Critics, Filmmakers, and the Good Old Days: Peter Zerzan on the Changes in the Film Industry

The Golden Hollywood Era, when Casablanca revolutionized how we explore love and sacrifice, Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum brought a whole new meaning to noir, and Marlon Brando engraved himself in the pages of cinematic history with the most memorable bawl of the century, has drastically transformed over the years.

Then came the wild 70s and 80s. From the rise of westerns that gifted the industry with the most famous cowboy duo, Newman and Redford, to thrilling action films and a new era of sci-fi, led by Alien and Predator, this industry period brimmed with adrenaline rushes, hideous monsters, and superstars.

What is being played in dim cinema theaters (or – these days – on fast-paced streaming services) has changed just as much as the reality of filmmakers, critics, and film stars. Toward these changes, Peter Zerzan, an independent and award-winning filmmaker, takes a critical approach to scrutinizing the impact of technology on the industry.

“It was an era when a completely unknown Shane Black could get $250,000 for a script he wrote just out of college. It was when Quentin Tarantino went from video store clerk to the hottest film director on the planet in a short time,” adds Peter. “The reason there were so many books about how to write the perfect screenplay is that we had cases of people making $5 million of their script before the movie was cast, much less shot. It was a get-rich-quick scheme if ever there was one.”

Zerzan attributes swift rises to fame to the vastly different landscape. When Tarantino made the headlines with Pulp Fiction, the film was largely driven by John Travolta and Bruce Willis, who had made their mark already. Shane Black’s Lethal Weapon success was no surprise either, as the cast had Mel Gibson in the starring role. “If a film had a big name attached to it, it was a safe bet to make profits and create more stars,” Peter says.

These days, directors struggle with rapid success, jarred by rising production costs, the outflux of films competing for attention, and the omnipresent influence of technology. Adding fuel to the fire is the rising IP trend that seems to have completely replaced the 80s superstar glory. “When you go from directing a $5 million production with little to no VFX and CGI to creating 200 million-dollar Marvel films, you’re overwhelmed by the task and lose the sense of control. That’s why many filmmakers feel out of their element and often fail,” adds Peter.

A double-edged sword, technology streamlines the production process exponentially, reducing costs and time, and creating high-quality images hassle-free. However, it also makes the film distribution process more challenging. Since the rise of streaming services, theatrical releases have become less crucial, and filmmakers grapple with finding the right platforms that will let their movies shine.

Do critics share the same fate? According to Zerzan, film criticism is lurking around every online corner, from YouTube and Reddit to X and Letterboxd.

To pinpoint the beginning of this new era for critics, Peter recounts, “In 2009, filmmaker Mike Stoklasa posted a 70-minute review of The Phantom Menace on YouTube. Acting like Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs, he took the film apart, dissecting and attacking every little detail. While this may not have been the birth of the YouTube film review, it certainly popularized it. Critics might have been lukewarm to the prequels but this video finally allowed all the fan anger a place to go.”

Financially, technology opened up many gateways for film critics to generate stable income. “Whether through Patreon or premium YouTube content, creators can earn significant money. If you convince 5,000 people to pay $10 a month for your opinion, you will live comfortably,” he adds. Compared to television, creating online videos or writing reviews is also much cheaper.

Another element that makes these critics different from the old ones is that most of the YouTubers are would-be filmmakers. Often, these videos have a narrative story mixed in them. Unlike the print journalists of old, who many times fell into film criticism by accident, these reviewers want to make movies themselves.

“Age is another key factor here. This isn’t “Gen Z” or TikTokers or young high school students going on about key franchises. Most of these reviewers are in their 30s and 40s. They have a memory of a time before the IP era and hope they can turn into their favorite 80s or 90s superstars,” Peter elucidates. “All they need is for the right agent to see their YouTube video and they’ll get hired to make some 9-figure action movie. The problem is, in the IP Era, studios will not take the risks they once did.”

In the era of print and television, statements would have to go through editors, producers, and fact-checkers. Nowadays, with so much information out there, critics can make claims that aren’t true about certain films or properties.

“This is the age of sincerity,” says Peter. “It doesn’t matter if what you have to say about a particular film is insightful or even factually accurate. It’s not an issue if you don’t have any understanding of how films are made. What matters is that your opinions are sincerely held.”

Navigating technological changes in the film industry is as challenging as it is rewarding, bestowing some with unique opportunities and crushing the dreams of others. For Peter, the solution is striking a balance between leveraging the potential of technology and maintaining old-school ways. “Not everything has to be a huge hit, and we need to get out of a mindset that this category is the only one that matters,” he shares.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.