FIVE STARS! HOW TO BECOME A FILM CRITIC, THE WORLD'S GREATEST JOB
By Christopher Null, copyright © 2005
So you want to be a film critic?
Do you see every movie that hits your local multiplex? Are you the office gossip when it comes to celebrity weddings and breakups? Or maybe you just love to riff Monty Python lines with the guy in the cubicle next door.
Or maybe you just really love the movies.
While all of these traits are great, none of them are what being a film critic is really about.
To become a great critic, you need the following characteristics, in this order:
This book will help you develop all of these.
In Chapters 2 and 3, you'll learn a bit about filmmaking and film history. In the appendix, you'll find recommended homework to help get you up to speed on any classic and not-so-classic films you might have missed.
In Chapters 4 through 7, you'll learn how to construct a movie review and how to approach different styles of entertainment writing, including celebrity interviews.
Finally, Chapter 1 and Chapters 8 through 10 will help you find a place to publish your work (or create one of your own). Chapters 11 through 15 discuss how to get access to screenings, and etiquette once you are there. Also, these chapters provide other support materials for the aspiring critic. I'll even try to throw in some advice about finding time to see all these movies throughout the book.
I hope you enjoy the book, and I hope it aids you in your quest to become a feature film critic. I love to hear from readers and look forward to some of you even joining the ranks of filmcritic.com contributors. I've tried to create a book that answers every question you might have about becoming a film critic and mastering the trade. If I've overlooked something, or if you have any other comments about the text, please drop me a note.
Editor in Chief, filmcritic.com
1. The Market for Film Criticism
2. Understanding Film History
3. Understanding Filmmaking
4. Writing Your First Review
5. Putting the Pieces Together
6. Advanced Reviewing Concepts and Techniques
7. Grading and Star Ratings
8. Getting Started with a Career - Advice for Beginners and Freelance Writers
9. Starting Your Own Site
10. Getting Access
11. Editing Other Critics
12. Film Critic Etiquette
13. Handling Your Own Criticism
14. Reviewing DVDs and Videos
15. Celebrity Interviews
Appendix. 300 Must-See Films for the Aspiring Critic
I am the first to admit there is something absurd about film criticism.
Here is a person who saw the same movie as everyone else, and just because he puts pen to paper, his thoughts are somehow more valid than yours? Familiar names like Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael somehow give an opinion about movies more weight. It's ridiculous. How does a critic know if you're going to like a movie or not?
So why do critics exist? Because they strive to entertain us and enlighten us with their commentary about the movies. When we find a critic we often agree with, we find someone who can help us connect with entertainment we would otherwise miss. We also avoid costly mistakes by skipping movies that look good on paper but which stink in reality.
Is film criticism art, as Kael liked to think? Depends on who you ask and what you read. There are critics who strive merely to entertain us with jokes, using a fictitious byline and broad humor in their writing, telling us little about the actual film. There are those that deeply analyze a movie, craft thoughtful prose, and place movies in a societal context, but without any entertainment value. And there are those rare critics who do both. This is when criticism becomes an art form on par with the movies themselves.
So does film criticism matter? That is, does the opinion of a film critic have any effect on the success or failure of a film?
Movie stars, directors, and producers are fond of bashing film critics, labeling them as trolls and bottom-feeders riding on their celebrity. When a badly-reviewed movie performs well in theaters, Hollywood laughs off film critics as powerless and ridiculous wastes of time, out of touch with the preferences of mainstream America. Fair enough: Many critics are elitists, sure, but most of us are just tired of seeing bad movies - we want to open people's eyes to the real gems of cinema.
But when a movie bombs at the box office, who takes the blame? Why, it's the press! The critics viciously assaulted the talent and didn't give it a fighting chance. They had it in for the film from the start. Jealous, malicious, whatever.
This, of course, is bollocks, but it brings forward a salient point: Do film critics have power in the business, and is there indeed a market for film criticism?
You better believe it.
