THE FOLLOWING is a quick quiz on Korean cultural codes: ( ) is a place where many choose to go on their first date, to hang out with friends, and to visit with family members on holidays. The answer is... the cinema. According to IHS Markit, South Korea is the fourth largest movie market in the world, which is quite impressive considering its relatively modest population. Despite movies being part of pop-culture, only a select few, usually professional film critics, were entrusted with evaluating a film’s artistic value. In contrast to this highly elitist past, the manner of consuming movies has drastically changed in the last few years, much thanks to one of the largest social media platforms existing today: YouTube. Nowadays, people rarely read magazine columns to understand films, and less and less film distributers ask professional critics to advertise their newly releasing film. Rather, the baton has been passed on to YouTube content creators, commonly known as YouTubers, who are in most cases amateurs—film nerds who started off wanting to share their love for the medium and ended up becoming influencers in the film world. Indeed, investigating the trend of movie-based YouTube creators will provide insight into the changes occurring in the Korean film industry.
The shift from critics to creators
Dec. 28, 1895. A crowd of people are hustled inside a darkened room to witness the latest marvel created by the Lumiére brothers. This was a historical moment as motion pictures hereafter evolved from being an amusing gimmick into an art business worth billions of dollars. Film directors who came after the Lumiére brothers have continued to make significant developments in cinematic technology, whilst film critics have played their roles as the locomotives of film theory development that have molded modern-day cinema. For instance, the widely used cinematic term “genre” was created by André Bazin, arguably one of the most influential critics of all time. Bazin asserted that a “genre” of film is created based on a collective myth of a certain time period. For example, Western films popularized in Hollywood during the 50s and 60s can be grouped under a “genre” as they centered around the myth of good versus evil and the myth of an ideal American man being a gun-shooting, chain-smoking tough guy represented by actors such as Clint Eastwood and John Wane. Bazin also created the film magazine Cahier du Cinema which impacted all from movie aficionados to film auteurs* such as Godard and Truffaut. In short, film critics were the ones that created the cinematic theories and terms that are the basis of today’s cinema as we know it.
Reviews from these critics were highly philosophical and technical. A movie was evaluated in terms of how well its mise-en-scène** was executed, the significance and role of respective shots, and the latent symbolism embedded in the film. While important to critics, such cinematic jargon were, and still are, meaningless to the mass majority who watch films for entertainment. While today’s critics also consider the technical aspects of films, they are not professionals committed to their elite bubbles; rather, they come from varied backgrounds allowing films to be evaluated from the eyes of the wider public.
The biggest accelerators of this “grass root” film critiquing of today are YouTube movie reviewers. G Movie, a Korean YouTuber that started his channel in 2018, currently has over 500,000 subscribers while one of his most popular videos has over 32 million views. He achieved this by selecting films that appeal to his subscribers, including his series on B-rated films and collection of videos that gives answers to peculiar cinematic puzzles such as “How many people did the father from the Taken trilogy kill?”
In contrast to the sharp increase of YouTube movie critics and their rising popularity, television movie commentaries are declining rapidly, with I Love Movie from the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) scoring a meager 2.7% and Movie World from the Seoul Broadcasting System (SBS) scoring 2.2% in viewer ratings***. Considering that KBS is a national broadcasting company aired all over South Korea, this low percentage speaks volumes about how television film reviews are “out” while YouTube reviews are “in.” During an interview with The Yonsei Annals, Na Hyun-kab or, as his fans know him, G Movie, shared his view on what makes traditional methods of film reviews different from YouTube commentaries. He explained that there is much less pressure in terms of censorship, meaning that one can express their honest views when they review through YouTube. For instance, when a film distributor requests a sponsorship video, Na explained that he would set the terms on how he would edit his video so that it fits the overarching look and feel of his channel. This would be difficult to do for television broadcasters who have to get prior confirmation from their advertisers and company superiors. When asked why viewers would prefer YouTube film commentaries to professional critics, Na suggested that viewers seem to relate more with YouTube creators because YouTubers are mostly laypeople, which makes their explanations easier to understand and entertaining to viewers.
