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Call It What It Is: MovieTok Creators Are Corrupt

By Dustin Rowles | Film | August 16, 2023 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | August 16, 2023 |


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The New York Times has a piece up this week about MovieTok, the people on TikTok who review movies but do not want to be thought of as “critics.” That’s good, because they are not. Critics, they say, are “old news,” which is probably true, but critics are also those who honestly pass judgment on the merit of a film. Most of these people cannot honestly do that, and that’s OK. They are not critics; they are advertising.

Am I bitter about the fact that a MovieTok creator can earn twice as much revenue with a single video as this entire site with 25 writers can generate in an entire month? I mean, yeah. Kind of. Selling out is easy. Being honest is harder. These people are paid by studios to say things about their television shows and movies. If someone is paying you $30,000, you’re not going to sh*t on their doorstep.

MovieTok creators are not the first in the history of film criticism to rebel against their elders. In the 1950s, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and other writers of the journal Cahiers du Cinéma disavowed the nationalism of mainstream French criticism. In the 1960s and ’70s, the New Yorker critic Pauline Kael assailed the moralism associated with Bosley Crowther, a longtime movie critic of The New York Times, and others. And movie bloggers in the 2000s charged print critics with indifference or hostility to superhero and fantasy films.

It’s true! It took a long time for “movie bloggers” to gain respect from print critics, although it became much easier when there were no more print critics around. Are online movie critics going to suffer the same fate? Maybe! If we do, it’s because of who society values most: People who are paid by studios to say nice things about their products instead of people who earn money from their readers in exchange for an honest assessment. MovieTok creators are part of the advertising and marketing system, and putting aside Bill Hicks’ thoughts, these people are not paid to be honest. They are paid to say complimentary things. They are paid to encourage you to attend a movie regardless of its quality. They are billboards. They are mascots. They are commercials.

When Pajiba launched in 2004, we were so strict about the separation between writers and studios that we did not even accept screening invitations or screeners. We haven’t changed much on that count in 19 years — less than a handful of our critics attend screenings or watch screeners — and that ethos obviously still exists: As Russell Hammond says to Rolling Stone journalist William Miller in Almost Famous: “Don’t forget the rules, man. This little shit is the enemy.”

We are the little shits. We are the enemy. The studios are not our friends.

“I always try to be super transparent with my viewers,” said Megan Cruz (jstoobs, 535,000 followers), noting that she is careful to identify gifts and sponsorships in her videos. “We do exist in this in-between space and I think it’s important to clarify whenever you’re getting any kind of advantage.” (By law, paid endorsements on TikTok must be labeled; but gifts, including swag boxes and travel to red carpet events, are not always disclosed.)

Cruz, 34, echoed other MovieTok reviewers who said they dislike doing sharply negative posts and would be unlikely to slam a movie whether they were in business with the studio or not. She said she generally prefers to deliver negative opinions in the form of a “compliment sandwich,” preceded and followed by more positive remarks.

Being “transparent” is different than being “honest.” And this entire business model is predicated on the dishonesty of a “compliment sandwich.” Movies are not fragile toddlers we need to coddle with white lies. They are products made for hundreds of millions of dollars and designed to enrich shareholders. Being honest is the least you can do.

Again, I do not begrudge MovieTok creators — get yours! — but the only service they are doing is to corporations and themselves. And that’s fine! This is the way of the future, and they have figured that out: To thrive, they have to be kind to the corporations who pay them. And the corporations must provide algorithmically palatable content that these MovieTok creators can pretend to like in exchange for money. What is the definition of corruption? “Having or showing a willingness to act dishonestly in return for money or personal gain.” How is this any different?

Juju Green, a 31-year-old former advertising copywriter, sees himself as on a “mission to combat film snobbery” …. “A lot of us don’t trust critics,” said Lucious, 31. He was one of many who pointed to the review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, where the scores of “Top Critics” often differ widely from those of casual users, as evidence that the critical establishment is out of touch.

This is 100 percent accurate. Audience scores are often higher than the scores of critics. But also, audience scores are made up of less discerning, mainstream moviegoers who are less likely to watch movies and television shows critically. That is a great audience to cater to because it is the majority of Americans. Critics, on the other hand, appeal to a dwindling audience of those who care about honesty, ethics, and high-quality entertainment. If we don’t expect more from studios, they have less incentive to make it better, not when Disney can spend $200 million on a mediocre movie and $30,000 to a TikTok influencer to convince people to watch it. It’s wild that people “don’t trust critics,” but do trust people who are paid to promote a product. MovieTok encouraged you to run out and watch Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, but it’s the critics who are “out of touch”?

Juju Green, the man on a mission to combat “film snobbery,” also says that he can “reach an enormous audience with relatively little effort” and counts Disney, Paramount, and Warner Bros. among “his clients.” He gets paid a lot to do very little for his corporate clients. This is a brag. For better or worse, Green is probably the future of movie criticism, if not already the present. We used to say, “Fuck the man!” but now we just take kickbacks from him. If that’s not corruption, I don’t know what is.