How YouTube and podcasts spurred the golden age of film criticism

Evan Puschak, founder of the Nerdwriter YouTube channel

“Why is David Fincher in my head?”

Thus begins the voiceover narration of a YouTube video titled “How David Fincher Hijacks Your Eyes.” Created by Evan Puschak, a video essayist who goes by the handle Nerdwriter, the video pursues a topic with single-minded focus: the way director David Fincher uses camera tracking shots to frame his characters.

Described this way, the video probably doesn’t sound very enticing, but there’s a reason why Puschak has managed to grow his YouTube channel to 1.8 million subscribers. The video is a work of art in and of itself. Clocking in at five minutes and 30 seconds, no frame or moment is wasted; the narration, background music, and visual presentation converge into a tightly-edited narrative that relentlessly drives home its thesis. Through clip after clip, compiled over what must have spanned days of combing through Fincher-directed films and TV episodes, we’re bombarded with the director’s visual style until a conclusion is inescapable: “Whether they register or not, the effect starts to accumulate in your mind,” Puschak’s voiceover tells us. “All of a sudden Fincher’s reality is your reality.”

As of this writing, the video has generated 1.3 million views, and it’s certainly not an anomaly on YouTube. Nerdwriter. Every Frame a Painting. Kaptainkristian. These are just some of the video essayists who practice a genre of film criticism that’s been consumed by millions of fans, many of whom eagerly await new episodes each week. And what I find even more amazing is that this genre of film criticism that’s proven so popular largely didn’t exist as recently as a decade ago.

In fact, I’ll go one step further and say that the rise of YouTube — along with the growing popularity of podcasts — has ushered in a golden age of film criticism, one that’s both broadened the audience for such criticism while also allowing critics to dive deeper into film than they ever have before.

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Prior to Web 2.0 and the advent of blogging, film criticism, at least how it was produced by the mainstream media, was centered on one thing: telling the reader, viewer, or listener whether they should go see a recently-released film. These kinds of reviews offer up a brief synopsis of the film, quickly run through its flaws or highlights, and may end or begin with some kind of star rating. A newspaper reviewer is typically given about 600 words to cover a recent film while a broadcast critic might get five minutes at the top of the hour. “On Access Hollywood Live, which is our morning show, I go on camera every Friday and they give me one minute to talk about two movies,” said film critic Scott Mantz in a recent interview. “I have 30 seconds to say what I have to say about a film. And that’s not ideal.”

This format has remained largely unchanged since it was invented in the early 20th century. Frank E. Woods, who started reviewing films for the The New York Dramatic Mirror in 1908, is widely considered America’s first film critic, and as the film medium entered the mainstream in the 1930s, newspapers began devoting more resources to covering them. Within a few decades, most newspapers either had their own film critic or carried a syndicated column for one, and a reader in the mood to see a new film might open up the paper, read the review, and then check the showtimes for their local theater, which were often listed on the exact same page.

This is not to say that, prior to the internet, film criticism never contained any depth. In addition to scholarly journals that published lengthy treatises on film theory, there were also magazines that would devote significant real estate to articles about film. Entertainment Weekly, launched in 1990, was embraced by an entire generation of film nerds and boasted a circulation in the millions. Writing for The New Yorker from 1968 to 1991, critic Pauline Kael is widely considered to have elevated film criticism as an art form. Roger Ebert claimed she “had a more positive influence on the climate for film in America than any other single person over the last three decades.”

Speaking of Ebert, he’s probably the best example of a pre-internet celebrity critic, someone whose name was instantly recognizable to most Americans, and he could even claim a fandom. His show At the Movies, which he co-hosted with Gene Siskel until Siskel’s death from cancer in 1999, spanned dozens of seasons and established the multi-host format that would become common on podcasts decades later.