Consider the story of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, which Universal Pictures refused to release due to its difficult themes and downer of an ending. When the Los Angeles Film Critics Circle declared it the best film of 1985 - without the film ever being released in theaters - Universal was shamed into putting the picture out. The movie now stands as one of the most highly-regarded films ever made, and Gilliam continues to acknowledge the L.A. critics as invaluable in helping Brazil get released.
So What About My Prospects?
How many people do you personally know who are actually employed as film critics?
Unless you're reading this book because you're a relative of mine (hi, Mom!), the answer is likely zero.
In the United States, there are about 200 major daily newspapers (out of 1,400 total dailies), plus an estimated 200 alternative weeklies which are big enough to have a critic on staff -- not even a full-time movie reviewer, just someone who works there who occasionally reviews movies, too. Assuming each outlet employs three film critics, there are roughly 1,200 jobs in the newsprint market for movie reviewers.
Add in magazine critics (maybe 100, and that's optimistic) and broadcast and radio TV critics (probably another 300, and few of those are full-timers), and you've got a grand total of 1,600 jobs in the mainstream media.
The Census Bureau reports there are 280 million people in the U.S. Roughly half of them wish they could be a critic.
In other words: Competition is intense.
Now the good news: The internet has opened up the field dramatically. It's commonly said by both enthusiasts and naysayers that anyone can throw together a website and become a self-styled "film critic."
It's true. You've probably seen a lot of these sites yourselves. Many of them are heinously ugly, uninformed, rarely updated, or simply illiterate. Sadly, this is the norm and not the exception on the net. To be honest, there are perhaps a dozen film-oriented websites worth reading. At most.
For a critic starting today, chances are you'll hit the internet to publish your first reviews. If not for your own site, it'll be at an outlet like filmcritic.com (and even we would never take on a new critic without some sample reviews under their belts). You'll have to, because no newspaper or TV station on the planet will hire you without experience. Once you have a few years worth of clips written, this picture might change, but it's foolish to think you're going to replace Ebert simply because you send the Chicago Sun-Times a resume.
This is a long-winded way of saying this book is focused primarily on teaching newcomers how to break into internet criticism and grow a career from there. If you can't get a job from an existing net site, start your own. Seriously: It's easier than you think, and with a few hours of training you'll be able to put together a site that rivals many of the poorly-designed pages out there.
So, that's the good news. The bad news is that no one is exactly clamoring for more movie review websites. No offense to any of them, but following in the wake of filmcritic.com are sites like efilmcritic.com, entertainmentnutz.com, filmjerk.com, ecinemacenter.com, and countless, countless more. Who could possibly have time to visit all of these sites?
If you launch jimmysmithmoviereviews.com, don't expect a lot of traffic out of the gate. In the first month of filmcritic.com (that was 1995, when we were one of the first entertainment-oriented websites on the planet), we got about 100 visitors a day. I probably accounted for 10 of those visitors. Back then, there weren't that many websites, and there definitely weren't that many people with internet access, so those other 90 were probably just people who got there out of curiosity, random clicking, or sheer accident. The newcomer to the scene can expect a similar dearth of traffic while the site gets established. (I'll discuss how to build this up in later chapters.)
The nefarious flipside of the glut of review sites is the gossip site phenomenon. I loathe these websites. They (and they'll remain nameless) use anonymous writers who attend test screenings (where unfinished versions of films are screened for test audiences), read leaked scripts, and report on unfiltered rumors. There's not a lot of journalism going on here, and from what I've seen, the reporting is wrong more often than it's right. Sadly, Hollywood takes this junk seriously, believing it contributes to "buzz," thus feeding the monster until it grows bigger and bigger and bigger. Lately this power has waned, but the gossipmongers still hold Hollywood's ear: Much more so than the review sites, even the big ones.
This book won't tell you how to launch a gossip site or get your invective published on one. If that's what you're after, make up some stories and plaster them on the net. If you get sued for libel, don't come crying to me.
