Paying for Reviews… The Right Way

userpic=99loveIn the last few days, there has been a… discussion… over on one of my Facebook groups regarding a decision by Bitter Lemons to allow theatres to pay money to get a critic to review their show. General reaction to the decision has been poor, there have even been a few blogs (one, two, three) railing against the issue. There has even been criticism on Bitter Lemons itself.

Now, when I first heard about it, I thought it might be a good way for theatres that are never reviewed to get known. But the discussion has made me realize that that benefit is offset by too many negatives: it looks like pay for good reviews, theatres would be upset paying for bad reviews. It also takes away money that theatres don’t have, according to our pro99 arguments. In short, it’s a bad idea. [I’ll also note that if it is done, there must be transparency: such paid reviews must be clearly marked and segregated.] [ETA: Edited to add emphasis. Note that the segregation mentioned in the previous bracketed comment is so that people can clearly know to ignore the pay-for-play review — I suggested on BL that a glyph such as 💩 (a steaming pile of poo) be used.]

But I’m not an actor. I’m an engineer. I solve problems. These are the problems as I see it:

  1. Bitter Lemons needs to raise funds to support their work.
  2. We need to increase the amount of theatre criticism being published.
  3. Lesser known theatres and theatres off the beaten path with no reputation need an equal chance to be reviewed.

I thought about this a bit, and was musing about how even comp tickets provided to reviewers are a conflict of interest. True independence would be critics buying their own tickets to shows (something I do). This would be just like Consumers Reports buying cars off the lot, not having them be provided by manufactures.

Buying cars off the lot. Like Consumers Reports. Then it hit me…

Perhaps that’s the model we need to move to (and I think someone suggested something like this in the discussion). Theatres and individuals can pay into a fund managed by Bitter Lemons to get reviews for theatres in general, just like people can donate to the Consumers Union foundation. [My wife pointed out that even Consumers Union prohibits manufacturers from donating; in that vein, my original notion was wrong. If we create such a fund — indeed, if reviews are funded — it can only be done by media outlets or perhaps non-profits with no connection to theatre production. Again, this averts any actual or perceived conflict of interest.] This fund can then send critics out to theatres that traditionally don’t get a sufficient threshhold of reviews on Bitter Lemons. That may well be the theatre that has donated, but the theatre did not fund that particular review — there’s not a direct causation of the payment to the review like you have now. In fact, it might be in the interest of larger theatres that regularly get reviewed — and have the funds — to contribute to this fund to help the entire Theatre community get visibility. [The indirect payment notion goes away if we do not permit funding by theatrical entities. The last notion has been pointed out to me to be unworkable — small theatres don’t have the funds to spare; larger theatres would not spare them.]

This, my friends, meets the three goals: (1) Bitter Lemons can still get its cut for reviews; (2) more theatre reviews are published; and (3) theatres that don’t get reviewed get reviewed. It does away with the negative: the theatre is not directly paying for the review of its show. It also permits the “haves” in the community to help those who have not.

[When one raises ideas up the flagpole, sometimes they get shot down. Sometimes it is a BB gun, sometimes a bazooka. In any case, it appears that I, like Colin, didn’t think this through completely. I would still like to come up with a solution to get the theatres that don’t have visibility — and cannot afford publicists — visibility. I have some other ideas to address that, but any idea that does address it must be done under the auspices and funding of a media outlet, not even indirectly funded by the entities reviewed.]

I have suggested this idea to Colin. We shall see what happens.


5 Replies to “Paying for Reviews… The Right Way”

  1. This misstep by Bitter Lemons hardly centers upon a magnanimous desire to review plays at orphan theaters. Rather it is a shameless attempt to exploit underfunded theaters and underemployed reviewers. Bitter Lemons claims to be evolving into a new kind of arts journalism outlet, apparently one that flouts journalistic ethics. Yes, media coverage of theater in Los Angeles has drastically declined but the new model suggested by Bitter Lemons, and by your Pollyanna perversion of the original Bitter Lemons atrocity, threaten the complete ruin of theater criticism altogether.

