Everybody's a Critic

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I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business.

Last March, stock analyst Richard Greenfield gave a thumbs down to Pixar's newest film, Up. I went on the air condemning his prediction, and $300 million later, Greenfield has admitted he might have been wrong. Now, I'm getting all sorts of congratulations for calling him out, but I feel like everyone's missing my point.

I do not believe in the infallibility of Pixar. And I was not condemning Greenfield's a right to question the upside of Up – that's his job. And despite admitting that he was “dead wrong” about the film's box office, Greenfield's concerns about Up's merchandising potential may still prove well founded. A curmudgeonly old man just doesn't make for a big selling plush toy.

What I was complaining about was that Greenfield strayed from analysis to personal opinion. He said he found Up “somewhat slow” and that he was “never fully engaged by the story” – to which I wondered out loud whether Greenfield had left his job as a stock analyst to become a film critic. And anyway, a critic would never have reviewed a movie after seeing just 46 minutes of it, the way Greenfield did.

That was especially irresponsible, since Greenfield's comments were more potentially damaging than a pan by film critic. He wasn't just saying don't go see Up, he was downgrading Disney's stock based on what he saw. Pixar is owned by Disney.

But my comments aren't just directed at Greenfield. The business is filled with smug, Monday morning quarterbacks. Everyone talks smack about movies after they've come and gone as if they could do better – and entertainment journalists are the worst.

But none of my peers has been insightful enough to prophesy the huge success of a surprise zeitgeist hit like Juno. And you didn't have to be Pauline Kael to have known that Land of the Lost was a dud.

There are certainly movies that are ill-conceived from the get go. But there are probably many more that people like you and me would never have green-lit, but that turned out to be strokes of creative and commercial genius. I mean Pixar made a movie about a rat that cooks. That truly disgusting, unmarketable idea for a movie went on to make $600 million at the box office, was nominated for five Oscars and went on win one for best animated picture.

The flip side is also true…there are plenty of projects which seem destined for greatness on paper but which end up falling flat in theaters. For instance, if the director of Das Boot and The Perfect Storm told you he wanted to remake the 70's disaster flick The Poseidon Adventure, would you have done it? I would've. And I'd be responsible for Poseidon – a titanic flop.

The truth is that there are so many forces are at work along the path from pitch meeting to premiere that it's amazing that any movies get made, let alone a few good ones. Even the best ideas being implemented by the best people can be reduced to abject mediocrity by the 100's of nibbling ducks that get a crack at it along the way. And if the winds of popular taste change during the year or two it takes to make the movie, well, that's just the way the celluloid crumbles.

So, let's all enjoy discussing whether we think a movie is good or not. It's our god given right as Americans. But let's also admit that we don't really know anything more about movies than what we personally feel about them. Otherwise, we'd be Jerry Bruckheimer, and we'd be living in a much nicer house.

I'd love to know what you think. You can comment on today's thoughts or subscribe to the podcast at KCRW.com/TheBusinessBrief. For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman.



Matt Holzman