On March 27, New York’s movie hub Film at Lincoln Center announced it was placing its venerated in-house publication, Film Comment, on “indefinite hiatus.” The decision came as part of major cuts which also led the organization to furlough or lay off about 50% of full-time staffers, and all its part-time staff. Film Comment’s May/June issue will be the last one to be published for the foreseeable future, and will only be distributed digitally. In a statement to IndieWire’s Eric Kohn, FLC executive director Lesli Klainberg said the moves were “a decision [the Center] struggled with and did not take lightly,” adding that:
While these actions are very painful in the short-term, we know that eventually, we will be on the other side of this crisis, and because we’ve made these hard choices now we will be well-positioned to thrive again when that time comes.
Ostensibly, the measures have come as a response to the coronavirus pandemic, but questions remain as to whether the latter has only accelerated dismantling processes that have haunted film publications long before the global health crisis erupted. And just what is at stake in Film Comment's fate?
Film Comment is certainly not the first publication to suffer similar tribulations. In August 2018, New York City’s iconic weekly The Village Voice announced it was shutting down after a 63-year run. More recently from across the Atlantic, other nefarious news came from the desks of Cahiers du Cinéma. Founded in 1951 and widely regarded as a mainspring of the medium’s history, early last February the French monthly was sold to a consortium of businesspeople, including many of the most prominent film producers and studios in the country. As reported by Nicolas Madelaine at Les Echos, the new administration expects Cahiers to reassert its pivotal place among French auteur cinema. In practical terms, this means French directors will be invited to write articles, sit for interviews, and will also be dedicated special issues. Speaking to Marie Sauvion at Télérama, Éric Lenoir, who helms the new consortium of owners, said it was time for Cahiers to revamp its “chic” (sic) appeal from bygone decades, but also open up to the industry:
[Cahiers] cannot remain an entrenched camp: it must renew its tradition of openness, of debate, and partnerships. Openness need not mean tepidness, of course, but one can still be convivial without being consensus-based. And critical without being insulting.
What Lenoir was hinting at was the notoriously uncompromising editorial line Cahiers has embraced through the decades. But to give it up would be, as articulated by Richard Brody in a piercing analysis over at The New Yorker, to sacrifice everything Cahiers stands for:
The concept of inviting prominent French filmmakers to come in and take over reeks of nationalistic promotion, in a magazine founded on the premise of internationalism. Cahiers was never “chic”; it was austere; it was world-admired and culturally central when it was at its most confrontational and polemical and, yes, sometimes insulting—and most at odds with the French movie industry at large and its most honoured directors.
This isn't just a battle over the survival of Cahiers, but a more fundamental one over the independence of criticism, and the space (if any) publications as disruptive as Cahiers can enjoy in today’s industry. In an email published in Brody’s piece, Stéphane Delorme, editor-in-chief of Cahiers at the time of the overhaul, weighs in on the argument:
Many people now consider criticism to be the last part of a promotional assembly line: we’re supposed to “help” the auteur cinema. That’s due to the decline of auteur cinema in the movie theatres. Directors and producers think that the press should help them, publish interviews with filmmakers who explain their movies, etc. But this line of thought kills criticism. Criticism is unpredictable, uncontrollable. It’s not part of controlled communications.
On February 27, Delorme and the entire Cahiers staff resigned, denouncing—in a joint press release—conflicts of interest with the new administration. But while the seismic changes may not lead to the magazine's closure (as the new shareholders will presumably want to preserve some of its prestigious appeal—whatever remains of it), “Cahiers as we know it may be dead,” argues Charles Bramesco at Little White Lies:
Regardless of what may come, the certainty is that the global landscape of criticism has been irrevocably altered. Cahiers wasn’t just a pillar of the form, it was one of the last film magazines not beholden to commercial imperatives or the whims of an affiliated body.
Taken at face value, the fate of Cahiers and the “indefinite hiatus” Film Comment was put under should count as different tales. But in an eye-opening take over at his Substack, “Employee Picks,” Film Comment regular Nick Pinkerton wonders whether the COVID-19 crisis has only paved the way for long-planned austerity measures:
My fear—and I pray that it is unfounded—is that the result of the this pandemic will be an expedition of processes of dismantling and destruction long underway, with catastrophe employed as a cover for enacting amidst the chaos the “necessary austerity measures” that have been planned for and put off only for fear of public censure: slashing staff and wages, dealing print pubs the killing blow, and making those short-sighted, identity-diluting “popularizing” pivots that inevitably end with a “Going Out of Business” sign going on the vitrine a few years later and a trip to the glue factory.
Written less than a week before Film at Lincoln Center announced Film Comment’s hiatus, the piece turned out to be all too prescient. And in an illuminating follow-up (a must-read for anyone trying to make sense of the magazine’s predicament, and the state of affairs for culture writing at large) Pinkerton further elaborates on the catastrophic consequences of those homogenizing policies:
Most if not all of the time, the sort of overhauls in “mission” that I’m talking about are made in the name of outreach or popularization. These are magic words, like “synergy,” that executives and board members, those idle rich meddlers, love to hear, though practically they are synonyms for suicide, diluting any sense of distinct identity in pursuit of putting out a product that someone up top thinks the punters will go in for.
Arguably the most crucial question isn’t so much whether Film Comment will return in a digital-only format (a seismic change in and of itself), but whether it will be able to survive without succumbing to a catch-all template for how to succeed in the digital world—the same pivot-to-clickbait route which, Pinkerton argues, spelled the death of so many other outlets. This is no minor concern. Publications of the rare and august species that Cahiers and Film Comment belong to have helped shape the history of the medium, so much so that, in some fundamental sense, upon their integrity depends a slice of cinema’s, too.
The picture is bleak, but there are reasons to remain hopeful. On the other side of the ocean, the British Film Institute’s magazine Sight & Sound vows it’ll power through. “We’re here to stay,” reads a message from editor-in-chief Mike Williams, promising readers some special—and bigger—issues, longer sale windows for the print edition, and a weekly newsletter offering some of the best from the near nine-decade archive. Other publications are unlocking their catalogs: among them, The University of California Press is giving free access to all its journals—including Film Quarterly—through June. Critics and outlets are adapting to the new circumstances, though the pandemic, as Guy Lodge tells Hanna Flint over at Variety, has just jump-started changes that the rise of global streamers and the exponential growth of digital content had kicked off a while back.
And even if the new mandates of cultural institutions and business consortiums will spell the death of the last standing giants in the film publishing world, cinephile culture will find avenues to build and thrive in. To borrow again from Pinkerton’s concluding remarks on Film Comment’s way forward:
[The magazine] should be preserved with its dignity intact, and we should do everything within our power to see that it is. If it so happens, however, that Film Comment has no future, or that its future doesn’t honor the tradition that the masthead has long nurtured, we’ll just break things down and go somewhere else and build things back up again, stronger. I leave you with a goodbye that I first heard from the great novelist and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer: “Take it easy. But take it.”
The Current Debate is a biweekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.