For the film lover, At the Movies certainly offered more than your surface-level movie review. By framing the show as a debate between two friendly rivals, Siskel and Ebert were able to expand broadcast film criticism beyond the 60-second slot that local news stations used as filler. And the show was more than a vehicle for movie recommendations; it was a form of entertainment on its own. I combed through old clips of the show on YouTube, and it was obvious to me that the two, even in their most heated debates, were having fun.

But still, the show, though 30 minutes long, limited its purview mostly to recent movies, and the hosts, through their trademarked thumbs up/thumbs down system, viewed their roles as largely arbiters of taste. You watched At the Movies to help you decide what movie to see that weekend, not to analyze the oeuvre of a director so as to pinpoint their recurring themes or editing techniques. And the depth to their reviews was limited. The amount of time dedicated to their review of Silence of the Lambs? Only four minutes.

The time they dedicated to Pulp Fiction? Barely more than three.

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Before there were movie blogs, there were message boards. Forums began to sprout up in the late 90s that became thriving watering holes for TV and film fandoms. Cult TV shows like X-Files, Lost, and Twin Peaks spurred many thousands of threads on sites like Television Without Pity, and in the primordial ooze of these forums a new breed of pop culture critic was born, one who felt less confined by the strictures of traditional criticism and was comfortable approaching film as an unapologetic fan.

That’s not to say that the pop culture blogs these new critics wrote for were always that different from their newspaper predecessors. In the mid-aughts, I regularly read a film review blog called Pajiba, whose tagline was “scathing reviews for bitchy people,” and though its writing was more irreverent and profanity-laced than your average newspaper, it still focused primarily on recently-released films and followed the synopsis + reaction formula that had defined film criticism for most of the 20th century.

It wasn’t until some of these film bloggers started launching their own podcasts that, I think, film criticism began to evolve beyond the review into something with a lot more depth. Suddenly, a review went from something that took five minutes to consume to a conversation that spanned hours. A recent episode of /Filmcast, a roundtable podcast that launched in 2008, spends nearly two hours reviewing the new Blade Runner film. Adam Kempenaar, who founded the long-running Filmspotting podcast, said that this expansive length of time engenders a form of intimacy not found on other mediums. “There’s something about being in someone’s ears, someone’s headphones, for 80 minutes to two hours,” he explained. “People start really developing a connection, and one of the things we realized very early on is that, yes, people respond to the substance of what we’re talking about, but what they’re really enjoying is that that substance is mixed with the conversation and the camaraderie and the personalities of the hosts.”

Podcasting also released these critics from the box office churn of only covering films that were out that week. Early on in Filmspotting’s history, Kempenaar debuted a regular segment, called “Movie Marathon,” in which he and his co-host would watch either an entire genre of film or several films from the same director. “When we started the show we were upfront about the fact that we think we kind of know film, and can hopefully talk about it in a smart way, but we’re far from the end all, be all experts of every facet of cinema,” said Kempenaar. “There are so many films we haven’t seen, and we were determined to fill in these blind spots. We’re going to start these marathons on directors and genres we’re not familiar with and basically force ourselves to broaden our horizons.”

As podcasts grew in popularity and adoption, you began to see the emergence of shows that focused on pop culture sub genres and niches. By the time West Wing Weekly, which discussed every single episode of the eponymous show, debuted, West Wing had been off the air for an entire decade. Even shows with absurdly-narrow niches found huge audiences. One podcasting subgenre, often referred to as “movies by minute,” takes a single film and dedicates an entire episode to every single minute of its playtime. The Ringer wrote that these movies by minute podcasts are “turning hardcore fandom into a new media niche, slicing up popular properties more finely than ever before to capitalize on our growing desire to never be bored.”

What motivates someone to limit themselves to such a narrowly-defined niche? To answer this question, I spoke to Renan Borelli, an editor at the New York Times who’s been podcasting during his free time since 2014. That year, Borelli and his friend Bill Beutler started brainstorming a podcast they could do together, and from the very beginning they both agreed they wanted to pick a topic that was limited in scope, something that was “mainstream enough that it would find a passionate audience but wouldn’t have us tied to doing it for the rest of our lives,” said Borelli. After toying with the idea of a podcast focused on a single album of Radiohead, the two settled on a show that would dedicate each episode to a movie directed by Stanley Kubrick. “It was appealing since he only made 13 movies.” The podcast they eventually launched was called Kubrickcast.

