Spoilers, Screenerbrags and Squabbles: How Film Critics Use Twitter

This year, the Tribeca Film Festival hosted a conversation between Will Leitch and Dana Stevens on how social media—and Twitter specifically—has affected the work of film criticism. On the subject of sharing thoughts after screenings, Leitch emphasized that he has always set aside time for reflection after a film instead of rushing into forming an opinion, while Stevens jokingly remarked that, for professional critics, pre-tweeting before a review feels like “stealing from yourself.”


In light of the conversation, Indiewire surveyed a dog-pile of critics, asking, “Do you tweet after screenings? Why or why not? And are critics in general too quick to tweet their thoughts after screenings?” While the question framed post-screening tweets as potentially hazardous, many critics were firmly pro doing so. Josh Spiegel of Sound on Sight, for example, doesn’t “totally agree that being pithy about a film on Twitter will automatically make a full review pointless. It all depends on the person writing the tweet and review; hopefully, that person wouldn’t rely on one witticism to make their review stand out.”

But opinions range. As Luke Y. Thompson of Topless Robot explains: “I’m very old-school about this, a function of having started at print media, I think. My belief is that when an employer pays you for a review, one of the things they are paying you for is the privilege of being the forum in which your opinion is first publicly stated.” Here we get to the big questions about labor and money, between when you’re on the job and when you’re off, a line that’s become increasingly blurred. Clearly for some critics, Twitter remains still more work than play. When one’s role on social media is inseparable from one’s job—especially jobs centered on promoting opinions about other forms of media—it seems wise to pause and ask: How hard should a critic “work” on Twitter?

When I emailed Will Leitch to talk about movie critics and Twitter, he replied that the medium of Twitter doesn’t seem “suited to talking about much of anything. I think there is too much going on in a movie—too much going on anywhere, anything—to have much of a serious conversation about it on Twitter.” Meanwhile, Dan Kois (also of Slate) seemed to see this same frenzied mad-capness about Twitter as a plus: “I would say that I find the film-critic Twitter world extremely vibrant and informative, and think that the critics who do tweet are creating a pretty amazing community of thinkers and writers and arguers and trolls and jerks and geniuses.”

It’s still emerging but so far we’ve identified some categories of how movie critics currently use Twitter (one category: be Bret Easton Ellis).

I. TWEETING THE SCREENING EVENT

In that Tribeca conversation with Leitch, Stevens suggested that tweeting during a screening was akin to a humblebrag, “a conferral of social value on that person for having been present at that event.” (I’ve recently noticed the use of “screenerbrag” in relation to TV screeners, like with Matt Weiner’s heavily spoiler-guarded “Mad Men.”) When I emailed Stevens about this point, she noted that it “often happens at film festivals, and I think I’m not alone in despising festival tweets. It’s not that there can’t be great tweetage from a festival—see Stephanie Zacharek’s Venn-diagram tweet from the last Berlinale—but these recurring waves of ‘just got out of the new Malick and boy is it X’ festival tweets tend to sound to those of us in less glamorous places a lot like ‘Bonjour, I’m in Cannes and you’re not.'”

As someone who’s not a movie critic, I had supposed people saw festival tweets as actually more acceptable than the regular ol’ preview screening. Wasn’t tweeting from a film festival, in a way, part and parcel of being there? Stevens had a point though, especially when Vines and Instagrams of lines and celebrity sightings begin to clog one’s feed. She’s also right, that the only pictures I want to see are those of Zacharek’s Venn-diagrams (shown above).

Festival tweeting, however, might come to exemplify what tweeting at critics screenings are all about. That is, they’re as much about the film in question as the setting in which the film is viewed. Screenings give critics a chance to capture the singularity—the event-ness—of that viewing, which is, in a way, a nice nod to the culture of moviegoing.

Sometimes these tweets communicate mostly through being suggestive.

 

Technological malfunctions, especially, are noted…

 

… and remembered long after the fact.

 

Here we see: Twitter is just one form of new media by which to talk about the failures of other, often older, media.

