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Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert

Is Cinema Sins Film Criticism?

We don't have the time to have an in-depth discussion on the purpose of art criticism and the difference between commercial and academic writings, so for the sake of simplicity let's begin by defining film criticism as a piece of work reacting to and analyzing a movie.

When it started, Cinema Sins was part of what felt like a new wave of film criticism that moved beyond academic essays and even traditional reviews (written or video) into a sort of internet-defined form. This is why they're so often compared (and mistaken) for Honest Trailers; Screen Junkies' banner series rose to prominence at a similar time (HT a few months earlier) and each boasted a distinct voiceover gimmick. They even did a crossover event for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 where Sins did the Honest Trailer and SJ the Sins.

There is a major difference in the two companies right from inception, though. Whereas Sins is the product of friends chasing a single idea, Screen Junkies is a subsidiary of Defy Media that set out to explicitly build its brand; go back to the start of the channel and you find a slew of playful movie-themed videos attempting to tap into the zeitgeist, with Honest Trailers emerging as a success almost by accident after a single video mocking the 3D re-release of The Phantom Menace. And while SJ has since evolved into a massive network with multiple shows, a second news channel (formerly Clevver Movies) and a paid subscription service, as well as fan meetups and SDCC events, Sins remains at its core the same thing; they actually have more subscribers, but that only highlights the different types of success the pair get.

We've made such a point of the Honest Trailer parallels because despite being disconnected, in the early days they each elevated the other, creating this new brand of criticism infused with humor and a balance of traditional film theory observations and more nitpicky, nerd-focused ideas; the sort of things that movie fans would notice and mock incessantly yet never allowed to take away from the film. Take the obvious stunt double in Terminator 2: Judgement Day - it's clearly not Arnie but that doesn't take away from the film (although, perhaps in reaction to this culture, James Cameron has fixed it for the 3D re-release).

What Cinema Sins (Or Its Viewers) May Be Missing

And here's where the problems with Cinema Sins come in. The way they're presented is as complete, pure criticism but they only do the first step of our definition - react to the films. There's no analysis - the best we get is an interesting comment that reduces the Sin count - and so by itself never goes beyond basic, often empty observations.

This is where the length changes have had a concerted impact. A two-minute video mocking the silly moments of Marc Webb's Spider-Man reboot - essentially an energized version of IMDb's goof list - is fun but when it's ten times the length and the substance is the same we get a contradiction. It's too long to justify the lightness, so appears to be attempting to be of more worth than it perhaps is. The Sin counter doesn't help either; as already established, it's intentionally broken, but in an age of film fandom dominated by quantifying quality (see the prevalence of Rotten Tomatoes despite everyone knowing its failings) gets more onus that it deserves.

If not criticism, then what is Cinema Sins? As Vogt-Roberts has stated it's hard to call satire as there's nothing to be satirizing except the concept of obsessive fandom, and if that is the goal then it's a far too involved joke that misses the point of dissection. At best it's still in that firm light comedy arena - a nerd-inspired nitpick orgy - taking us back to their "people who don't understand sarcasm" defense from 2013. With that in mind, they're delivering on their promise.

The danger, then, is that the form suggests something more. And so we must ask, is it a funny joke?

The Danger of Nitpicking

Cinema Sins on Star Wars The Force Awakens

Vogt-Roberts and his responders raised another point - how it influences the vernacular. And here is where the confusion over criticism really matters; it is possible audiences will start thinking that finding continuity errors and minor flubs are comparable to analyzing the movie-making process. The things Cinema Sins are raising individually are minor, but in certain cases can add up to a bigger problem - if every action sequence is done in thirteen cuts a la Taken 3 you have a limp thriller. However, they never take their evidence and make a conclusion, meaning you're getting half-hearted criticism presented as a full take.

And it's already seeping into and dominate the cultural discussion. We're seeing nitpicky concerns - those that aren't movie breaking - increasingly treated as such; it's true of many, many movies, but in particular every new Star Wars gets lambasted for "oversights" that are just as prevalent in the original trilogy. It's not all Cinema Sins' fault - they're to some degree just a product of this way of thinking - but they've become the poster child.

Let's use Spider-Man: Homecoming as a counter-example. That film slots right into the MCU yet in its opening moments creates a major timeline plot hole (it's set eight years after The Avengers, despite only four having passed in-universe). We wrote an in-depth exploration of this quirk in the continuity-obsessed franchise, but never leveled it as a major flaw with the film itself; across our varied coverage of Homecoming we took in a variety of other aspects and even revisited the plot hole to drawn attention how even something seemingly obsessive could help get to the core of a creative argument. That is criticism and analysis because it acknowledges the full scope and assesses importance.

A good comparison point here is Cinema Wins. What at first looks like a thinly veiled ripoff of Sins is, in fact, one of the strongest outlets for real, in-depth film criticism on YouTube. They take the same approach as Sins, but focus on the positives, finding examples of strong concept, director delivery and more no matter the movie, and then tie everything together in an eloquent, measured conclusion. It's a positive spin on the typical internet discussion and shows how the format can be used to make real statements - it just needs that ability to tie it all together with an understanding of what each minor point represents.

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Cinema Sins isn't an inherently bad idea, in part proven by its initial and continued success. And there's no way that any of the people behind it aren't intense movie fans (their response to this controversy sums it up) However, there is a danger that its one-track focus even as it continues to expand loses it the original endearing snark and damages the notion of in-depth analysis. It's like the ever-present misreading of Rotten Tomatoes; they have a powerful platform, and both them and we need to make sure it's used right.

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