However, their approachability doesn’t mean that YouTube review videos are easier to create than written reviews. In fact, a one-man-operation can be more stressful to pull off. In the case of Na, he stated that he receives feedback from his viewers’ constructive comments. Always seeking to improve his editing techniques, he explained that he spends much of his time studying video creators from other categories such as fashion or even documentaries. There is also the concern of establishing his own unique color in each of his videos, which is why he keeps a distance from other film review videos as he is wary of unconsciously imitating other movie reviewers’ signature styles. All in all, YouTube reviews are popular not because they are, in colloquial terms, dumbed down, but because YouTube creators are more sensitive to trends and are more responsive to their viewers.
At this point, the inevitable question arises: why YouTube? What is so special about YouTube that makes it the forerunner of film critiquing in the 2010s? In fact, many YouTube movie critics have once been blog writers but became successful only after converting their blog entries into video uploads. To uncover this mystery, it is necessary to evaluate what appeals to the current moviegoers: Millennials**** and Generation Z*****. According to a 2018 survey by the CJ Golden Village (CGV) Research Center, those in their 20s and 30s accounted for 62.2% of all audiences, while those in their 40s came in third with 24.4%. Since those in their 20s-40s coincide with Millennials and Generation Z, looking into the general characteristics of these two generations will provide insight into their enthusiasm for YouTube reviews.
For one, the fact that Generations Y and Z are both digital natives explains why they would generally prefer an online platform as opposed to magazines, newspaper articles, or TV programs. According to a research conducted by the Pew Research Center, 1 of 4 Generation Z’s is perpetually online. Thus, it is only natural that these digital-friendly individuals, who consider SNS an essential part of life, would prefer online videos since they are more accessible. In fact, according to The Korea Economic Daily, Generation Z can also be referred to as the YouTube generation as they have grown up with the creation of YouTube in 2005. To them, YouTube videos are their main sources of information and entertainment, as opposed to other traditional media sources which are in an uncharted offline territory for the digital savvy Generations Y and Z.
According to Jia Wertz, a contributor to Forbes, Generation Zs value tailored experiences and personalization, which factor into the rising trend of YouTube film commentaries. As there are so many types and styles of movie review YouTubers, users can simply try out various channels until they find the one. For instance, if one wants a deeply analytical film essay, he or she can subscribe to Baek su gol bang whose video essays are centered around hidden messages and details that often go unnoticed in movies. One of his most popular videos is “Ironman: The Enemy that Tony Stark Cannot win,” with 324 million views as of September, 2019. In this video, Baek su gol bang breaks down the character development of the beloved tech-genius-slash-superhero and asserts that through difficulties and trials, Ironman realizes that the ultimate enemy he has to overcome is himself. In contrast, those seeking a light, humorous movie reviewer on YouTube can turn to someone like Geo i up da which can be translated into English as “Almost None.” This YouTuber possesses a dark sense of humor and an array of snarky comments, which he uses in good measure to review movies that he believes are objectively “bad.” For example, he reviewed the film Shazam where he breaks down the “flimsy plot, lazy and childish jokes, and unattractive characters.” With his signature editing style of compiling clips from other movies at the appropriate moment along with his clever remarks, this YouTuber is the perfect match for those seeking a reviewer with a twisted sense of humor.
The ups and downs
Like all new phenomena, it is crucial to evaluate whether the trend of YouTube film reviews is a positive or a negative change. In the perspective of the viewers, watching movie reviews on YouTube is a great way to receive film recommendations. While film recommendations can also be done on other media platforms, YouTube is the one that can effectively showcase the visual style of films—something that cannot possibly be conveyed through words and letters alone. For instance, an article review of The Grand Budapest Hotel will fall short of adequately conveying the pastel pink and purple toned fairy tale-like backdrop, the clinically symmetrical shots, and the constant breaking of the fourth wall that altogether makes this quirky movie one of the most well-known indie films in recent years.