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The project was appealing, said Borelli, because of the level of obsessiveness both he and Beutler could bring to it. “We both love to do our research,” he explained. “I didn’t want to get on a podcast and start talking about some of the greatest movies of all time and not really know what I was talking about, and I’m guessing Bill felt the same way. And so we just ended up doing tons and tons of in-depth research on every episode.” In fact, the two compiled so much material that they ended up devoting multiple episodes to a few of Kubrick’s films (2001: A Space Odyssey got five). What was supposed to be a baker’s dozen episodes ended up spanning 34. And it turned out there was an audience for such obsessive Kubrick coverage; to date, the podcast has been downloaded over 130,000 times. After Kubrickcast ended in 2015, Borelli and Beutler launched a new niche podcast, called Enter the Void, which focuses on surreal, nonlinear films. It now gets thousands of downloads per month.

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Of course, even the most popular film podcasts can’t compare in audience size to the most popular film YouTubers. A successful film podcast might get a couple hundred thousand downloads per episode — much higher than your average text-based review in a magazine or newspaper — but the most-watched videos from Nerdwriter, Every Frame a Painting, and Screenrants, to pick a few well-known film channels at random, have view counts in the millions.

In the early days of YouTube, much of the film criticism on the platform involved a person staring at the camera and offering their opinions on a film, sometimes with scenes from the movie interspliced into their review. Chris Stuckmann, a YouTuber with 1.1 million subscribers, is a good example of this kind of film critic. His reviews average less than 10 minutes in length and follow the plot summary + opinion model.

But other, more sophisticated formats also emerged. In 2005, a film editor named Robert Ryang cut a fake trailer for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining that portrayed the movie as a family comedy. YouTube had been founded that same year, and the video’s virality led to an explosion of recut movie trailers. You had videos reimagining Big as a film about child abduction, Terminator as a chick flick, and Mrs. Doubtfire as a horror movie. These recut trailers then spawned their own sub genres, like one that combined the audio of one trailer with the footage of an entirely different movie (my favorite was the Inception trailer combined with Up).

Most of these recut trailers were one-offs, and while they were fun to watch, they didn’t really teach you anything about film or force you to consider a movie or theme in a new light. But the supercut — a type of video in which a common trope from a film or series of films is spliced together — in some cases forced us to confront the cliches of filmmaking and ask ourselves why they became cliches in the first place.

A history written by Tom McCormack traces the first viral supercut to a 2008 compilation of reality TV contestants proclaiming they’re “not here to make friends.” Once a supercut exposes a Hollywood cliche, then you can never unsee it. After I watched a supercut that pinpointed film characters’ odd predilection for hanging up a phone without saying goodbye, I couldn’t watch a movie without noticing it happening. Alex Moschina, a supercut veteran, told me in 2015 that the magic of the supercut –why millions find it so appealing — is because it takes the things we notice subconsciously and makes them conscious. “It’s definitely something that everyone thinks about, whether they realize it or not,” he said. “They’ll be watching a movie and the main character will do something that makes you think, ‘Who does that in real life?’ Then you realize that if you noticed this weird cliche, other people probably noticed it as well, and so you have a built-in audience that will appreciate the hilarity of that situation and are going to want to see it.”

In many ways, the supercut was a precursor to the modern day video essay. Consider the supercut of slow motion scenes in Wes Anderson films and compare it to the Nerdwriter video essay on David Fincher’s camera framing that I highlighted at the beginning of this article. Both get at the heart of a director’s stylistic choices and show how these choices are used in service of the narrative. Both involved hours of painstaking research in search of clips that reinforced the underlying thesis.

