“Everyone’s a critic.”
Once used to discredit the opinions of those criticizing any particular venture, this phrase has become quite literal in the digital age. While the film industry would like to stress critics as taste-makers and potential financial gatekeepers, the fact is that social media has leveled the playing field between the casual viewer and the professional reviewer. And who can argue with the results? After all, most people will trust their friends over a stranger who may prefer surreal, expressionistic work over commercial favorites.
But there’s a difficult truth in the evolution of that phrase, and it’s one that has served as a ticking clock within the film industry—the relevance of entertainment journalism is dwindling.
I’ve never quite considered myself a journalist, despite the countless interviews, reviews, event reports, and editorial work I’ve done over the past four years. But as a writer, I have been close and personal with the business of horror, interacting with fans, promoters, filmmakers, and icons alike. And if there’s anything I can say about the horror business, it’s that business is good.
Don’t take my word for it, though, the genre speaks for itself. From films to television to video games to fan conventions, horror culture is among the most profitable on the planet. Last year, studio horror alone grossed over $630 million in the United States, and M. Night Shyamalan’s latest chiller, Split, dominated the box office earlier this year. Meanwhile, The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, and The X-Files pulled in millions upon millions of viewers last year, with almost every cable channel jump-starting their own horror properties as well. Likewise, horror gaming has been a cash cow for over two decades, with Resident Evil VII being the latest game to achieve critical and commercial success.
Perhaps the biggest leap was watching the convention business jump from fan gatherings to multi-million dollar media events. When I first started interning for Fangoria back in 2012, the brand’s Weekend of Horrors convention had already been dormant, although there were always rumblings of a resurrection. But the convention scene had already grown beyond the Weekend of Horrors crowd, with New York and San Diego Comic Con capturing the fascination of the mainstream while horror crowds flocked to Walker Stalker, Texas Frightmare, and Monstermania in droves to meet their favorite genre celebrities. There was no denying it—while fan culture and film culture still reigned supreme, horror was bigger than ever before.
Yet at the very same time The Walking Dead sells out Madison Square Garden during New York Comic Con, entertainment journalism among horror audiences has never been more dire. Having witnessed Fangoria crumble firsthand, it was unsurprising to see the same business issues afflicting some of the longest-running voices in the horror game. By the end of 2016, both Fangoria and the recently revived Famous Monsters of Filmland ceased publication, while Dread Central launched an unfortunately unsuccessful Patreon campaign to keep the site going in 2017. Yet even before these publications were in their graves, rumblings across the horror community didn’t hold great promise for genre-specific entertainment journalism in general—several once-major sites were reported as fully eliminating their freelance budget as the few horror magazines that still published had been quietly shifting towards staff and issue count changes.
However, there were some horror publications that have held on, courtesy of corporate ownership and platform changes that pushed listicles and tertiary culture pieces over traditional news and interviews. Beyond that, some horror sites simply function by being cost-effective, whether that be using a roster of unpaid writers in exchange for “exposure” and the chance to watch free movies or reporting only on the biggest headlines so as to keep hosting costs to the minimum. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with either strategy, as most of these sites still embrace the concept of community and show support for no-budget indie projects. Most importantly, these strategies worked, and even though the era of introspective, thorough horror journalism has been largely eschewed, these sites still live to report another day.
So, why exactly are so many publications flailing and failing as the genre dominates the zeitgeist? To put it all in context, allow me to indulge in a history lesson.
Let’s rewind back to the early 1980s, an era of fanzines, bloated movie studios, and no immediate access to information. This is the time in which the newly-born Fangoria made a name for itself. Flipping through the pages of an ‘80s Fangoria or its sister publication, Starlog, one notices exclusive interviews, previews of upcoming films, essays penned by famous writers, and lush, full-page ads for everything from model kits to overpriced VHS tapes to SFX make-up books to the latest theatrical releases. Movie studios would virtually pay for the magazine in full, whether it be from advertisements, cover buys—in which they’d dole out a pretty penny to get on the front cover—and access to sets and stars that had previously only been reserved for major city newspaper critics.
