A film critic picks a fight with his city’s biggest theatre chain. Will his editor support him? 2,596 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Jensen Hirsch had the second most dangerous job on the newspaper. He was the film critic. If he’d held the most dangerous job, war correspondent, he might have at least received some respect. But movie criticism, as The New Yorker editor Harold Ross once told filmmaker Nunnally Johnson, “was for old ladies and fairies.” And Jensen Hirsch was neither.
“Look at it this way,” Hirsch liked to say whenever anyone dismissed his job as cushy. “A film critic is the only person at a newspaper, magazine, television, radio station, or website whose job is to criticize an advertiser. Sports writers, political columnists, and beat reporters can say what they want and nobody ever complains. But God help the journalist who takes on supermarkets, car dealerships, furniture stores, or real estate.”
Hirsch knew that film criticism was almost an S&M relationship between the movie studios who buy advertising and those who draw a salary for saying if the films are worth seeing. Sure, Hirsch would be on the other end of the occasional call or letter from a director or actor objecting to something he’d written about them. But they were always polite, assuming that Hirsch would be reviewing what they did next. The only people who routinely griped were theatre owners whose box office was dented by a negative Hirsch review. But, even then, they were making so much on advertising kickbacks and inflated house costs that they usually held their tongues. Nevertheless, every now and then some angry exhibitors would call the newspaper publisher to complain and threaten to pull their advertising unless Hirsch was fired. Sometimes they did cancel their ad buys, but they would always skulk back a few days later after the studio raised holy hell. In such cases, Hirsch’s editor, Russell Pelota, would summon the critic and warn that the next negative review could be the one that got him fired.
“Do you want me to like everything?” Hirsch always responded. “A critic who likes everything likes nothing.”