalities draw purposeful distinctions between the kind of work they do and the more traditional reviews posted by professional writers and film critics.
Virginia Tech senior Maddi Koch, who draws millions of viewers to her film discussion clips, says she doesn’t see herself “in that light” when asked if she’s a movie critic.
21-year-old self-described “reviewer” Cameron Kozak also denies that he’s a critic. “When you read a critic’s review, it almost sounds like a computer wrote it,” Kozak told the Times. “But when you have someone on TikTok who you watch every day and you know their voice and what they like, there’s something personal that people can connect to.”
31-year-old Bryan Lucious, who has over 380,000 followers on his TikTok, said that he doesn’t trust film critics. “They watch movies and are just looking for something to critique,” he said, while “fans watch movies looking for entertainment.”
There really are some very clear distinctions between what people on MovieTok do and conventional film criticism and analysis—the kind you might read in, say, “The New York Times.”
The piece draws attention to one of the key differences between MovieTokers and film critics: sponsorships and brand deals. A journalist reviewing films or TV shows for a newspaper or magazine would never be able to accept such deals from studios, as they would obviously represent a conflict of interest.
As former Philadelphia Inquirer critic Carrie Rickey explains in the Times piece, for a professional journalist, even working in close coordination with the studio can give “the appearance of impropriety,” which could have a negative impact on a critic’s professional reputation.
No such distinction exists on the MovieTok side. While brand deals, sponsorships, and cross-promotional opportunities are not universally available, they are the norm among widely popular creators. Most TikTok creators opt for transparency, and inform their audiences about brand deals in advance, so as not to seem duplicitous. But even an “ad hoc code of ethics” is no replacement for the ironclad separation between reporter and subject that we’ve come to expect from professional journalists.
This is where the Times piece ends, but there are many many more distinctions to be drawn between traditional film critics and the work being done on MovieTok.
Consumer Reports for Movies
On the most abstract level, we’re comparing something that’s deeply practical with a purely intellectual pursuit. MovieTok, along with sites like Rotten Tomatoes and other recommendation engine apps, exist to help people decide what to watch. They’re consumer reports for movies… You only have so much time and so many dollars to spend. What content is going to give you the most entertainment bang for your buck?
But media analysis and cultural studies—the academic pursuits that form the basis for film criticism—aren’t intended as a consumer guide. They’re more akin to essays inspired by a film. A savvy viewer with excellent writing skills and a depth of experience analyzes and breaks down a piece of media, sharing their insights and hopefully helping their readers to appreciate it more or view it in a new way. A great review is like its own distinct artwork, commenting on and enhancing the original work by which it was inspired.
There is a home for some content like this on the social web. YouTube in particular is home to a number of channels that do deep dive, analytical takes on films that are roughly akin to video essays.
But this is also pretty distinct from what the MovieTokers are up to. It’s not a slam on MovieTok that it’s not trying to do what Jean-Luc Godard or Pauline Kael did in their written film reviews. That’s not their goal in the first place!
Putting the ‘Social’ in ‘Social Media‘
It’s also impossible to overlook the inherently communal element of something like MovieTok. TikTok is a social media platform, after all. On MovieTok, the whole point is community building and engagement. The audience takes an active role in watching, liking, sharing, commenting, and evangelizing the content they like. A film critic, on the other hand, works in isolation. They watch a film, they think about it to themselves, they write down their reactions, and it’s published for any potential audience that wants to read it. Everything moves in one direction.
MovieTok creators are producing their content with an audience in mind, focusing on films and observations about those films that are likely to strike a chord with their viewers and produce more engagement and strong, passionate reactions. Consider, as well, how much of their content is produced out of consideration for a recommendation algorithm.
Alternatively, traditional film critics would just go see whatever movies were opening that weekend, with less thought behind what kind of audience those movies were ultimately going to have—for better or worse.
Consciously or not, MovieTok content is produced with a keen awareness of their extremely passionate and opinionated audience, and how these comments are going to be received.
Many MovieTok creators are very up-front about this. Megan Cruz, who posts as “jstoobs” on TikTok, notes that she prefers to give negative reviews in a “compliment sandwich” format, in which she opens and closes with positive remarks to make the criticisms land better. This is not a consideration that would ever occur to a conventional film critic, who like all journalists is typically aiming to provide an unvarnished, raw, and directly-stated account, worded as clearly as possible.
It’s Really About the Death of Journalism
This isn’t a slam on MovieTok. Of course, the larger concern looming over this entire discussion is the fact that digital media, and journalism in general, exists in a very precarious situation right now.
Major declines in the digital ad market have made it much much harder to start or maintain any kind of internet publishing business. The loss of The App Formerly Known as Twitter as a key source of traffic is also a potential film criticism killer.
With so much more competition for eyeballs from every corner of the internet, readership to things like conventional film reviews is down and it may never come back. So MovieTok may not be a valid replacement for actual film criticism, but someday soon, it may be all we have left.