In the years afterward, this advertisement-based revenue system is what would keep Fangoria funded, and able to pay freelance contributors. But the thing about good things is that they never last, and around the early ’00s, the internet gave Fangoria something it never expected, or quite knew how to handle: cost-effective competition. Former Fangoria writers would go on to start sites like Bloody Disgusting, Dread Central, Shock Till You Drop, and more, joining the crop of fledgling film sites like Ain’t It Cool News, C.H.U.D., and JoBlo to create an interconnected film culture with daily updates, exclusives, and international appeal that a print medium could not. But, at that time, things weren’t quite bleak for any of the sites. After all, a booming home video marketplace left plenty of advertising dollars to go around while studios reaped the rewards of extra publicity.
But as the decade came to a close, the age of instant streaming was born, and in virtually no time at all, video stores were closing en masse. Suddenly, companies such as Anchor Bay and After Dark saw major revenue streams get cut entirely, while studios struggled to understand why audiences did not embrace the Blu-ray format as they had with DVD. And as the pockets became tighter and tighter with the various movie studios, so went the advertising and marketing budgets. In a matter of months, the feeding frenzy of easy advertising cash became a free-for-all, with every publication fighting for the opportunity to sustain its business model.
This is when the trouble started. Now earning a fraction of their marketing money, horror and film sites were cutting staff and slashing freelancer budgets, leading to a saturation of film journalists, some of whom started their own outlets to a varying degree of results. The ones who didn’t kept looking for new homes, but with print media dying with each passing day, the jobs were few and far between. Meanwhile, the sites continued to fight fervently to maintain relevance, striving to break the latest exclusive and get quoted on advertising material in order to bolster their profile across social media. Add in that most streaming services—with the notable exception of Hulu—were ad-free entities, as well as some truly bone-headed and risky branding decisions, and the writing was most certainly on the wall for these outlets.
For the print side of entertainment journalism, the light at the end of the tunnel is fading. As someone who worked for both a major magazine and authored a horror-comedy book (The I in Evil, courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing), I can attest to the struggles of print media to find an audience, especially in the digital age. Though the collector’s marketplace may continue to support home video and action figures for years to come, print entertainment journalism is the rare breed whose niche market has begun questioning the practicality of expensive subscriptions and rising number of advertisements in their products. And with the corporate entities that fund the major entertainment journalism outlets balking at the cost of running a magazine, there may be no saving grace for these fanzines.
If there is a future for the print side of things, it’s that print entertainment journalism may never outright die; it just needs to find the right home. With conventions and film festivals keeping film culture alive and well, perhaps one-off fanzines could present old-school entertainment journalism exclusively for those in attendance, akin to the official magazine companions that one can find upon entry to New York or San Diego Comic Con. While the cost to print is still very high, not only with paid contributors but in terms of material and packaging, a single, limited-edition collector’s item specific to an entertainment venue could be worth the price.
Meanwhile, digital outlets are a whole different ballgame, as glorified news aggregation sites continue to cannibalize ad revenue and clicks on a daily basis. As entertainment news outlets compromise their integrity to survive, the dozens upon dozens of writers who took a risk to pursue a career in journalism are now returning to the workforce, disheartened and often times with outstanding invoices. Although some sites have the benefit of top-dollar marketing revenue agencies and are a part of multi-tier entertainment conglomerates, advertising cash will continue to get harder to acquire as budgets in the saturated independent film market diminish, leaving the future of digital film culture in jeopardy.
Yet if there’s a silver lining to be found in the fading world of print media, entertainment journalism, and advertising-based revenue, it’s that many of those burned and jaded by the industry are getting inspired to make their own art. Whether it’s films, music, comic books, podcasts, or literature, those who know the ins-and-outs of the entertainment industry are taking the bold move to work within it, even if it means creating from scratch. And for every journalist who makes good in the industry—whether it be Scott Weinberg with Found Footage 3D, C. Robert Cargill with Doctor Strange, David Michod with Animal Kingdom, Chris Alexander with Blood for Irina, or Jovanka Vuckovic with XX—those of us who still toil in the written word soldier on, supporting their art when possible, motivated to make something of our own.
Though the pages of Fangoria and Famous Monsters may no longer be hot off the presses, they still exist. You can feel their weight and revel in the art design before putting them back on the shelf. Whether it’s on paper, or stylized within an HTML code, sincere, passionate critical voices and comprehensive entertainment journalism will always mean something to someone, even if you can’t make a career out of it. After all, everyone’s a critic these days because they can be one. It’s what you do with that opinion that still counts for something.