The Reel Deal

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.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela