There was some saddening news earlier this week for fans of decent online film criticism – that movie website The Dissolve was to shut down just shy of its 2-year anniversary.
The site began when a group of writers who’d mostly been working for The Onion’s The AV Club left to form an exclusively film-based website. Despite my familiarity with a number of these critics I wasn’t initially that interested in The Dissolve as it was a branch of music website Pitchfork Media*. The idea of a movie website with an elitist attitude and obvious genre biases similar to their musical forbearer piped my curiosity if not my excitement. I wondered if they would simply shower praise upon as many obscure foreign titles as they could whilst ignoring say, all contemporary independent horror and science-fiction. Oh, how wrong I was. As editor Scott Tobias puts it in an enlightening interview with Criticwire:
“Our mission was to create a smart and accessible site for cinematic omnivores like ourselves, who approached films old and new, commercial and esoteric, foreign and domestic with equal enthusiasm and curiosity. We did not want to succumb to the most cynical publishing trends of the day, but we also didn’t want more casual moviegoers to feel like we were putting up barriers.”
Within a couple of months of going live The Dissolve became my favourite movie website. It was one I checked on a daily basis and attempted to read as much content from as I could.
The Dissolve comprised of not just a couple, but a whole group of the best film writers today, banding together to cover as much material as they could. This was the first aspect of The Dissolve that impressed me so much; how wide-ranging it was. They valiantly attempted to review every single new release, be it wide-theatrical, limited, VOD, straight-to-DVD or re-issues. They didn’t dismiss anything with a 3-4 sentence capsule review either; the latest blockbuster, an Cannes festival breakout, an unusual foreign documentary, or a DTV horror sequel, all were deemed equally worthy of attention. They didn’t appear to set much by way of word limits on their reviews, if a writer needed to say more than usual, they were allowed to, if they wanted to discuss more spoilery details, an extra section was added to accomplish this. All this work wouldn’t have meant so much if the reviews had little by way of substance but they had that covered too, The Dissolve frequently featured some of the most intelligent, insightful and witty film criticism anywhere on the web.
The site strived to be more than just a reviews website too, with a number of regular long-form features, some in which a single writer would tackle films with similar subject matter or legacy, others where multiple writers would weigh in. They had a ‘movie of the week’ feature that offered different perspectives on one significant older movie each week. On top of this, they never surrendered to shameless clickbait. There was never any “10 great movies you’ve never heard of”, or “What X gets wrong about Y” type article, and even when they did publish listicles, they were admirably specific, featured at least a paragraph of writing to accompany each entry, and never required you to click through to each one.
My absolute favourite feature of the site though, was its podcast. My current job requires a lot of commuting time and since I began it I’ve been thankful for every interesting podcast I can find. I listen to a number of movie-themed ones every week but since I discovered it, The Dissolve podcast has been my number 1 most looked-forward to. I was actually planning on writing a piece highlighting my current favourite movie podcasts a week or so ago which The Dissolve would have topped, but I guess it might be redundant now. The podcast generally comprised of two conversation segments, in which 3 or so critics would discuss a specific topic related to a recently released film, then a second, usually unrelated discussion segment would follow. These were always fascinating and entertaining listens, and a change from the more usual interview and review based movie podcasts. It would be capped off with a quiz segment that was frequently laugh-out-loud hysterical. I’m sure I’ve confused many a commuter with the number of times I’ve burst out laughing listening to it. That’s the aspect of the site I’m sure to miss the most.
I have to say, I’m not all that surprised that The Dissolve was unable to remain viable, shame as it is. Two writers I greatly admired (Matt Singer and Nathan Rabin) both departed before the shut-down and I’ve heard from other sites how hard it is to make money without running shameless hit-grabbing rumours and listicles.
Still, it’s a damn shame that The Dissolve couldn’t last, and it’s really a blow in the face for all fans of good film writing out there. If a site as good as this can’t make it, what can? The future of the medium looks bleaker by the day.
In the meantime, I hope Pitchfork leaves the site up as an archive so film fans can continue to enjoy the wealth of content they’ve left behind. I’ll be following whatever all its main writers end up doing next, and I’d recommend you do the same.
*For those unfamiliar, Pitchfork is a snobbish music website that’s been around since the mid-nineties. In my student days I used to buy and listen to a lot more music than I do nowadays and I used to check Pitchfork regularly for reviews and recommendations. I disliked it so as it had somehow gained a reputation as the web’s leading authority on music yet about 80% of the contemporary artists I liked never got so much as a mention. It’s not as if they reviewed the bands I was into poorly, they just flat-out ignored them, along with frequently showing obvious genre biases. This has admittedly changed a little since then, they regularly cover metal albums now and I even saw a re-issue from Thursday (one of my all-time favourite bands) get a positive review recently. Anyway I thought I’d better include some context as to why a film version of Pitchfork left me feeling a little dubious, even though The Dissolve turned out to be anything but.