In Defense of Twitter Reviews

This past week, I’ve been watching as various pundits and publications have been debating the pros and cons of Twitter reviews of movies. I’m more than a disinterested bystander, since I’ve been tweeting reviews of films for more than four years–at festivals, after watching screeners at home, and after seeing films at a commercial theatrical venue.

Movie TweeviewsAdditionally, many of you may not know that I run a web site called Movie Tweeviews, which is a curated stream of Twitter reviews. When I first started the site four years ago, I just thought it would be fun to pull together quick responses to films in real time, but I wasn’t interested in the mass public. I wanted to limit the stream to people whose opinions I respected. So, I invited some critics, exhibitors, distributors and filmmakers to contribute. These days, the stream is mostly me, but occasionally there are other voices on the site.

The debate about Twitter reviews began after an expression of distress by Cannes Film Festival head Thierry Fremaux. His beef is with the instant judgment that these reviews bring upon a film, which can easily poison its festival launch. The prime example was how quickly Gus Van Sant’s film was skewered on Twitter within minutes of the lights coming up at the Palais this year.

I have to say I understand the point, to a point. Programmers should be champions of the films they present, and it’s completely understandable that such a quick dismissal of any of their film choices would rub them the wrong way. However, instant judgments at festivals pre-dated Twitter by as many years as festivals have been in existence. I’m sure all of you have experienced your share of walkouts, booing and one-sentence dismissals of films at cocktail parties immediately following a screening. If anything, the immediacy of a Twitter reaction guarantees that we are hearing individual opinions, without having been influenced by discussion with others. Is that a good or a bad thing? Debatable, but there’s a chance that it might actually increase the diversity of opinion about a particular film.

Another criticism leveled at Twitter reviews is that it isn’t really “film criticism.” The answer to that one is easy—no one is pretending that it is “film criticism,” just as no one thought Ebert’s and Siskel’s thumbs constituted “film criticism.” Are Leonard Maltin’s capsules “film criticism?” If anything, Twitter reviews are like headlines. They point toward what’s good, bad, interesting and different; there’s no room for sophisticated discussion. That is left for the genuinely gifted critics, who have the space to expound in more detail. I personally love reading well written film reviews, especially when I feel like I nailed their headlines months in advance in my Twitter review.

Aside from the obvious point that the horse is out of the barn (pick your social media cliché here), why do I enjoy the idea of Twitter reviews?

First, I love the idea that my followers, many of whom are in the film business, can be swayed to pay attention to something that may not be on their radar. Two years ago at Cannes, I saw “Force Majeure,” having heard absolutely nothing about it. I tweeted my rave review and I’d like to think it might have influenced others to seek it out during the festival. Yes, I also tweet negative responses, but I call them as I see them. I tend to be more vicious about studio films, but given the level of hype around those films, I feel it’s appropriate.

Secondly, I find the “art” of writing a review in 140 characters to be both challenging and rewarding. It’s somewhat like writing a haiku. But going back to my headline analogy, I’m reminded of the fact that, these last few days, we’ve been celebrating the life of the guy who wrote the infamous headline “Headless Body in Topless Bar.” The man would have been great on Twitter. Personally, I’m very proud of some of the ways I’ve captured the essence of a film in 140 characters.

Finally, I like the idea of going “on the record” before talking to anyone else about a film. I want to clarify that statement by saying that I NEVER tweet during the film. I always wait until the lights have come up. One could say that tweeting immediately after a screening means that I don’t have a chance to ponder it, to let it “roll around on the tongue” as it were. It also means that I haven’t been unduly influenced, or some might even say intimidated into another opinion. Do I sometimes change my mind? Of course, but usually after a second viewing or perhaps years later. I don’t believe I’ve ever changed my mind in 24 hours. If I’m really ambivalent about a film, I just don’t tweet about it.

So that’s my take on all this, for what it’s worth. If you buy into it, check out movietweeviews.com. If not, you probably aren’t on Twitter anyway. By the way, I’ve also registered theatretweeviews.com, tvtweeviews.com, booktweeviews.com and musictweeviews.com. Maybe someday I’ll do something with them.

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