Jeers, cheers over paid reviews
Some see good in Bitter Lemons’ offer to theaters, but many others are aghast.
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’
Fringe Festival participants have taken Bitter Lemons up on its paid-reviewer offer. But other troupes are opposed to plan.