It is also a great plus that YouTube’s comment section can operate as an online forum for people to discuss a certain movie as well as a YouTuber’s video content. This way, film critiquing ceases to be a one-way lecture, and instead becomes a round table where everyone can actively share ideas and socialize through a common interest in films. This forum where people with similar preferences who can congregate and share their interests is especially important for moviegoers with eccentric tastes. While masterpieces are widely acknowledged, like all artworks, there are disagreements on the matter of a film’s worth. For instance, not many would disagree that Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a masterpiece with its meticulous use of Native American symbolism and truly outstanding acting by the celebrated Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall. In contrast, The Room, the precursor of the “so bad it is good” movies, is highly debatable in terms of its cinematic value. While the majority of viewers would agree that the robotic acting, unorthodox script, and cheap props are what confirm the movie’s status as objectively bad, to fans of the film, the movie is a cult legend and is definitely a good film. Having a platform to comment on one’s favorite movie that is otherwise deemed weird by others is another reason why YouTube channels are popular.
The ultimate advantage of YouTube film reviewing is that it can serve as a pathway to success for lesser-known or low-budget films. Many experimental and indie films are exceptional in their themes, storytelling, and acting; yet they are lesser known due to their heavy social commentaries, which can be unappetizing for viewers at first glance. A great example would be the film Park Hwa-young, an indie film about a runaway teenager who is neglected by her parents and simply wants acceptance from her friends. The character Hwa-young acts in a way that many would consider anti-social and aggressive—which is in fact how the Korean society views runaway youths. In reality, it is the society that has been negligent towards a girl with low self-esteem and value, who strives to create her own family by giving out pocket money to her friends and referring to herself as the “mom” of the group. As a low-budget film, the movie was relatively unknown. That is, until YouTuber Go-mong introduced the film in one of his videos that went viral, ultimately gaining over 10 million views. Thereafter, the film became more widely acknowledged by Korean moviegoers and the budding young actresses and actors gained considerable recognition for their roles.
While the trend has resulted in many positive changes to the film industry and indeed for movie viewers, there are certain persisting issues. The first is the issue of copyright. Most influential film reviewers include captions in their videos such as “the clips used in this video was approved by the distributor” or only use snippets of video clips from teasers so as to evade copyright issues. In an interview with the Annals, the film review YouTuber G Movie explained that he himself contacts the film distributors to gain permission to use movie footages. He also elaborated on why he frequently does reviews on newly releasing films, which is something that several commenters have accused Na of doing “just for the money.” In reality, collaborating with film distributors to review a newly released film is Na’s way of evading legal issues, as these distributors provide preapproved film footages that Na can work with.
However, in the flood of up-and-coming review channels trying to benefit from this new trend, a good number of YouTubers tend to edit an entire movie into a 5 to 10 minute recap. This method of gaining profit is both morally and legally skewed—morally, because giving away the entire plot and the ending of the film will stop viewers from purchasing and watching the movie; and legally, as these channels have not gained consent from the distributors, which is therefore a blatant violation of intellectual property.
Not only are there copyright issues, but there are also copycat issues where movie reviewers try to emulate other successful YouTube reviewers. Na, in the interview with the Annals, showed his concern for some reviewers who imitate other famous YouTubers like himself without striving to create novel and creative styles of their own. While not illegal, such sneaky creators are less contributive and more exploitative of the new YouTube film reviewing culture.
The purpose of using YouTube as a medium for movie reviews should be to enhance the viewers’ understanding of movies, and to help those unacquainted with films interpret and learn more about cinema. So, while this new trend is a welcomed one, it is paramount to enforce strict regulations to protect intellectual property, along with a general application of basic ethics. Being a YouTuber is essentially an occupation of sorts, which is why it is all the more important that YouTubers act with job integrity.
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So much has changed in the 14 years since YouTube started its operation. YouTube has replaced television, radio, CD players, and even recipe books with star chefs like Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsey performing their recipes on YouTube. Taking this into account, whether one prefers the old-fashioned film critiquing or the more recent YouTube version, video film reviews are inevitably becoming more and more mainstream. In light of changing circumstances, what we can do is to make sure that this new trend transitions into a culture that can positively contribute to the overall film industry.
*Auteur: A film director who is in control of all aspects of filmmaking
**Mise-en-scene: A cinematic term used to describe the general visual and look created inside a frame; referred to as a film’s “grand undefined term” due to differing views on its definition
****Millennials: Typically refers to those born between 1980-1994; also referred to as the Generation Y
*****Generation Z: Typically refers to those born between 1995-2009