Breaking In - Step by Step
Even if you're determined to ignore my advice (and who would blame you) and want to try getting a "Real Job" as a film critic at a newspaper or magazine, you need the same things in hand as you would to approach a website:
2. A resume
Clips are simple enough to obtain. Read this book. Rent a couple of videos or go to the movies. Write a few reviews. Three is a good number. Show them to your friends and demand honest feedback. Read Chapters 2 through 7 again. Write some more.
When you have three excellent reviews that you're not afraid to show the world (not the first three you wrote), work on your resume. Play up any writing experience and entertainment background you have. We get resumes all the time from people who tout their experience in retail sales or financial services. Doesn't really hurt, but it doesn't do a lot of good. If you're looking for a full-time writing gig (with a salary and benefits), you won't even get a return call.
Finally, there's professionalism. We get applications from young and old alike that are filled with typos and display the worst understanding of what filmcritic.com is all about. You need to research the outlet you're trying to get your foot into. Do the critics have a sarcastic style or a serious tone? How long are the reviews? Do they specialize in a certain genre? Do they have any nagging holes in their coverage (say, foreign films or independents) that you might be able to fill? Nothing gets my attention quicker than an applicant who has thoroughly searched our archives and submits a well-written review for a recent film that managed to slip by us. A candidate like this is a shoo-in every time, and we usually publish his sample review if it's decent.
So you know about filmcritic.com, obviously. But where else can you find media outlets willing to publish your reviews?
For a budding film critic, the internet is far and away your best bet. Chapter 8 provides ideas on where you might look to sell your work as an amateur film critic, along with advice on how to approach those editors.
You might also consider your local newspapers. If you live in a small community, you might be able to parlay some basic experience in film writing into a regular job at your local daily.
If you live in a larger city, there's not a lot of point in trying to get a job at the major newspaper in town unless you have substantial experience in film and publishing, and even then these jobs are extremely hard to come by. If an opening does occur, it is typically awarded to a staff writer transferring from another department (for example, A.O. Scott, film critic for The New York Times, was the paper's former book critic). Same goes for television and radio. These are jobs where your experience and, more to the point, your contacts will dictate your success in the field. If you are reading this book, you really needn't bother wasting a lot of time, energy, postage, and angst applying for work at outlets like these. When you've long outgrown the information here and sold this book at a secondhand shop, then you should try to make the move to the big time.
Don't feel, however, that internet film criticism is a second-class occupation. Just because it's comparably easy to get into doesn't mean it's easier to do. Many internet outlets have standards just as high as a newspaper, though they operate on budgets a fraction of their size. You'd also be surprised at how many people rely on internet reviews as their primary source of entertainment news. Filmcritic.com has a readership on par with some of the largest newspapers in America. When you consider that only a small fraction of newspaper readers actually read them for movie reviews while everyone who comes to filmcritic.com is there for the reviews, the real power and reach of internet criticism becomes obvious.
Unfortunately, equally many internet outlets are terribly low-budget affairs with no real resources and even less interest in quality journalism. Movie fans slap together pages and scribble down the first thoughts out of their heads, then brand their prose as a movie review. Some people review movies based on the previews alone! Since the costs are so low and the intellectual capital required to do this even lower, sites like these plague the internet, though they are often abandoned and can be found in various stages of neglect.
The fallout is that Hollywood's publicity machine sees makeshift movie review sites and gossip sites (as discussed above) as the norm, and they're right. Publicists know that no one can start a magazine without a whole lot of money, and that presupposes that quality and readership will necessarily follow. They are also trained by years of dealing with the print medium; the internet is barely 10 years old, but it pales in comparison to well over a century of newspapers being with us. So print gets publicists' attention by default. An internet site, by contrast, is assumed to be a juvenile hobby until it is proven otherwise.
This effect makes getting access to advance movie screenings in your particular market difficult, even for respectable critics. You're guilty until proven innocent, so plan for this in advance by starting out as a professional and remaining that way.
I'll further discuss the tricks and tactics of getting access to screenings and press material in Chapter 10. But before you do that, you need to write a few reviews. And before that, you need to understand a bit about what you're writing about. I'll get to that in Chapter 2.
…continued in Five Stars!…
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