It was to the disappointment of many film fans that Pitchfork’s movie focused website The Dissolve announced its closure. The site, populated by some of the best writers in modern criticism, offered a refreshingly intellectual and contextual focus on film culture. As well as offering a click-bait-free form of discussion that delved deeply into blockbuster fare as much as it did indie favourites, The Dissolve had the distinction of being home to one of the best comments sections on the internet. One must treasure these utopias where varied and challenging discourse thrived, free of futile drama.
But now The Dissolve is no more, its writers on the hunt for the next gig (someone please give them lots of money to write as they please), and the search for the bulletproof online writing model continues. The days when writers could make a solid, reliable and relatively secure living solely from their work are fast becoming extinct. Matt Zoller Seitz noted the stark economic contrasts of writing in the digital age versus the old newspaper format in his own eulogy to The Dissolve. A plethora of film focused websites saturate our Twitter feeds; some are good and others not so much. That’s the way it’s always been. But now more than ever it feels like a competition to garner those precious clicks.
I honestly don’t blame sites for going the click-bait route. It’s a tough field to make a living in and if you have to reach for the gifs and misleadingly dramatic headlines then do as you must. It’s a more disheartening prospect for readers when this format is all we see. The Dissolve offered a much needed respite and surmised that strong, sophisticated content that believed in the intelligence of its audience could live side by side with the schlockier fare. Alas, it’s becoming more and more evident that general audiences may prize something they can react to rather than engage with. I know this is an unfair claim to make, but when clear attempts to refute that fail after only 2 years online, it’s hard to feel optimistic.
There will always be a place for the kind of content The Dissolve offered, but the question is whether that content will be given a place to flourish and its writers paid accordingly. Will detailed, analytical film criticism that doesn’t use superhero news or smugly contrarian hot-takes as its tent-poles survive in an era where a page of 20 cat gifs will get a hundred times more views?
This also applies to pop culture criticism in general, from books to music and video games, and the wider world of entertainment. My favourite TV show Hannibal, one of the true critical smashes of the past few years, was cancelled due to low ratings, which led to my predictably stroppy sneering at the usual suspects of television that garner gargantuan ratings while offering nothing new or interesting. How many of us book bloggers wanted to eat our own faces after seeing Grey sell a million copies in 4 days while our favourite indie authors struggle to get half-decent royalties? We’ve all complained about Hollywood’s overreliance on remakes and sequels but how many of us still went to see them in the cinema instead of an indie piece that needed the attention more? Ultimately, despite our protests, it’s hard to go against the popular grain. Popularity doesn’t necessarily equal bad, although some people do seem to be trying very hard to make that our reality.
The future is hazy for online criticism. Us unpaid bloggers running our dog and pony shows for our own amusement and benefit will continue until the fun dries up. The Buzzfeeds and Vox Medias of the world will rise above it all, hiring more writers than anyone else and pushing out content faster than any of us can read it. Good writers will be paid for their efforts, something we can all support, but their preferred formula will continue to dominate the market in a way that will be hard to resist. Many writers will look for alternative routes, with many already turning to crowd-funding sites like Patreon to make a living by directly appealing to their readers, but this model currently only really works for those with an established audience, and it’s hard to build up one in order to make a living from it. And as for us readers? One necessary road-bump we need to get over is our undeniable addiction to ‘free’ content. If we want the writing we love to thrive, we need to understand that there’s someone on the other end who deserves to be paid for it. Of course, this isn’t solely the responsibility of readers. We need outlets to take risks and actually fund the work. Here’s hoping there’s still such a thing available.