After about 30 minutes of diatribe, one of the two performers who was denouncing my work arrived at a sort of thesis statement: “You shouldn’t review podcasts because no one gets paid for them.”
The films, TV shows, music, and books The A.V. Club reviews are all fair game, his argument went, because all the people involved in them were paid for their work. That certainly isn’t the case in real life—not everyone gets paid—but he wasn’t hearing it. He was too busy telling me that a couple of negative reviews in our Podmass feature about him had “seriously damaged” his career, and he suggested that our weekly podcast roundup was all that stood between him and a TV show. I tried to reason with him, because the dogs at Hot Doug’s are worth the long lines, even if you’re next to someone who tells you, repeatedly, that you’ve nearly ruined his livelihood. Although he and his similarly aggrieved friend were avid Podmass readers, they said the concept of reviewing podcasts was faulty, because no one should be judged for something they do for free.
I’ve heard a lot of criticism that supposedly invalidates individual A.V. Club reviews, but never because of what the person on the other end of it was paid. If their pro bono podcasting exempts them from critical scrutiny, then does someone like Jimmy Pardo, who charges for Never Not Funny, deserve extra-rigorous examination? Extrapolating from there, should we grade Mark Duplass on a curve because he pulls down a lot less per film than Leonardo DiCaprio?
The money behind a project can and does influence what people think of it. That occurs most frequently with big-budget films, particularly if they don’t do well. Few reviews of the science-fiction flop John Carter, which cost a reported $250 to $300 million, failed to mention its astronomical budget. (“At $300 million, Disney’s John Carter is trash for cash,” crowed the subhead in the New York Post’s review.) For that kind of money, the thinking goes, it’d better be good.
On the low-budget end of the spectrum, people tend to be a lot more forgiving. Clerks’ stilted acting gets a pass, even when it occasionally makes Kevin Smith’s debut film difficult to watch. As Tasha Robinson pointed out when she and I talked about this phenomenon, people discussing Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi are practically bound by law to mention the film cost only $7,000 to make. Adjusting its $15,000 for inflation, Paranormal Activity probably cost about the same, but has gone on to become a massively successful franchise while maintaining the low-budget look of its first installment.
HBO’s short-lived horseracing series Luck clearly wasn’t cheap, thanks to its setting and the attached big names. (Luck’s high budget and low ratings likely assisted HBO’s decision to cancel the series after a string of horse deaths.) Dustin Hoffman probably made a lot more money for his role in Luck than Louis C.K. makes for creating, starring in, directing, and until recently, editing the much more modestly budgeted Louie. Luck had hype, Louie has scrappiness. The former fuels backlashes (as Luck learned); the latter makes audiences more forgiving—to a point.
Because nothing will save something that simply isn’t good, big budget or no budget. We tend to use money to reinforce our feelings—bad (“It’s astounding that John Carter cost $300 million and was still that bad”) and good (“Can you believe Brick was made for only $475,000?”)—but it doesn’t dictate the discussion. Nor should it, whether James Cameron spends several hundred million dollars to make Avatar or someone invests a couple hundred bucks on equipment to start a podcast.
Podcasts obviously aren’t movies, and The A.V. Club doesn’t treat the two media the same way. (Films get long, individual reviews with letter grades; podcasts get a short paragraph and no letter grade, and are grouped into a large feature that compiles a couple dozen of them.) Relatively few films find distribution every year, much less make it into multiplexes, but thousands of new episodes of podcasts are released every day. It’s a thriving, fascinating medium, and Podmass helps A.V. Club readers not only know what may interest them, but also what they should make time to hear this week.
Money aside, maybe the real commodity here is time. Tasha put it nicely: Considering the public has never had more options, maybe one of the big tests with art these days is how well it spends people’s time, not how much it cost to produce or what the people making it were paid. Everything can’t get an “A” simply because of the effort that went into creating it.
Or the money/lack of money behind it. Whether artists have a film currently in theaters or a podcast available in the iTunes store, they’re releasing something into the world. They can’t ask the world to consider their bank accounts before forming an opinion on it.