The Death of The Dissolve (and the precarious state of long-form film criticism)
On the evening of July 7, I was seated in a movie theater waiting for a press screening of Minions to start. A minute before the picture was scheduled to roll, my phone vibrated with a call from Keith Phipps, the Editorial Director (read: guy in charge) at one of my regular freelance outlets, The Dissolve. I was in no place to take a call, so I hit the button directing him straight to voicemail and texted to ask if he had called with an urgent concern. It turned out that he had indeed: The Dissolve’s parent company Pitchfork Media had pulled the plug after a trial period of just under two years, during which The Dissolve had failed to turn around sufficient profits.
I was stunned. Just earlier that day, I had filed my review of the posthumous Robin Williams film Boulevard.# I wanted to curl up into a little ball. I wanted to cry. I wanted to yell. But all I could do was wait for Minions to start, and entertain the possibility that some cruel being was looking down and giggling at this Beckettian tableau.
I was worried, and not just because I was suddenly out of a steady freelance gig that made up a significant portion of my monthly income. Most of my concern stemmed from the realization that an enterprise like The Dissolve could fail at all. I was instantly seized by a terrifying thought: If The Dissolve couldn’t work, could anything?
Can a site devoted to deep-dive, scrupulous film criticism survive in the mad scramble for clicks that is online journalism in the year 2015?
By anyone’s account, The Dissolve did everything right. They started with an admirable stable of staff writers, expatriate critics from The A.V. Club looking to set off on their own. Managing Editor Genevieve Koski upheld a rigorous standard for editorial quality, editors Scott Tobias and Tasha Robinson routinely spun the piles of hot garbage I dumped in their inboxes into well-organized, lucid gold, and the other staffers (one of whom you may recognize from around these parts) churned out insightful copy at breakneck speed. The Dissolve ran pieces that you wouldn’t find elsewhere on the internet, whether that meant a unique look at the day’s blockbusters or an exploration into Jean-Claude Van Damme’s engagement with the Hong Kong New Wave in the late ’90s.
Best of all, they did it all honestly. The Dissolve never resorted to the sort of dick-flicking headlines that con readers into clicking on what is, at best, a fraction of a complete article. As a regular contributor to the daily news section, I was told that The Dissolve was not in the business of reporting rumors as fact. And they never, ever ran pro bono work; while I was getting my start as a two-days-a-week intern, I offered to come in during the rest of the week free of charge (mostly to stave off my own boredom) and Keith told me flatly, “I appreciate the gesture, but we don’t do that here.” In an age where Entertainment Weekly rewards “community contributors” with “prestige”, The Dissolve dared to exchange money for publishable writing, a concept that seems more distant with every passing day.
And they lost.
The morning after Minions molested my eyeballs and earholes, a piece ominously titled “The End” signaled the shuttering of The Dissolve.
Which brings us back to that terrifying doubt hanging over the profession of film criticism like the sword of Damocles: Have the days in which a guy/gal could make a stable living writing about movies for a single outlet passed us by?
In the wake of Pitchfork’s decision to take The Dissolve out back and shoot it in the face, there was an outpouring of sympathy from writers who had been fans of the site during its two years, as well as gorgeous eulogies from the fine men and women involved with the site. The older folks pined for the bygone days when a newspaper’s staff critic would stand as the end-all be-all cultural authority for a regionally specific beat, and the internet-savvy types mourned a vital voice in the current online landscape. But they all expressed a similar sentiment. The through-line running across these reactions was an anxiety that film criticism in general is headed into the crapper.
The advent of the internet and data analytics are mostly to blame for these recent developments endangering the future of film criticism. It was much simpler when a person would buy a whole newspaper and all the things inside of it in one fell swoop. Now, with a few clicks of the mouse, an employer can calculate precisely how much money a certain article has brought in, independent of the site as a whole. They can pinpoint and isolate pieces that may be well-written or important but fail to drive traffic, and quash the impulse to write about them in the future.
This privileges quick-and-dirty copy over long-form essay writing. There’s nothing motivating the powers that be to pay a writer $200 for 1,500 words about, say, a forgotten gem of Japanese horror when a 300-word article about the latest casting rumors from the set of Avengers 8 will draw more clicks for a small fraction of the cost. An employer can reduce a writer to a dollar value with terrifying specificity. An employer can sit a human being down with a list of numbers and carefully explain to him why he’s not worth as much as he’s being paid before firing him.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this whole quagmire is that there’s nobody to get mad at. I don’t have any beef with Pitchfork about The Dissolve shutdown; they’re a business, and businesses have to stay solvent. I don’t have any beef with the public who failed to direct sufficient e-attentions towards The Dissolve, either.
In his essay “E Unibus Pluram”, reliable quote-source David Foster Wallace wrote, “And I’m not saying that television is vulgar and dumb because the people who compose the Audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests.” I can’t possibly blame the denizens of the internet for not being into art film enough. I suppose I could be mad at our founding fathers for choosing to organize this nation around a capitalist economy, but that accomplishes very little.
There’s not much anyone can do but bite our fingernails and figure out how we’re making rent this month. But I’ll leave you with one of the final text-message exchanges between me and Keith from that night The Dissolve died:
Like what you read? Share it.
(That helps us.)
Love what you read? Patronize Charles Bramesco.
That helps us and the writer.
What is Patronizing? Learn more here.