NOTE: This article was once on Wikipedia until one day it was challenged and wasn’t. So here it is in its original form, without editing. Go Free Speech!
Movie Smackdown is one of a growing number of on-line film review sites that demonstrate the “democratization” of film criticism in the Internet age. These alternative approaches include content aggregators Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. Together, these sites and others represent a new wave of film reviews that bypass printed distribution, establishment voices and, often, respectful tone.
According to reporting in numerous national media outlets in 2008 (Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Hollywood Reporter, National Public Radio), film criticism is in the middle of an upheaval away from the traditional outlets of print media and toward the unconventional outlets of the Internet. As Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek pointed out in a typical article discussing the decline of print media film reviews in July 2008: “I don’t believe film criticism overall is dying — it thrives, in many different forms and at many different levels of quality, on the Web. But the chances of being able to make a living at it are growing increasingly slim.”
Seen in that context, Movie Smackdown stands as one of the websites operating on the front lines of this leveling of the playing field brought on by Web 2.0. In May 2008, AMC (American Movie Channel) named Movie Smackdown its AMC Site of the Week.
Rather than being an aggregator of print and Web content, or even using the traditional review structure of a single writer criticizing a single film, however, Movie Smackdown pioneered a dual structure that expands the very definition of what a review is in a time when the public has multiple options to see films. In its approach, films that are in “current theatrical release” are reviewed in competition with other movies related by theme, content, cast or crew that are “available on DVD” or other non-theatrical methods. This conflictual approach to films is reflected in the site’s slogan: “Two Movies. One Review. No Mercy.”
The Movie Smackdown concept is based on the premise that to succeed in the Internet age, film reviews need to be more fun and more surprising. They need to be, whenever possible, as entertaining as the films they seek to criticize or praise.
This point-of-view evolved from the way the viewing public now thinks about films, the value audiences place on critical reviews and the style and tone of contemporary film criticism. Movies today are seen in many formats from theatrical release to DVD release to digital download and favorite films are often seen multiple times. Current audiences are extremely sophisticated about not only box office grosses but also about film history. This is due to the vast increase in the number of film schools and graduating students but also to the technology which makes it possible for the average person to study film on a level that even professionals were not able to achieve a generation ago.
Over the years, Movie Smackdown has evolved from a single critic’s voice into a collection of critics all writing under a similar format. Edited by Movie Smackdown creator Bryce Zabel, the site’s reviews all follow the film-on-film competition that is meant to reflect the way audiences watch and talk about movies these days. Every review is broken down like a championship fight into these sections:
- THE SMACKDOWN. This section explains why the two films are being put in competition against each other.
- THE CHALLENGER. The newest film, the one that has just been released in theaters, the most recent film.
- THE DEFENDING CHAMPION. The earlier (successful) film that the first film is compared to.
- THE SCORECARD. The section where each film’s strengths and/or weaknesses are compared and analyzed.
- THE DECISION. A winner is always declared. There are no ties.
A key element of Movie Smackdown has been to infuse an element of suspense into film criticism. In traditional reviews, the point-of-view of the critic is known in a paragraph or two. In Movie Smackdown reviews, the actual winner may not be clear until the final sentence. In many cases, because of the competition angle to the reviews, on-line polls are incorporated to let readers participate. This aspect was highlighted by AMC when it selected Movie Smackdown as its “Site of the Week.” Writer Christine Fall wrote:
The idea has always been simple,” says site creator Bryce Zabel. “Two movies. One review. No mercy.” As the Smackdown referee-in-chief, he makes sure every match offers readers more fun, more value, and more suspense than the traditional thumbs up or thumbs down critique. “Most reviews let you know whether the reviewer likes a film in the first paragraph,” he says. “In our reviews, there is actual suspense and doubt about which film will win, often going all the way through to the end.”
Additionally, Movie Smackdown reviews are distinguished by a different use of studio publicity stills. Rather than print them “as is,” each one is given a comedic caption using the Comic Life Magiq program, so that they stand-alone as a “review within a review.” The best ones encapsulate the essence of the film itself. These are called Comix and are collected on their own web-page as well as being used on the main site to illustrate the full reviews.
Evolution (and Revolution) in Film Criticism
Originally, film criticism focused on a single reviewer writing about films and serving as a “gatekeeper” who would, based on their established credentials, inform the general public whether a film was or was not worth seeing. Increasingly, this approach is feeling more and more “old school.” Critics were nothing less than arbiters of culture. In April 2008, the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Critics today are viewed as cultural dinosaurs on the verge of extinction.” Critic Patrick Goldstein analyzed the reason for the decline in the status of critics this way:
When it comes to film, no one has done a better job of robbing critics of credibility than the movie studios themselves, whose blurb ads are a thoroughly corrupt and cynical invention that has done more to devalue critics than any incursion from the Internet… By turning us into cynics, studios have encouraged us to distrust critics. Unless you are willing to put in the time to rank dozens upon dozens of critics in your head, most sensible filmgoers simply ignore the blurbs altogether.
The New York Times has argued that film critics working in the print media are an “endangered species.” The article, by writer David Carr, places the demise of print on the rise of the Web:
“Given that movie blogs are strewn about the Web like popcorn on a theater floor, there are those who say that movie criticism is not going away, it’s just appearing on a different platform. And no one would argue that fewer critics and the adjectives they hurl would imperil the opening of “Iron Man” in May. But for a certain kind of movie, critical accolades can mean the difference between relevance and obscurity, not to mention box office success or failure.”