    Some of us are old enough to remember how innocent lunch time casting director/actor showcases grew into the modern pay to audition workshop industry. Complementary lunches soon morphed into fees of hundreds of dollars for six week sessions so that casting directors or associates or assistants or can ‘teach’ professional actors how to act. If Bitter Lemons charges $150 then how long before papers like The Tolucan demand a similar fee on top of the price of an ad? Larger papers will no doubt feel entitled to a larger fee and all the trolls on the internet will of course want a slice of the pie, too. Call it a fee, charity, payola, a bribe, or whatever it still stinks to high heaven.

    1. A few points in response.

      I think the only person that knows the real motive behind this is Colin, and I tend not to presume malice when it could just be simple stupidity. I believe he wanted to do good for the community, and didn’t think everything through. But irrespective of what his motive was, his implementation was wrong in many ways.

      As for my “Pollyanna idea”: I’m an engineer. I try to devise solutions to meet specifications. My proposal was a strawman, intended to start discussion of how a solution might be derived to address getting reviewers to shows when a paper doesn’t send them, which is what I perceived as the requirement. After I posted it, my wife pointed out the flaw: even if we follow the Consumers model, they don’t permit manufacturers to make donations. If I was home I’d edit that into the past, but I’m at the Hudson with and 8 pm fringe show and home and computer is 40+ miles away. I did, however, find Pollyanna insulting. Naïve is much less pejorative.

      Lastly, I’ll take your word on the casting director slippery slope, not because I’m not old enough (I’ve been on the Internet since 1979, and you probably haven’t), but because I’m a cyber security specialist, not an actor. I’n a regular audience member and I don’t claim more. But just as you claim slippery slope here, I feel there is an equal problem with comp tickets and special receptions for reviews. A bribe is a bribe, whether it is cash or goods. But people refuse to see THAT because it is “industry practice”.

      Thank you for commenting though. So few do. Perhaps we can come up with a way to get more reviews that works without the conflicts of interest and the payment, and a way for BL to get funding without this misguided idea.

      1. You are attempting to defend an idea that you yourself opined was at best the result of simple stupidity. Trying to build a plan on a foundation that is so inherently flawed seems a little more than naive. Likewise claiming that comp tickets and receptions are as objectionable as this Bitter Lemon plan, which has already ignited a firestorm of protest, shows a lack of perspective.

        Both you and Bitter Lemons are advocating for hire reviews. Forget engineering for the moment and consider economics. Where will it stop? Other entities will start charging as well. How do you suppose theater companies will afford this payola? How do you presume that there are 99 seat houses so wealthy that they can afford to pay for other poorer theaters to be reviewed??

        Consider ethics, what happens to the credibility of theater reviews when it becomes known that they are bought and sold like groceries? Reviewers listed on Bitter Lemons’ prospectus are already fleeing the project. It was a terrible idea and should be allowed to die.

        1. You obviously misunderstood my reply. Let me try again, s-l-o-w-l-y.

          1. Although once I thought there might be a purpose to the BL “Imperative”, I completely agree that the idea is inappropriate for a myriad of reasons: appearance of or actual conflict of interest of the reviewer; appearance of or actual conflict with the stated statement about intimate theatres not having the funds; and many many more. In short: I think the plan is inherently flawed.

          2. What I was defending was the man himself: I don’t think Colin proposed this to be malicious. I think he had good intentions, but didn’t think it through.

          3. I’m not saying that comp tickets are as objectionable as the BL plan. What I’m saying is that comp tickets and perks given reviewers are similar: they are giving benefits to the reviewers. If you want a truly independent review, the reviewer should be like any other patron (and like restaurant critics): anonymous and paying for their product.

          To say it again, so perhaps you get it: I am not in favor of the BL plan. I am not in favor of actual or perceived conflicts of interests for reviewers. I am not advocating “for hire” reviews* (the * being if the “for hire” is done by a media outlet).

          As for 99 seat houses so wealthy the could afford to pay. They can’t. But there are other larger houses that might (think the big big houses in the city). But they likely won’t.

          Now that I’m home, I will be editing my post to make my position much clearer.

          Again, I thank you for your comments and for this discussion. Hopefully, you’ll continue reading what I write.

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