Whither Sight & Sound?

I have subscribed to Sight & Sound since the demise of The Monthly Film Bulletin in April 1991. I actually preferred the latter but the new monthly former magazine did offer reviews all the theatrical releases in  Britain. There were limitation; Indian films not released into the specialised audience  circuit were usually missed. And whilst the added video reviews were useful most of the space went on critical comment and not enough on the technical aspects of the release. Even in recent years we had reviews that used the anachronistic ‘4×3′ or ’16:9’ to describe titles. I also found other items like the annual obituary articles helpful.

Unfortunately as digital files overtook film as the major release format the coverage of the technical aspect of theatrical releases were reduced. For the last few years we had information on certification, running time, aspect ratio and sound  system; but for some odd reason formats [film versus digital] were not included. I also think the standard of reviewing has reduced. Quite often I wondered if the reviewer had seen the title in a theatrical setting or was relying on some video or streamed version.

Now things have taken a definite turn for the worse with the September and October issues this year with a complete change in form, style and technical aspects. One oddity of the magazine these days is that the September issue appeared in early August and the latest October issue has arrived in early September. When I saw the former issue my heart sank into my boots and the more recent issue confirmed my worst fears.

There had been some earlier worrying developments. One year the obituaries were only presented online; they have returned in printed form but in a shorter version from that online. In the review section the distinction between theatrical venues, streaming and television started to break down; now it has practically disappeared altogether.

I am not enamoured with the new format, style or organisation. The paper used has changed and is presumably of a cheaper quality. Certainly the stills have less definition than in the past. Some pages are coloured rather than white and there has been a wholesale change in fonts; I had difficulty reading some of the text. On these pages any illustrations have an odd hue.

What seem to be the worse changes are in the review section. Both the synopsis and technical data are drastically reduced. Here the changes in fonts make the technical information difficult to read. All we get, and this not uniformly, is the origin, certificate and running time. This matters since titles can appear in a variety of digital formats and not all of these serve the productions well. I have seen screening where the ratio is wrong or cropped: where the colour looks odd: where there is digital breakup: and where occasionally the title seems not quite complete. So information on formats is [for me] important in selecting screenings. And exhibitors mostly fail on this point.

This may well be part of a long term process at the British Film Institute; a friend reckons it will go solely digital at some point. Either to pursue this or accelerating this was the appointment of Mike Williams as Editor; he previously oversaw at the New Musical Express [now NME]as it went digital. And the changes in Sight & Sound go hand-in-hand with a stronger emphasis on digital.

Williams notes in his editorial for the October issue that there have been both positive and negative responses to the changes. But this is not reflected on the Readers’ Letter Page’ where w e find a positive letter accorded twenty six lines whilst a complaint gets only six lines. I suspect that in the latter case the shortest possible letter was selected.  And the space for readers has been cunningly manipulated so that half goes on a subject chosen by the editor as ‘Talking Point’.

A friend, David Howell, has kindly supplied the following::

I’ve just done a content analysis of the 116 pages:

Advertising – 17 pages (admittedly quite a bit is for BFI products & services)

Material repeated from the archive (which subscribers have free access to anyway) – 7 pages

Television – 6 pages

Stills photography (you can make out a case for TV, as being moving images, but stills ???) – 6 pages

Full page photos with no text – 3 pages

That leaves just two-thirds of the mag allocated to writing about film (and many of those pages have unnecessarily large stills).

I have never looked at the online digital version. It may be that these changes look better there. Is this a covert move to discourage print readers so they go online, [to S&S]? It fails in my case.

5 comments

  1. Roy Stafford

    I have to agree with nearly all of this. I’ve subscribed for 50 years and I’ve accepted changes at reasonable intervals but I think this time a designer has been given free rein and I find some sections unreadable for the reasons Keith sets out. Worse, I don’t really want to read the magazine at all, because it seems to suggest that I am not the intended reader. These kind of design ideas were commonplace in fashion magazines, music magazines and others targeting younger readers in the 1980s/90s. I’m not criticising the writing or the writers only the design ideas. I wanted to wait to see what kinds of reaction the new design would invoke and, like Keith, I was surprised at the two examples chosen for the letters page. When magazines like this carry car ads and banking ads you know they are on a slippery slope. Keith doesn’t mention the worst crime of all – the offer to subscribers of free lottery tickets included as an insert.

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  2. christine geraghty

    Yes, I agree. I am probably more sympathetic to the space given to television though I am not sure S&S is really the place for good discussion about television (as opposed to films on television). But the design looks a mess and some of it is literally unreadable.

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  3. Tom Vincent

    The new issue’s lead, on Kubrick and Burgess, has prompted me to finally cancel my subscription after 17 years. I just don’t find enough of Sight & Sound worthwhile anymore; I never read it for an emphasis on canonical cinema or open-ended think pieces, but to find the best writing on current cinema and film culture. I don’t know if the current phase of S&S is a form of managed decline or whatever.

    In the absence of Film Comment I’m trying out a new subscription to Cinema Scope. I love magazines and I want to feel connected to global film culture (partly) through them.

    Good article Keith, much respect and gratitude to you and Roy from 7 hours in the future.

    Tom

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    • Roy Stafford

      Good to hear from you Tom. I’m not sure where Sight & Sound is going either. I’m hoping it will gradually settle down but I flicked through it this morning and noticed that some reviews give the name of the producing country but others don’t. None of them name the production companies or the UK distributors. At a basic level, the magazine is no longer fit for purpose. Since lockdown I haven’t travelled to Manchester to HOME and haven’t therefore purchased Cineaste, which I have collected for many years, so I don’t know how it looks now. CinemaScope I’ve found useful on films and filmmakers outside the mainstream when I’ve looked at it online so good luck with that and your ongoing festival programmimg.

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