If press screenings are a way to gauge box office reception, then tweeting the demographics of your audience is a way of conveying data without losing too much nuance. 140 is just enough characters to give a short data soundbite, as demonstrated by Carrie Rickey of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

 

Even if coming from a biased tweeter (and not a critic), screening observations might have the power to drive potential viewers even if it’s simply an observation of the audience’s level of excitement.

 

Of course, the distance between a film festival screening and its later reception can differ widely, as we might quickly learn from following film critics on Twitter. Karina Longworth of LA Weekly notes in a tweet that it’s “always interesting to see extreme reactions at high altitude to certain films that played middling in screening rooms in LA.”

Tweets are also opportunities to give paratextual information about a particular screening that didn’t make its way into the review proper. Wesley Morris of Grantland publicizes his article, while simultaneously couching it with bonus information:

 

In response to this tweet, Amanda Katz of the Boston Globe said:

 

… and as it currently stands, that handle is free for the taking.

Even if not dispensing critical opinion or insight on a film, screenings aren’t off limits for the witticisms so congenial to Twitter. Sometimes an event, any event, is just a vehicle for making jokes.

 

 

 

Even New Yorker critics are not against punning.

 

II. FIRST STATEMENT OF OPINION (BUT NOT LAST!)

I remember witnessing the multiple trials NYC film critics underwent in their attempt to watch The Master. Stevens was shut out twice.


Frustrating as it must have been, Stevens’ struggle to see The Master was its own sort of experience for her followers, even on those instances when she wasn’t able to access a screening. In the end, Stevens saw the film not once, but three times and produced two reviews, the latter of which “issue[s] a full-throated defense of the act of rewatching.”

 

 

The initial review observes the remote detachment of The Master as more intellectual than feeling-based; but in Stevens’ second encounter, the film became “palpably physical… there were images and scenes that stayed with me for days afterward.” While she notes that a third viewing might not bring her any closer to deciphering the puzzle structuring the film, scenes “that had seemed inscrutable on the first go-round blossomed into sense.” Stevens’ reviews remind us that moviegoing is a process—that opinions evolve, and are interesting and meaningful when they do.

Stevens’ series of dispatches are significant in acknowledging the changes critical thought can undergo. In that Indiewire survey, Jordan Hoffman of Film.com noted that first blush reactions are wont to alter: “I’ve reversed my opinion between the time of the post-screening afterglow and actually writing my review more than once.”

Other times judgment can subtly shift without direct acknowledgment.

After Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune attended a screening of The King’s Speech at TIFF, he tweeted with effusive praise:

 

His review published the day after this tweet was similarly enthusiastic, if also prescient: “If Firth and Rush aren’t nominated for Academy Awards early next year, I’ll be plenty surprised—and in the case of Firth, plenty disappointed.”

As always, time and distance from Phillips’ tweet, his review, Hooper’s film, and the 2012 Oscars—when the perfectly agreeable The King’s Speech took home Best Picture—will show how well the Applause Critic’s initial observations stand. But two months after his first review, Phillips himself was cooling on the film, as his official review for the Chicago Tribune will attest. Whether due to distance or clarity, or both, Phillips had grown more measured and restrained in his response, even if still overall commendatory: “Some aspects of the film feel routine, or facile, or too heavily underlined. Certain performers (Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill most glaringly) fly straight past character into caricature.” Was it the critical eye settling in, or the metaphorical fog that stays long after the literal one that accompanies us to our cars post-screening.

Sometimes, though, that feeling of being gutted after seeing a film stays with you, as evinced by Wesley Morris’s screening tweet about Maïwenn’s Polisse:

 

His review that followed weeks after carries the same lively, affective expressions of that tweet, while incorporating all the critical observations to back them up. You’ll feel the immediacy of Morris’ opinion in the opening paragraph: “Yes, ‘Polisse’ is the sort of cop thriller where people do things like angrily bang on a desktop or sweep everything off it. If it happens once, it must happen six times. But every time it did, I wanted to stand up and cheer, which I’ve never wanted to do for any such thriller.”

Perhaps it’s easier to write a review about a film one so actively enjoys, but as a reader, to sense that buzzing quality of engagement sustained beyond a tweet is what reading a critical endorsement is all about.

