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.