Almost every week I get an email from someone either asking me how to become a film critic or attempting to get me to look at reviews they’ve written. There’s a whole group of people out there who seem to be very interested in picking this up as a career, so I’ve decided I should lay out some basic tips for anybody thinking about getting into film criticism.
Tip #1: Don’t.
Well, unless you’re rich or have an aversion to money. These are not great times for professional film critics as newspapers lay them off in droves and as the internet becomes choked with lots of people willing to do the gig for free. There are some amazing writers out there barely scraping by, and I think that it’s only going to get worse. It gets tougher and tougher by the day.
You’re still here? Okay, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Your doom is your own.
Tip #2: Love movies.
This seems obvious, but it’s not. There are a number of people out there reviewing films who either seem to hate movies or only like very specific subsects of cinema. Unless you’re walking in the door looking to be a niche reviewer only – if your whole thing is going to be reviewing giant monster movies who cares if you like period dramas, I suppose – you should love movies as an artform. Not as a way to pass the time, not as spectacles that are kewl and awesome, but as an artistic medium of communication. You should be just as excited to see a tiny indie as you are to see a major blockbuster. You should be as open to a romance or a musical as you are to a science fiction movie. Your drive should be about movies, not about genres.
Tip #3: Know movies.
Enthusiasm will only get you so far. Your job as a film critic is multi-layered, but one of the most important is being a contextualizer. That means you should understand how movies are made, where a movie fits into the careers of the people who made it and where it further fits into the history of movies as a whole. You don’t have to be a film scholar – God knows I’m not – but if Star Wars is the oldest movie you’ve seen, you need to do some work. You should be familiar with the classics – start with the AFI 100, even though the list is highly suspect – and you should also be familiar with the great talents in history. Is there a genre you’re not that keen on? Find out what the best examples of it are and start there.
It’s hard to underestimate how important this is. There’s been a wave of anti-elitist feelings when it comes to film critics the last couple of years; whatever the root cause of this wave, it’s stupid. I don’t want to read the movie opinions of people who know nothing about movies. If I wanted that I would ask the soccer mom in the SUV or the Chinese food delivery boy. When I want to buy a new computer, I don’t hunt out the reviews of average slobs, I try to find people with some knowledge of the subject. I look for authority. Now, a movie review is different from a computer review – for one thing, if you think a movie review is a consumer recommendation (ie, ‘This movie is the best bet for your Friday money!’) get the fuck out of this article right now. That’s the lowest form of movie reviewing, and in fact I’m kind of loathe to even call it reviewing. But the fact remains that when I’m reading opinions on something I want the best informed opinion possible. Dumb opinions are useless.
Tip #4: Know how to write.
Put away your exclamation points. Curb the use of bodily fluid metaphors to explain how much you enjoyed a film. Learn how to communicate using the written word.
You don’t have to be writing in the best Queen’s English, and you don’t have to be delivering the kind of prose that they’ll be teaching in high schools fifty years from now. But you do have to be able to get across what you’re trying to say succinctly and well, and you should be doing it in a way that is enjoyable to read. Yes, film reviews should be their own little pieces of art. They should be entertaining in their own right. I have books of film reviews not because I might need to suddenly find out what Pauline Kael thought of Giant, but because I really like the way she communicated what she thought of Giant. I read it for the writing.
You should, however, have enough facility with the English language that you don’t make a jackass out of yourself. People will judge you based on the way you write, and if you’re dropping ‘should of’ instead of ‘should have’ all the time, people are going to think you’re a moron. And you’ll end up with a readership of people who are even dumber than you appear to be.
Tip #5: Know movies.
Seriously, it’s important enough to list twice. If you’re making a top ten list and you find all the films on that list came out in the 80s or later, stop being a film critic and commence watching lots and lots of movies. If you don’t know what the 180 degree rule is, stop being a film critic and buy some books on filmmaking. If you think you know enough about films and filmmaking, stop being a film critic and get some humility and sense.
Tip #6: Be thoughtful.
The internet’s immediacy hurts film criticism. Too many people rush home (or to the nearest wifi spot) after a screening in order to be the first to have a review up. A thoughtful, intelligent person understands that in many cases – possibly even most cases – it’s preferable to have a couple of hours or days to chew a movie over. You need to go over it in your head. You need a little while to let the initial ‘I just had a good time in the theater’ shine wear off (and this sounds cynical, but it’s true. Again, you’re not a consumer reporter, so you’re not writing reviews to tell people they’ll have two fun hours in the theater that they will immediately forget. You’re trying to be at least a little bit intelligent in how you approach reviewing). You owe it to your readers to have something interesting to say, not just to gush over a movie. Give them something to think about, a new angle to consider, or even a little bit of trivia that puts the movie in a new perspective. Anything to justify the fact that they’re reading your words and not simply skipping to your numerical grade at the end.
Being first isn’t important in the long run. Being best is.
Tip #7: Be honest.
As a film critic all you have is your opinion. That’s why it’s so important to have it be educated (#s 3 and 5), and that’s why it’s so important to communicate it clearly (#4). And that’s why it’s so important that your readers can trust it. They don’t have to agree with it, they just have to know that you really mean it. If your readers know they every review you write is entertaining to read, backed up with real knowledge and most importantly honest, they’ll keep reading you. It’s when they begin to suspect that you’re full of shit that you’re in the biggest trouble.
That means if you hated a movie that you know all of your readers will like you have to be honest about it. If you liked a movie that you think will be unpopular, you have to be honest about it. Use our hard-earned knowledge of movies and your well practiced skills as a writer to create a readable, cogent argument, but it has to be an honest one. You can’t write something to appease the readers, and you can’t write something to appease filmmakers or studios. That’s the real trap: you come to like a certain filmmaker (either professionally or personally, as can happen when you’ve been doing this long enough with enough success) and you’re afraid to say something bad about their new film. Lying about it won’t help anybody. It won’t help the filmmaker get any better next time and it won’t help your readers trust you. They’ll see through it in a heartbeat.
And don’t be afraid to be wrong! Are you the only person who loved or hated a specific movie? Don’t let that turn you into a second guesser. As long as your argument is presented well (ie, not simply saying ‘This was boring!’ or ‘This sucked!’), make your argument. Maybe you’ll change your mind later – we’re all human and we grow, so God knows I have early reviews where the opinions on display make me wince – but this is how you feel now. This is part of being honest. Again, as long as you can back up your opinions with thought, knowledge and good writing, make your case.