III. THE ISSUING OF CRYPTIC VERDICTS

The cryptic tweet usually communicates enough so that you know whether the critic liked, disliked, or found the film interesting, which is to say the cryptic tweet doesn’t say much. As James McCormick of Criterion Cast admits in his Indiewire response, he “might tweet out a slightly coy tweet” to allude to his feelings “depending on how much I loved the film I have seen or how much I have hated it.” Regardless, these vague and fleeting notes are a way of avoiding spoilers or mini tweet-reviews, while also giving your followers notice that a certain film is on your radar.

NPR’s Linda Holmes is wonderfully cryptic in her verdicts even when explicitly not trying to be coy.

 

Same goes for her TV tweets.

 

But a cryptic verdict should not be confused with the cop-out verdict.

 

(To be fair, this is a terrible practice, the post-screening publicist call. What on earth is the critic supposed to say?)

 

IV. “I HAVE A NEW REVIEW UP” AND OTHER FORMULA TWEETS

While the wonderful and renowned Roger Ebert is on Twitter, and continues to blog, his tweets about recent movies largely stick to the formula of: “This is a review of X .” Mostly, Ebert uses his feed to share things he finds interesting—from the Russian Alien Car to Bengal tigers to Facebook’s introduction of hashtags—and, of course, his regular New Yorker caption contest entries.

Though it happens less and less now, sometimes we are gifted with a gem, such as this one.

 

Or this one.

 

Recently, though, there was this charming reminder of what happens when Twitter malfunctions.

 

Todd McCarthy has not tweeted for awhile, but we count him in this camp as well.

 

 

V. PLAY & ENGAGEMENT

My favorite film tweeters are those who don’t make much of a distinction between work and play on Twitter. As David Haglund has already noted, New Yorker film critic Richard Brody is just such a tweeter, open to experimentation and engagement. Brody’s “online perch gives him the freedom to approach movies at an angle,” writes Haglund, “rather than writing straight reviews—but even if he was doing those, I suspect his takes would still be more surprising and illuminating than nearly anyone else’s.”

Recently, Brody wrote a simple tweet that could be essentially reduced to two negligible facts—except by pairing them together, Brody inspired a counterfactual alliance between two individuals of classic film history that are usually otherwise never spoken of in the same critical conversation, not to mention tweet.

 

Brody is a classical music and opera enthusiast (writing and tweeting wonderfully on the topic), but this doesn’t cause him to refrain from tweeting about Kanye (nothing should stop a person from tweeting about Kanye).

 

Still, I love when Brody tweets about classical music, and especially when he brings it someway back to film.

 

These tweets are the miniature version of something like his Django, Unchained review, where Brody observes the “Wagnerian strain in the recent cinema.”

Like the most generous critics on Twitter, Brody not only makes insightful observations about film (new and old), but engages with readers. Chatting with him over email is no difference—his generosity shows, as does his true consideration over the role of the critic on social media:

Twitter is terrific for friendly debate until it degenerates into a donnybrook because the brevity of a tweet often makes a phrase come out as curt or pugnacious. But the overall thing about Twitter is that a good thought—or a good question—can usually be expressed in a not-too-long sentence or two and the quasi-public nature of it gets people in touch with each other. I’ve had really stimulating virtual meetings on Twitter and even the fights end up in handshakes; the level of film criticism today is, I think, higher than ever, and the exchange of ideas by way of Twitter is a not-coincidental factor.

Twitter exchanges that verge on the side of argumentation, but end in conviviality or understanding, seem truly an artform, and many people don’t come near to pulling it off. It means condensing tone, content, and wit in a confined space during a lively, often speedy, exchange that, more often than not, becomes an exercise in testing and transforming one’s opinion—and all in public.

Brody’s interaction on Twitter doesn’t hinge on the idea that tweeting is work. Instead, he’s integrated Twitter as a way of interacting with life more generally, such as cozy tweets about Seder dishes or about his children—whether screening related or cutely Kafkaesque:

And when, every now and then, I think to myself, “ah, I haven’t tweeted in a while,” it’s also a kind of reminder that I’ve been buried too deep in work and need to surface, listen to a little music, read a newspaper, take a walk, and post something that catches my interest.

