Jeers, cheers over paid re­views

Some see good in Bit­ter Le­mons’ of­fer to the­aters, but many oth­ers are aghast.

Los Angeles Times - - THEATER - By Mike Boehm Es­tab­lished the­aters with a solid rep­u­ta­tion can ex­pect pro­fes­sional re­views of each show with­out hav­ing to shell out cash for them, said Po­lak of Theatre @Bos­ton Court. “But it puts the new and younger, smaller com­pa­nies in a re­ally diffic

The adage “You get what you pay for” has ac­quired new mean­ing on the L.A. theater scene, where a busy stage web­site, Bit­ter Le­mons, is mak­ing this of­fer to the­aters: Send us $150 and we’ll send you a re­viewer.

Bit­ter Le­mons founder Colin Mitchell says he’s re­spond­ing to the dwin­dling num­berof re­views by pro­fes­sional crit­ics amid up­heaval in the media in­dus­try. Many tra­di­tional out­lets have re­trenched in the face of fall­ing ad rev­enues they’ve re­lied on to fund cov­er­age, in­clud­ing arts re­views. He’s ask­ing theater com­pa­nies them­selves to help fill the void. But many are re­fus­ing. “I would be em­bar­rassed if I paid for one of these re­views,” said Brian Po­lak, mar­ket­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions chief at Pasadena’s Theatre @Bos­ton Court. “The ma­jor­ity of [theater] peo­ple are up­set and think it’s a bad idea.”

“It sounds a lit­tle weird,” said Tim Dang, pro­duc­ing artis­tic di­rec­tor of East West Play­ers in L.A. “‘If you pay me, I’ll cover you.’ That sounds a lit­tle crim­i­nal.”

“This … ar­range­ment … un­der­mines the cru­cial cred­i­bil­ity of not only Bit­ter Le­mons’ crit­ics, but all crit­ics,” the Amer­i­can Theatre Crit­ics Assn. said in a writ­ten state­ment. “When our work is put out for sale to those we cover, we are con­cerned not just for the crit­i­cism it­self, but for the by­pass­ing of ed­i­to­rial judg­ment” as to what mer­its at­ten­tion and what does not.

But some see it as an op­por­tu­nity: As of Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, 30 shows had been re­viewed, with at least one posted each day, since the new pol­icy took full ef­fect June 6. A pre­lim­i­nary paid re­view had run May 4, with lit­tle public no­tice. That means about $1,500 in earn­ings for re­view­ers, whom Mitchell says he has vet­ted for skill and ex­pe­ri­ence, and about $750 for Bit­ter Le­mons. Hol­ly­wood Fringe Fes­ti­val par­tic­i­pants have bought nearly all the re­views, and they are get­ting an in­tro­duc­tory break of $75 per re­view, with the critic earn­ing $50 and Bit­ter Le­mons tak­ing the rest.

At the full price, Bit­ter Le­mons’ cut re­mains $25, and re­view­ers get $125. Another perk for the crit­ics is all the space they want. Mitchell said sev­eral “reg­u­lar” shows have booked fu­ture re­views. “I trust these writ­ers,” he­said. “If the work’s no good, it’s not go­ing to fly.”

In his lead­off re­view June 6, OC Weekly theater critic Joel Beers de­cided to con­front the bark­ing he an­tic­i­pated from theater peo­ple, jour­nal­ists and read­ers.

“Re­ally, there’s no way [of] win­ning,” Beers wrote in a pro­fanely sar­donic pre­am­ble to what even­tu­ally be­came a neg­a­tive re­view of “Sin: A Pop Opera.” A pos­i­tive re­view, Beers said, would have been seen as a craven sell­out, and if he’d dared write a neg­a­tive one, Bit­ter Le­mons likely would have lost a cus­tomer and his own paid as­sign­ments would have dried up.

“So, since I’m only in this for the money, and the blood­thirsty mer­ce­nary in me trumps any pre­tense of in­tegrity and bal­ance, the rest of what fol­lows in this re­view… will be a bunch of pos­i­tive, com­pro­mised hokum.”

How sys­tem works

Mitchell did not want to com­ment at length for this story, but his web­site de­tailed his mo­tives and how the sys­tem worked. If the theater com­mu­nity did not feed re­spon­si­ble theater crit­i­cism by pay­ing for it, Mitchell rea­soned, then it would go on wast­ing away, with con­se­quent harm to the theater ecol­ogy. “We will guar­an­tee you [a] qual­ity re­view,” he promised his po­ten­tial cus­tomers. “You don’t get guar­an­teed a fa­vor­able re­view.” They also don’t have a say in whom he sends.

Joe Saltz­man, a pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism and com­mu­ni­ca­tions at USC, said words such as “ap­palled” and “atroc­ity” flashed in his mind when he first heard the plan. Then he checked out the web­site, saw Mitchell’s ex­pla­na­tions, and read some of the re­views.

“I think it’s not that bad a deal,” Saltz­man said. “It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing way to try to solve a very dif­fi­cult prob­lem I thought was un­solv­able. They don’t have money to hire crit­ics, so how else do they keep a pool of tal­ented, free­lance crit­ics? As long as it’s trans­par­ent, as long as the au­di­ence isn’t be­ing fooled, I don’t have a prob­lem with it. I wouldn’t be happy pay­ing $150 for a bad re­view, but if you had enough faith in the work, you could gam­ble.”

A ‘dif­fi­cult po­si­tion’

Mariah Tauger Los An­ge­les Times

HOL­LY­WOOD

Fringe Fes­ti­val par­tic­i­pants have taken Bit­ter Le­mons up on its paid-re­viewer of­fer. But other troupes are op­posed to plan.

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