Movie critics, beware: Former film student Andrew Ramsammy wants to replace you with a bunch of wanna-bes -- Middle American moviegoers whose membership in Ramsammy's Reel Truth "film community" gets them free movie passes in exchange for their appraisals. The heck with informed opinion, Ramsammy says; let's let the people decide how many stars that new independent art film deserves. What do critics know, anyway?
New Times: What are you doing? What's the Reel Truth?
Andrew Ramsammy: It's an online film community of over 4,000 members, founded by my wife Angela and me. We give out film passes to people, and ask them to write reviews of the films on our Web site. Since April of this year, we've done over 55 films and given out over 16,000 tickets. It's a way to get the community to come see films they wouldn't see normally before they open in the theater, so they can come up with their own opinion of what the film is before they hear it from a film critic. The movie studios back us because they want the pre-opening buzz; their idea is that if they can reach 300 people, and those 300 people tell 10 people each, then they've reached 300,000 people who are gonna . . . wait, are my numbers right?
NT: Uh, no.
Ramsammy: I mean, 300 times 10 -- that's 30,000 people.
NT: Three thousand.
Ramsammy: Okay, 3,000. So the studios figure if we get 3,000 people talking about a small, independent film, they can get some good buzz going about it.
NT: But do people in Phoenix want to see intelligent movies? I mostly hear people talking about the new Ben Affleck movie, or whatever.
Ramsammy: Right. One of the problems with the population here is that they've been misled into thinking there's only one type of film, and that's the major Hollywood blockbuster. There hasn't been an opportunity to teach them otherwise.
NT: So what you're doing is training us to look for little films.
Ramsammy: What we want to do is make people aware that there are alternatives. That other films that aren't blockbusters are out there, too. That kind of movie won't be on the front page of the Arizona Republic.
NT: You let your members critique films on your Web site. But do we care what laypeople think about films?
Ramsammy: I think it's important to let people feel as if they're part of a greater film community. That they have an opportunity to express an opinion about what they saw. These are intelligent people who are educating themselves to become their own mini critic.
NT: They're intelligent, but you still feel compelled to post a warning to them on your Web site: "Please only rate movies you've actually seen."
Ramsammy: People want to score points with us sometimes by saying they've seen all these movies, and they're cheating others by suggesting they've seen a film and that their opinion counts as much or more than a film critic's.
NT: I guess. So, what's this thing about heading off film critics? They're just offering an opinion.
Ramsammy: One of the problems I've seen is that a film critic's opinion is given too much weight. With some small films, the expectation is too high. That gets translated to their review, and you read it and say, "This critic gave this movie one star, but he gave the $10 million one about blowing up the world four stars, which will I go see?" In essence, the decision has already been made by the reader, based on the number of stars it was given by a critic.
NT: Yet you ask your members to rate movies from one to five. Same thing.
Ramsammy: Right. We do that because we want them to understand that they have the power to rate a movie themselves. That they don't necessarily have to go with what a movie critic says. What happens is we'll have a movie and then our members will give the movie four stars, and a well-known movie critic will give it one.
NT: Hello! It's called two different opinions! Are you saying that one of them is right?
Ramsammy: I'm not saying one of them is right, but when we have 80 members review a film and give it four stars, and then we have one critic's opinion that gives it one star, there's more weight when a group of people say they like it.
NT: You keep talking about how people don't go see movies if they receive bad reviews. But I think people don't go see movies if they don't have exploding cars or Nicole Kidman in them.
Ramsammy: Right. That's why the Reel Truth is here. We want people to know that just because there's no major actor in it, it doesn't mean it's going to be a bad film.
NT: But you seem to believe that film critics are keeping people from seeing good movies. I think it's because people are too stupid to realize there's no such thing as a "good movie."
Ramsammy: That's one of the reasons we want to educate people about how it's important not to just believe everything they read.
NT: Why not educate people about the difference between criticism and consumerism? That just because you read a critic's negative review, it doesn't mean, "This is a bad movie and you shouldn't go see it."
Ramsammy: Right. That's what we tell our members. Whenever you see a movie review, it's only an opinion, not absolution.
NT: Huzzah! Is it really news that a critic is merely offering an informed opinion about what he saw? Why do we believe that critics are just telling us which tickets to spend our money on?
Ramsammy: Our society is built on the power of information, and unfortunately society has given the people who share that information too much power, and they've become puppets to what is being said, without questioning it. We want to give people back their power of opinion, instead of letting it just reside with the media. Because then we become victims of the media.
NT: Well, on behalf of the media, we're awfully sorry. But, listen: You're asking for the opinions of laypeople. Isn't the collective critic the same as the paid critic? It's still people saying what they thought of a movie, and other people deciding what movie to go see based on that.
Ramsammy: We want people to look at [which member] wrote the review and realize that, if you share that person's opinion, you would go to him as a reliable source. It's like having a community of friends who think a movie is good or bad, and I think that's more valuable than hearing the opinion of a movie critic in a newspaper.
NT: I think you couldn't possibly be more wrong, because a newspaper critic is probably offering a more informed opinion, and is maybe trained in critical thinking.
Ramsammy: Those are big assumptions.
NT: But listen to the way people talk about movies, or books, or plays, or whatever. You ask them what they thought of what they saw or read, and they say, "It was good." You talk that way yourself. You should maybe teach people that movies aren't either good or bad, but that they have a certain value to different viewers.
Ramsammy: What I want to do is promote multiple opinions. There's no such thing as the truth, there are only the truths. Film critics all have certain likes and dislikes. They're human. If you're a film critic and you go to review an action movie, but you don't like action movies, can you remove yourself from being human and just be analytical?
NT: Absolutely. It's called employing critical thinking. Have you actually based your whole "film community" around the notion that critics are just coldhearted meanies who have too much power and too many expectations?
Ramsammy: Critics walk in with an expectation about what they're about to see. If you go to review a movie about homosexuality and you're morally opposed to homosexuality, can you really be objective?
NT: If you're a critic, it's your job!
Ramsammy: I've talked to film critics. I know some of them here in town. And they say, "I didn't like the movie because it didn't have this, that, or the other thing." We're hoping our members will critique a film with a more open mind than most critics do. We think there's a professional code among critics, and there isn't.
NT: I can't believe we're sitting here talking about protecting movies from the critics' opinions. Is someone going to come in here and change our diapers in a minute?
Ramsammy: Listen, there's a film critic in town who gives four stars to every blow-'em-up, shoot-'em-up, but he'll only give one star to any melodrama. There is bias among critics, which is unfair because filmmakers want to be as respected by the public for their work as much as a film critic does for his. It's not fair, and that's why the Reel Truth exists. So people will have some opinion to go to other than the critics', and learn to trust their own opinions.
NT: Isn't it a better idea to just go and see the movie, or the play, or the painting, and have the experience, good or bad, of seeing it?
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Ramsammy: Yes. And the unfortunate part is that many filmgoers walk in thinking they need to be fulfilled; they have to achieve X for the movie to be good. What we want them to do is to walk in without that expectation, which robs them of the experience of seeing the film the way it was meant to be seen. We want to teach that.
NT: Good luck.
Ramsammy: Thanks. I think I'll need it.