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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

They review movies on TikTok, but don’t call them critics

Megan Cruz, known as jstoobs on TikTok, at her home in Los Angeles, Aug. 1, 2023. On MovieTok, reviewers can reach an audience of millions and earn tens of thousands of dollars per post. “Critics,” they say, are old news.

By Reggie Ugwu

Maddi Koch loves to spread the gospel about a good movie. Her favorites are little-noted thrillers with few stars but juicy concepts or dig-your-nails-into-the-sofa plot twists.

On TikTok, where Koch has 3 million followers (and goes by Maddi Moo), her review of “What Happened to Monday,” about a dystopian world where seven identical sisters share a single identity, has drawn more than 24 million views. “If I were to die tomorrow, I’d watch this tonight,” she raved.

Koch, who is a senior at Virginia Tech and is sometimes paid by film companies to promote their work, said she makes videos to connect people and to spare them “the pain of arguing over finding a movie or not knowing what you’re really looking for.” (Most of her videos, including the “What Happened to Monday” review, are not sponsored.) When asked, she’ll describe herself as a “random girl” who loves movies, a “content creator,” or, sure, even an “influencer.”

But one title that she would never use might be the most obvious: “Critic.”

“I just don’t see myself in that light,” she said.

Koch, 22, is among dozens of personalities on TikTok, along with peers like Straw Hat Goofy and Cinema.Joe, who reach millions of people by reviewing, analyzing or promoting movies. Several earn enough on the platform — from posts sponsored by Hollywood studios (many have taken a break from working with them since the actors’ strike), through one of TikTok’s revenue sharing programs or both — to make their passion for film a full-time job, a feat amid long-standing cuts to arts critic positions in newsrooms.

But the new school of film critic doesn’t see much of itself in the old one. And some tenets of the profession — such as rendering judgments or making claims that go beyond one’s personal taste — are now considered antiquated and objectionable.

“When you read a critic’s review, it almost sounds like a computer wrote it,” said Cameron Kozak, 21, who calls himself a “movie reviewer” and has 1.5 million followers. “But when you have someone on TikTok who you watch every day and you know their voice and what they like, there’s something personal that people can connect to.”

On MovieTok — as the community is known — the most successful users generally post at least once per day, with videos typically ranging between 30 and 90 seconds. Many attempt to capture the viewer’s attention within the first three seconds (“This movie’s perfect for you if you never want to sleep again,” begins Koch’s review of the hit horror film “Barbarian”) and speak directly to the camera, with screenshots from the film in the background.

Many creators, most in their 20s or early 30s, specialize within a particular niche. Joe Aragon (Cinema.Joe, 931,000 followers) is known for his breakdowns of coming attractions; Monse Gutierrez (cvnela, 1.4 million followers) and Bryan Lucious (stoney_tha_great, 387,000 followers) demystify and rank horror films; Seth Mullan-Feroze (sethsfilmreviews, 256,000 followers) leans toward art house and foreign cinema.

Unlike film departments at major metropolitan newspapers or national magazines, individuals on MovieTok generally don’t aspire to review every noteworthy film. And while most expressed admiration for traditional critics’ grasp of film history, they tended to associate the profession as a whole with false or unearned authority.

“A lot of us don’t trust critics,” said Lucious, 31. He was one of many who pointed to the review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, where the scores of “Top Critics” often differ widely from those of casual users, as evidence that the critical establishment is out of touch. “They watch movies and are just looking for something to critique,” he said. “Fans watch movies looking for entertainment.”

MovieTok creators are not the first in the history of film criticism to rebel against their elders. In the 1950s, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and other writers of the journal Cahiers du Cinéma disavowed the nationalism of mainstream French criticism. In the 1960s and ’70s, New Yorker critic Pauline Kael assailed the moralism associated with Bosley Crowther, a longtime movie critic of The New York Times, and others. And movie bloggers in the 2000s charged print critics with indifference or hostility to superhero and fantasy films.

“There’s always this denigrating of those so-called ‘other’ critics as somehow elitist and old-fashioned while presenting yourself as the new avant-garde,” said Mattias Frey, head of the department of media, culture and creative industries at the City University of London and the author of “The Permanent Crisis of Film Criticism.” He defined criticism, by any name, as “evaluation grounded in reason,” citing philosopher Noël Carroll.

Juju Green, a 31-year-old former advertising copywriter, sees himself as on a “mission to combat film snobbery.” Known as Straw Hat Goofy, Green is the most prominent member of MovieTok, with 3.4 million followers and an emerging side career as a correspondent and host. His most popular video, in which he identifies Easter eggs in Pixar movies, has nearly 29 million views.

Seven years ago, Green started a movie-themed channel on YouTube — which favors longer, more produced videos — but abandoned it after the birth of his first child. On TikTok, he found that he could reach an enormous audience with relatively little effort. He said one of his first videos on the platform, a post from January 2020 about Tom Holland’s performance in “Avengers: Endgame,” received more than 200,000 views in about an hour.

“I had a feeling like I was meant to do this,” he said. Green quit his advertising job last year.

Without the salary of a news organization, MovieTok creators earn money by partnering with entertainment companies. A sponsored post promoting a film or streaming service can be worth anywhere from $1,000 to $30,000.

Green’s clients have included Disney, Paramount and Warner Bros., among others. In January, Universal paid him to create a post at an NFL game promoting the movie “M3GAN” that received nearly 7 million views — part of a marketing campaign that helped the film earn $30.2 million in the United States and Canada on opening weekend, about 30% more than box office analysts had predicted.

It is impossible, of course, to make a direct link between TikTok influencers and ticket sales. But there are signs that the impact can be considerable. Sony executives have cited MovieTok campaigns as one reason for the strong performance of “Insidious: The Red Door,” which cost $16 million to make and has taken in a surprising $183 million worldwide.

Being paid by the studios presents an obvious conflict of interest. Creators may be reluctant to speak negatively about the products of a company that pays them (or might). While traditional news organizations, including the Times, sell ads to movie studios, they do not allow critics, reporters or editors to accept compensation from them and generally keep editorial and business operations separate.

Carrie Rickey, who was the film critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer from 1986 to 2011, said she refrained from working too closely with studios to avoid even the “appearance of impropriety.”

“It would mar my reputation as an independent writer,” she said.

Many on MovieTok have evolved an ad hoc code of ethics — accepting payment only for trailer announcements or general recommendations, for example, rather than true reviews — but recognize accusations of bias as an occupational hazard.

“I always try to be super transparent with my viewers,” said Megan Cruz (jstoobs, 535,000 followers), noting that she is careful to identify gifts and sponsorships in her videos. “We do exist in this in-between space, and I think it’s important to clarify whenever you’re getting any kind of advantage.” (By law, paid endorsements on TikTok must be labeled, but gifts, including swag boxes and travel to red carpet events, are not always disclosed.)

Another source of income is TikTok itself. Since 2020, the platform has shared revenue with accounts that meet eligibility requirements. Gutierrez said that between sponsored posts and payouts from TikTok, she has made as much as four times the salary of her previous job as a substitute teacher.

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