An audience watches a film in a time BT (Before Twitter). Should we reminisce fondly about those halcyon days, when not everyone was a have-a-go critic? Image: Getty
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Is everyone really a critic?

User-generated content is driving out expert or elite opinion and this is affecting the film reviewing trade in particular.

Hatchet Job: Love Movies, Hate Critics
Mark Kermode
Picador, 256pp, £16.99

The rhino-skinned, imperturbable Stephen Fry spoke for a nation of fragile creatives when he asked, “What decent person would want to spend a life picking and cavilling?” Setting aside that there is more to arts criticism than spotting a Viking extra wearing a wristwatch, he probably won’t have professional critics – of film, music or anything – to complain about for much longer.

The internet and social media have trapped the scribbler-in-the-dark in a pincer movement. The former has pushed newspapers into such penury that editors increasingly see their arts desks as luxuries (the Independent on Sunday fired all of its critics in September). The latter offer up the prospect of a more “democratic” critical landscape, forgetting that the sales chart is a fairly democratic measure of what the public thinks and that some perspectives on works of art cannot be expressed in 140 characters.

Nevertheless, user-generated content is driving out expert or elite opinion and this is affecting the film reviewing trade in particular. “Everyone’s a critic” is no longer a Hollywood curse but a simple statement of fact. If reviewers can’t get paid, where are the next Barry Normans, Alexander Walkers and Pauline Kaels going to come from? Do we even need them?

Mark Kermode, the Observer’s cinema critic and co-host with Simon Mayo of the best movie programme available at present in any medium (Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, BBC Radio 5 Live, Fridays, 2pm), is better placed than most to ride out the twilight of the critics and understand its consequences. An educated movie man moulded by the film underground of the 1970s and 1980s – loves The Exorcist and Silent Running; hates Michael Bay and 3D projection – he still reacts to cinema with the open-minded enthusiasm of someone who sees going to the pictures as a treat.

Kermode’s technique on the radio is to scatter nuggets of theory and insight through highly amusing digressions as Mayo plays plain-speaking Ernie to his fulminating Bert. (You can tell Kermode loves cinema because it makes him so angry.) This approach works less well in print, where the reader may want to yell “cut” at overlong anecdotes about film-makers who’ve confronted the writer over a bad review.

Hatchet Job doesn’t quite deliver on the premise of its title. In fact, it’s a valiant defence of what Kermode calls proper movie criticism: writing that is thoughtful, informed and, above all, honest. Anyone who wants to read a true bestiary of harsh reviews should run, not walk, to a copy of I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie by Kermode’s hero Roger Ebert instead.

Hatchet Job is, however, entertaining. It is actually two books, intercut like Ran (if you know your Cahiers du Cinéma) or Pulp Fiction (if you don’t) into one. In the first strand, Kermode argues that because cruel reviews are undoubtedly more fun to read and to write than positive ones, the internet’s supply of ignorant snark is bound to increase. Unlike obscure tweeters, the professionals have skin in the game, be it their utility as a recommender of quality, their reputation for factual accuracy, or just their paycheque. Nobody ever got kicked off Facebook for getting stuff wrong or making stuff up about a movie.

But since the advent of the audience test screening – see Kermode’s forensic account of how the original “operatic” ending of the bunny-boiling thriller Fatal Attraction was replaced with a pandering finale to ensure that the “bitch” got her comeuppance – it’s been a given that the public is always right. Recuts based on audience or Twitter reaction would have given us a neutered Casablanca in which Rick gets the girl, Kermode argues. With critics diminished, there is one less line of defence to point out that what the audience wants is not necessarily what it needs.

This is lowering stuff but the second strand, which could be subtitled “Great Squabbles in Movie History”, leavens it. Among other detours, Kermode presents lively recaps of the feud between the maverick director Ken Russell and his nemesis, the Evening Standard’s morally upright critic Alexander Walker; and a chivalrous retelling of the erratic but probably underappreciated career of John Boorman of Deliverance fame and Zardoz infamy. His picture of a lost world of itinerant reviewers subsisting on complimentary sandwiches in screening rooms across Soho is hopelessly sentimental but, hey, so is Silent Running.

Not being clairvoyant, Kermode is unclear about what will happen to film criticism when the digital dust settles – if it ever does. I suspect that he will do what Ebert did: expand his reach through video blogs, the web and any other means to consolidate a global brand. But the world needed only one Roger Ebert and it may only need one Mark Kermode. How their successors will earn a crust, hone their trade and spread their personal brand remains to be seen.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times