Sometimes not tweeting inspires us to get going, and sometimes tweeting reminds us to go to bed.

 

VI. RETROACTIVE TWEETING OF CLASSIC REVIEWS

Twitter is already an archive system for critic’s tweets, but what if it started archiving critic’s impressions retroactively?

 

I also like the idea that new, fast media doesn’t necessarily have to work in commenting on new culture (nor that these opinions are necessarily timely or sloppy). Hasn’t film, in a way, always been about the viewer’s desire for nostalgia?

 

 

VII. BRET EASTON ELLIS AT THE MOVIES

Apparently everyday audience tweets are now included in advertising campaigns, but my favorite celebrity film tweeter continues to be Bret Easton Ellis. Is this perhaps the platonic BEE tweet?

 

Ellis can also wax nostalgic.

 

And here’s Ellis on film and pleasure.

 

It’s possible that he tweets after every screening, firmly opinionated, as we’d expect him to be.

 

 

He even lists his walk-outs, a privilege most critics working in journalism don’t allow themselves.

 

 

VIII. NOT IN CLASS PICTURE

These are only loose categories, of course—and likely to change along with how we interact on Twitter (Branch activity informs us that, this week, we’re suspicious of the hashtag #howdoyouhashtag [this is in no way a jab, or a subtweet #subtweet #hashtag]). To tweet or not to tweet after screenings aside, some film critics abstain from the medium completely. Anthony Lane has enough wit for Twitter, but so far he hasn’t joined. (Neither has David Denby.) Is it that the bigger a critic’s reputation, the less they need rely on (or experiment with) new media platforms? David Edelstein blogs regularly at NYMag, but he’s not on Twitter. Neither are J. Hoberman, Dave Kehr, Peter Keough, Stuart Klawans, Andy Klein, or radio interviewer extraordinaire Elvis Mitchell. It’s tempting to read a line of old-school formalism (not uncommon with film criticism, just ask the academics!) into this, but really I’m curious as to how Manohla Dargis’ wonderful reviews would change if she were to become more public and start communicating through tweets (God, what would she use as her avatar?).

 

***

As a rule of thumb, the newer the film, the more concern over when and if and how it’s appropriate to have public exchanges about them. Regarding the post-screening debate that started all this, Brody is hesitant to be prescriptive:

I tend not to tweet about films after screenings because a new film that’s not yet a familiar item or known quantity needs something more than a few words even to introduce it. If I were tweeting solely to the community of other critics who have seen the film, it might be fine; but since tweets are read by the public (and that’s something that, in the enthusiastic or heated give-and-take of Twitter discussion, it’s sometimes easy to overlook), I’d rather keep first words for a fuller consideration. On the other hand, I don’t think there’s an issue of morality or ethics involved; some critics may be more concise or clearer about their thoughts and impressions than I am.

I largely agree with Brody that morality seems irrelevant to the act, though it is possible that post-screening tweets might actually be more deleterious for reviewers than for one’s general readership. Stevens, for instance, makes a point of not reading any reviews before seeing a movie, especially if she’s planning to write on it. As she tells me:

Even getting one adjective stuck in your brain can affect a viewing experience—instead of asking, “whoa, what’s with the sudden shift in tone?” you think, “Oh, this must be the destabilizing dream sequence so-and-so tweeted about.”

The avoidance of prior influence would prove difficult for critics on Twitter who likely follow other critics there, and spoiler-warning culture seems related to the viewer’s desire of achieving an independent experience of the film. More information about a film—even if about atmosphere or quality, rather than its actual events—threatens foreclosure.

While critics, as most people, might and certainly can change their mind on a film, the fact of being a critic online is that your public opinions, be they tweets or reviews, will always be attached to your status as a professional reviewer. As Stevens writes, “I also find the mania to tweet out a concise, formed opinion of a movie right after seeing it—especially if you’re about to get the chance to write on it at length—sort of offputting.” The key here, then, isn’t so much that a tweet is always too concise and dashed off to be of use, but that “if you’re about to get the chance to write on it at length,” do the potential pros of post-screening tweets outweigh the cons?




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Jane Hu is a Twitter critic and a critic of Twitter. You can follow her here.