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The One Thing Every Movie Studio Can Do TODAY to Support Diversity in Media Criticism

Equitable access to media screeners will give more voice to reviewers everywhere

Topics: California

In 2018, the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released its landmark study on the demographics of film critics. Ever since, we've been hearing about the need for increased diversity in media criticism, especially when it comes to coverage of big-budget Hollywood movies. And with numbers like the ones in the Annenberg findings (77.8% of the critics in their study were male, and 82% were White), there's no denying that mainstream movie criticism can function as an echo chamber.

When you pair these facts with the popularity and influence of Rotten Tomatoes, which promotes an aggregate score over individual voices, the result is that most critics from underrepresented groups simply don't have a fighting chance to be heard. And that's a significant problem for both filmmakers and moviegoers, because critical reception has a big impact on what gets produced -- and for whom. It's to everyone's benefit when critics are able to bring diverse perspectives and their own lived experiences to bear in evaluating and responding to a movie (or TV show, book, game, etc.).

It's been encouraging to see some companies making efforts to support increased diversity in criticism, including Rotten Tomatoes itself, which overhauled its Top Critics program in late 2020. But there's a significant piece of the puzzle that isn't being addressed: access to high-profile content. Traditionally, major movie studios schedule preview screenings for critics in major cities: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, etc. You get invited, you RSVP, you show up, and you watch the movie. All well and good, but what if you're a critic who doesn't happen to live in an urban area? Or you're physically unable to get to a theater? Should that automatically leave you out?

During the worst part of the COVID-19 pandemic, when movie theaters were closed and studios were forced to get creative with their release strategies, they also had to change the way they got their films in front of reviewers -- i.e. they distributed review screeners. Screeners -- physical or, more often these days, digital copies of media provided to critics and award voters so they can watch the films at their convenience -- aren't a new concept. But until lockdown, they were largely reserved for either end-of-the-year promotional pushes (ahead of the Oscars, etc.) or used to help promote smaller titles whose distributors don't have the marketing budget to rent out theaters for screenings.

COVID put the big studios in the same situation as the smaller distributors, which was rough for their bottom lines but great for leveling the critical playing field. For almost a year and a half, if you had a laptop and WiFi and figured out which publicist to email, the top releases were much more accessible, and to a much broader cohort of critics.

Now, with theaters open again, the studios are going back to their old ways, limiting preview access to critics who can attend in-person screenings in major cities. And that plays right into the circumstances that led to the lack of diversity in film criticism in the first place. Living in Birmingham, Alabama, instead of L.A. or New York City shouldn't disqualify you from being part of the opening-weekend conversation about Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins. That's exactly what happened to the Common Sense Media critic who was originally assigned to cover that title for us, and it had a direct impact on our ability to offer a fresh perspective on that franchise to our community.

If studios and filmmakers truly believe in fostering diversity -- behind the scenes, on camera, and in the dark rooms where writers who care passionately about film and media engage with their work -- then it's time to help make access to those films as equitable as possible. And that means continuing to make screeners available regularly so that reviewers everywhere, from every demographic, have the chance to make their perspectives heard.

Betsy Bozdech

Betsy's experiences working in online parenting and entertainment content were the perfect preparation for her role as Common Sense's editorial director. After earning bachelor's and master's degrees from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in 1997, she began her editorial career at BabyCenter.com and then served as an editor at Reel.com, Emode.com, and AOL's Digital City before working as the site content manager at Netflix for three years -- and then joining Common Sense Media in 2006. She's a lifelong movie and TV fan (favorites include The Princess Bride, 30 Rock, Some Like It Hot, Saturday Night Live, and Star Wars) and is delighted to have a job that makes keeping up on celebrity and pop culture news a necessity -- which, in turn, helps give her (a little) cred with her two kids.

In her role at Common Sense, Betsy has had the privilege of moderating a Comic-Con panel, serving as a juror for the San Francisco Film Festival, touring the set of Imagination Movers, interviewing filmmakers like The Good Dinosaur's Peter Sohn, and much more. She is also a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.

Follow her on Twitter.