Variety Reviews

Via the Boston Globe's Ty Burr, I came across a caustic Variety review of 88 Minutes. It's entertaining enough for those who like snark (I sometimes do), but for me it raised a larger question: when (and why) did trade press reviews start sounding like their counterparts in the popular press? At the very least, I've read a number of Variety reviews from the 40s and 50s and then there was a distinct sensibility for each. In short, the trade press made its judgments on a film quality with an eye to how it expected it to play to audiences. The reviews were a service to exhibitors planning their bookings and an indicator for Hollywood studios to assess the viable prospects of competing studios. A lot, of course, has changed then: saturated releases have made films and film exhibition more genuinely national, the studio system has dissolved in favor of producer and/or agent package projects, and, oddly enough, distibution is more oligopolized than it was under the studio years. The question I have is who the trade press now serves. Has its primary audience shrunk from the studio years to now?

Moreover, questions of this sort keep circling around my head as I try to deal with trade press reviews and popular press reviews in their social specificity. It's become a truism of reception study and historical method that reviews do not give transparent insight into any audience mentality. But if we can build their social genesis into the model, so to speak, that might help us read them better.


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