As the last century approached its end, pundits weighed in a lot about the threat of an "end of cinema," but what they generally ended up bemoaning was, at best, the death (although that might be too strong a word) of a specific sort of cinema: namely, the theatrically exhibited feature film that tried to use its resources in aesthetically important ways, which they waxed with nostalgia about. (The most famous of these laments was Susan Sontag's "The Decay of Cinema," from 1996, which is all about meaningful memory of rapt viewing of art cinema in the dark of movie theaters.) In like fashion, worries about what will happen in the next century to "film criticism" are really often anxieties about the fate of this or that specific kind of such criticism.

The important question is not whether film criticism will survive—it will—but in what form. To the extent that movie culture continues, even if only as memory of classic moving-going in theaters, or if only as mutations from theatrical exhibition to other platforms and in other identities (such as the clip, the mash-up, the video-game, the intertextual quotation, the film viewed on iPad or iPad Mini or, even, Apple Watch), people will write about it. (And it's far from clear that theatrical exhibition is itself as dead as all that: sure, lots of films are not getting seen in that fashion, but, at the very moment I'm writing these lines, at least three films have recently made into the very top tier of all-time box-office records: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Fast and Furious 7 (2015), and Jurassic World (2015); they may not be the uplifting aesthetic achievements that cultural mavens might want to define as cinema's essence, but no one would want to say they are not central to the movie-going experience today.)

To the extent that any culture of criticism needs objects to write about and venues in which to write about them, criticism of film has a quite favorable future. In fact, it's likely to be an expansive, explosive one, as the blogosphere enables anyone who has an opinion and access to a computer or a soapbox on which to express it. A key issue, then, is not whether film criticism will survive but can it remain a profession, a source of revenue for the writer who wants to make critical commentary a vocation more than a blogophiliac avocation. It's in this specific realm—criticism as career—that the problems arise. The very openness of the internet to all comers (or, at least, those who have access across the digital divide) means there is little power to the professional voice that might want to stand out from mass opinions, and there increasingly seems little institutional support for such a voice.

The disappearance of the professional critic is a double-edged phenomenon. We might lament the ostensible loss of standards, the supposed courage to think of writing as more than thumbs-up/thumbs-down judgment of this or that Hollywood blockbuster. Equally, we might disdain the frequent elitism, the haughty sense of privilege, that has often driven the professional project of the critic.

At the same time, though, we might regard the openness of the internet as a mixed blessing, too. Theodor Adorno famously remarked that under capitalism, both high and popular culture were damaged in ways that enabled no culture of wholeness to emerge; in like fashion, under capitalism, both professionalism and amateurism are fraught with contradiction and offer two sides of a fractured totality that cannot be put right.

Professional criticism may be elitist but the democratization that the internet supposedly offers can end up as little more than narcissistic parading of each and every person's opinion as worthy of attention. That forms like Twitter, Instagram, texting, and so on somehow merit being termed "social media"—when all they often do is enable the self-centered to force others to share in their (often insecurity-driven) egotism—is no doubt something that Adorno would have added to the stockpile of what he condemned as the "jargon of authenticity."

When, even unpaid (or especially unpaid), we write about movies in new platforms such as the web, our labor helps drive the ever-expanding media machine. It's no doubt good that the old elitism of professional criticism is challenged in this context, but it also puts new pressure on us to think about what and where we write and how we could imagine making a difference by those means.

Author biography:

Dana Polan is Professor of Cinema at New York University and is author of 8 books in film and media studies.