YouTubers didn’t invent the video essay (I detailed in a previous article how it evolved from something called the essay film), but YouTube transformed it into a genre for mass consumption, an art form that amassed its own dedicated fandom. I can’t pinpoint exactly where this evolution took place, but I can highlight some of its early practitioners who must have played a part in its transition.

One is Jim Emerson, a longtime movie blogger who began uploading videos to Vimeo in the late aughts that, while much rougher than many of today’s video essays, went beyond the supercut and added actual commentary. Another is Matt Zoller Seitz, a critic for RogerEbert.com, who, in 2013, began adapting his book The Wes Anderson Collection into a series of video essays. These featured the combination of voice narration, panning stills, and video cuts that are now common tropes in the genre.

Only one of those Wes Anderson videos, however, cracked 100,000 views. The video essay didn’t become the behemoth it now is, I would argue, until 2014, when Tony Zhou debuted his YouTube channel Every Frame a Painting. A video on the comedic editing techniques of director Edgar Wright, uploaded that same year, has over 4 million views. Though the Nerdwriter channel has videos that precede Every Frame a Painting’s founding, it wasn’t until Puschak began adopting Zhou’s style that his videos started seeing consistent virality.

But why are these videos so popular, much more so than the standard film reviews that have been a staple of newspapers for decades? Because these video essays eschew the standard film review format, they’re often watched after the viewer has already seen the film that’s being critiqued. “When I make a video, I always assume people have seen [the film],” said Robert D’Ottavi, who creates videos for the channel iamthatroby. “I think it’s easier to try to convince someone who has seen the film as opposed to someone who hasn’t seen it.” It’s not a coincidence, then, that video essayists often choose films with already-existing fandoms that would be hungry for more analysis. “You have to time it right,” he said. “You have to do videos that people are actually talking about, or movies that are in the discussion constantly.”

Video essays are also more popular than text reviews because they operate in the same exact medium they’re critiquing. “I think with film essays, the creator can get across an idea while at the same time playing a clip that illustrates the idea,” said Karsten Runquist, who runs an eponymous video essay channel. Whereas with a written piece, the critic often struggles to describe scenes that don’t carry over well into text. The voice narration also cements a stronger connection between the narrator and the viewer. “I just think seeing the YouTuber’s face and hearing their voice adds that much more personality and makes it more personal,” said Runquist. “It feels less like you’re reading something that was meant to be put out to the public and more like you’re listening to someone who’s talking to you. That just makes it easier to connect and stay hooked onto it.”

It also helps that YouTube, as a company, has perfected the science of serving up related videos, sending the viewer down a rabbit hole of binge watching. “I’ve gotten a lot of comments saying, ‘I’ve been binge watching your videos for six hours now,’” said Runquist. “At that point I had videos from before that people could watch and binge. That’s a huge part of building a fanbase. I definitely do that with a lot of channels too when I first discover them. I watch all the ones that seem interesting to me and I get hooked. And then I subscribe.”

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The standard film review isn’t going away. At the end of the day, we still need professional critics to tell us whether it’s worth seeing a movie, even if it’s only through their amalgamated scores compiled by Rotten Tomatoes.

But there’s no question that the film review’s progeny, in the form of podcasts and video essays, have freed us from the confines of newspaper column inches and TV Guide schedules, and in the process gave birth to a form of entertainment just as enticing as the films being critiqued. Filmspotting’s Adam Kempenaar told me that this is what appealed to him most about his work.

“We’re not going to be about telling people whether you should spend your money or not spend your money on this movie,” he said. “We’re just going to try to discuss the experience we had with the film personally. What moved us, what appealed to us cinematically, intellectually, emotionally, and spend as much time talking about it as we want. That was the beautiful thing about podcasting. I still don’t know how long a film review should be, but I do know that we definitely take advantage of talking about a movie until we pretty much have nothing more to say about it. Which is something a newspaper critic, a magazine critic, or a television critic — they don’t have that luxury.”

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com