The Salt Lake Tribune film critic Sean P. Means actually posted a list of film critics who had lost or decided to leave their jobs in the last two years. The list — incomplete — had 28 names on it.
On the other side, Daily Variety columnist Anne Thompson argues that positive film reviews are often the determining criteria for successs, particularly for indie films. Her reporting, at least in 2007, continued to argue that mainstream critics were relevant, but she also quoted Hollywood Elsewhere reviewer/critic Jeffrey Wells who said:
Any film critic who’s not writing for an online audience, or at least putting his/her stuff online so the under-35s can read and react, is writing his or her own obituary. The old models and old configurations don’t work any more, and even the most old school media reactionaries are admitting this.
Even the icon of the movie criticism establishment, Roger Ebert, preaches about opening up his profession to the masses. His point of reference is a “shot-by-shot” exercise he has used in classrooms but which he advocates can be done by regular people at home with access to films on DVD.
“The results were beyond my imagination. I wasn’t the teacher and my students weren’t the audience, we were all in this together. The e-mails I receive indicate this is perceived as some kind of esoteric exercise. Actually, it’s something anyone can do, including you, and you don’t need to be an expert, because the audience, and the film itself, are your most helpful collaborators.”
In its three years of existence (2005-2008), Movie Smackdown has published the reviews of seventeen different critics (sometimes known as SmackRefs). As a group, they represent a diverse range of opinions: old/young, men/women, Hollywood/non-Hollywood, different ethnicities and races. In many cases, they are biting the hands that feed them. Although there is no specific criteria for inclusion besides a love of film and a knowledge of film history, almost all of the contributors have either studied film in college, done professional film reviews in other contexts, had a professional writing or broadcasting background or worked as writers, directors or producers in the entertainment industry. Each critic’s experience and credits are listed on biographical “Meet the Critics” page which includes samples of their work.
- Bryce Zabel is a writer/producer with film (Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation) and TV (Lois & Clark, Dark Skies, The Crow: Stairway to Heaven) credits, a past chairman of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, the creator of five network or syndicated TV hour drama, winner of the 2008 WGA award for outstanding “Long Form Original” screenplay for the Hallmark miniseries Pandemic and creator of Movie Smackdown.
- Mark Sanchez is an Oregon media and communications consultant with a background in TV news, notably as an on-air reporter for Portland’s KOIN-TV.
- Sherry Coben created the 1980s hit show Kate & Allie, and currently coaches a high school ComedySportz team in Southern California.
- Beau DeMayo is a writer/producer at the Florida State film school and is a self-described “comic book nerd.”
- Bob Nowotny earned a BA and a Master’s at UT Austin, has produced several independent films and authored a definitive book on color film.
- Lauren Zabel attends the University of California at Santa Barbara where she’s a Department of Film and Media major and is currently studying British film in London.
- Jay Amicarella is a professional tower climber and senior field technician in Portland, Oregon, and a life-long student of film.
- Scott Baradell leads the Idea Grove agency in Dallas where he maintains the Dirt 100, an authoritative ranking of the top gossip and entertainment blogs, as well as the Spin Thicket community site and the Media Orchard blog.
- Lak Rana is an actor/writer and a recent graduate of USC’s Marshall School of Business.
- Tyger Torrez is an Army veteran who grew up in East Los Angeles, attended UCLA, lived in Hawaii, and has twice won the Scriptapalooza TV competition.
- Stephen Bell is an independent writer/director. Bell is currently studying production at the Florida State Film School.
- Jonathan Zabel is an analyst for the entertainment research company Frank N. Magid Associates in LA who graduated from USC with a double-major in Interactive Entertainment from the School of Cinematic Arts, as well as East Asian Area Studies.
- Lorianne Tibbets specializes in writing children’s projects with credits that include ABC Family, Discovery Kids, and a historical fantasy book series.
- Joe Rassulo is a prolific writer, Emmy-winning director and dogged producer who just put all three credits together in his recent divorce drama Bull Run.
- Randal Cohen passed the bar at 25 and is now music attorney who manages recording and performing artists in Los Angeles.
- Sarah Harding graduated from the Massachusetts College of Art with a degree in Film and Video and is an avid Anglophile.
- Sloane Hayes Skala is a USC School of Cinematic Arts student on the lucky end of a genetic lineage to film that includes a grandfather who wrote Rear Window.
Although the word “SmackDown” was first introduced by World Wrestling Entertainment, the title “Movie Smackdown” was approved as a certified service mark by the United States Patent and Trademark Office in 2008 and granted to Stellar Productions.
The inspiration came in 2004 when Bryce Zabel, while going to dinner with friends after watching a film, the conversation turned to the other films it was like, other films by the actors and directors in it, and whether the theater film was better than the one they could rent.
The first version of the concept was called “Movies-Squared” and was launched on Blogger. The tag-line was “Two Reviews for the Price of One.”
The site migrated to TypePad in 2005. In an opening post, Zabel told readers the site’s intention was to give readers “the freshest idea in film reviews since stars and thumbs.”
In 2007, Zabel began to add other critics in order to increase the amount of original content created and take on the role of editor.
In 2006, two Movie Smackdown pilots for cellphone “mobisodes” were produced by Stellar Productions and Natural 9 Productions for Go-TV.
Graphic design work for the site has been done by Emmy winning Nancy Tokos of Tokos Design Associates.
The “Comix” are the work of Zabel who, as the editor, inserts them into the reviews by the Movie Smackdown critics. By altering them significantly and using them as artistic criticism, they fall under the “fair use” provision.