Every week, Criticwire asks film critics a question and brings you their responses in The Criticwire Survey. We also ask each member of the poll to pick the best film currently playing in theaters. The most popular choices can be found at the bottom of this post. But first, this week’s question:
Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a film critic?
The critics’ answers:
“Don’t stop writing, and never use the phrase ‘mind-blowing’ to describe anything, ever.”
“In order to be a film critic, you have to love writing even more than you love movies. Even in that not-too-far-off day when YouTube (or, god forbid, Vine) is the standard delivery device for film criticism, you are going to have to write your own material, and you are going to have to love that process if you want to have any chance at being good.”
“The best advice I could possibly share comes from two critics whose work has inspired me. First, there’s what Roger Ebert said about reviewing, namely that any review is trying to answer two questions: what did I see, and how did it make me feel? No case of writer’s block can stand up against two such pointed questions. The second piece of advice is something Glenn Kenny tweeted perhaps more than a year ago. He said (and I’m paraphrasing), ‘It’s not what you’ve seen that matters, it’s how you write about what you’ve seen.’ Young writers can feel as if they don’t have any business weighing in. Kenny’s words here are gentle, forgiving, and encouraging. But they’re also freighted with expectation. It’s okay to be inexperienced, but you can’t stay there. Never allow your weaknesses to become a crutch; try to overcome them.”
“Learn to write. Movie geeks are a dime a dozen. Interesting writers are not.”
“Don’t fall into the trap, see movies in cinemas whenever you can.”
“You’re asking a question that basically demands an essay-length answer, but I’ll try to break it down into quick bullet points: Don’t. Do it only if you can’t NOT do it. If it is in you to write about film, do it, and do it constantly. Do it for free if nobody pays, and don’t expect anybody to ever pay. After that, advice breaks down into practical and intellectual.
Practical — hone other skills that might be associated with being a film critic in the modern age. Learn how to edit and resize your own images. Learn basic HTML and Photoshop. Hone your editing eye to pick up on your own most frequent errors as well as those of others. Learn how to analyze the work of others to make it stronger. Work with blog software and content management systems as much as you can. If you do get a job, even if it pays little to nothing, be dependable, reliable, capable of quick turnarounds, and do not miss a deadline. If an editor gives notes, learn from them. Because if you can’t manage that, there are plenty out there who can. I have been doing this since 1999 and never has my job involved just being a critic.
Intellectual — watch everything. Watch old movies, watch weird foreign movies, watch current releases you’re certain you won’t like (be they chick flicks, pandering kids films, Adam Sandler comedies, whatever). You need to love the movies and moviegoing, because even if it’s analyzing why something didn’t work, a good critic can get something out of every night at the movies. Then write what you feel. Not what you think someone wants to hear, but what you feel. Don’t waste my time upfront with two paragraphs of dry plot synopsis (the most common rookie mistake). Give everything personality — describe that plot in a way only you would, for example. And don’t be a gratuitous jerk unless a movie really pisses you off. If every other movie seems to do that, you don’t need to be a critic.”
“Write, write, write. Don’t wait to be paid to do it. Just do it. Over and over again. Write reviews for your friends. Write blog posts for your own site. Write essays. Write personal pieces. Write in a style different from your own. Write features, previews, reviews, and anything you can think of to express your love for film. Roger Ebert once said that the best way to become a film critic is to call yourself one. The best film critics have been writing about film in some fashion, from emails to their friends to social media post, for their whole lives. They ‘called themselves critics’ long before they were paid accordingly. And, as with most things, you become a better film critic the more you practice doing it. On a similar note, read. Read the great critics. Read fiction. Read non-fiction. Whatever you read, it will improve your style, knowledge base, and general vocabulary. A great writer reads great writers.”
“I would start by asking them why, not to be facetious, but to understand their intent. If they just want to watch free movies and get their name in trailers, then I’d tell them to go find something else to do. There are already enough critics that can’t do anything but recite a movie’s synopsis in their review that get their name in trailers. But if they say they want to review because they love movies and feel like they have something intelligent to say, then I’d advise them to watch as many movies as they can, read some books about movies and maybe even take some classes. Then write as much as they can (published or not) and look for a job writing Blu-ray reviews for a movie website. Once they establish their voice and get some confidence in their writing, apply to some film critics societies and then start looking for that coveted full-time gig.”
“The best advice is the most cliched, and is two-fold: don’t stop reading criticism, and don’t stop writing your own criticism. (Perhaps that’s also the most hopeful, as anyone starting out in criticism should know that Ebert-like fame is most certainly not in the cards.) If you want to be a film critic, you have to watch and write about as much as possible, but you need to keep up with the vast number of quality critics who’ve been doing it for a long time. So even as you write about either the newest tentpole film or an old favorite, don’t forget to read from the greats (alive or dead), people like Matt Zoller Seitz, Kent Jones, Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, and more. Maybe you’ll discover new favorite critics along the way, but you have to search them out first. So: don’t stop reading, or writing, criticism.”
“Other than ‘don’t?’ I think I would advise, for someone just starting out, to try an exercise. Don’t write any negative reviews. Instead, work really hard at finding the concrete language for articulating what is special about some of the movies that you most admire. Can you describe their formal structure in cogent yet accessible prose? Can you convey the personal meaning they have for you without lapsing into incoherent gushing? This is much harder than slamming a film.”
“Take some classes. Read. Don’t think of yourself as better than any movie or genre. Learn to recognize what you respond to, and figure out why. Don’t be a troll. Don’t be an asshole. Be friendly to other critics whenever possible; at this point in the game, there are so few of us left that it doesn’t help to make enemies. Be true to your aesthetics. Enthusiasm and hype are two different things. One last thing — celebrity journalists are not critics, and treating them as such diminishes the art form.”
“Be interested in everything: Be interested in Hollywood popcorn movies and beard-stroking thinkers. Be interested in great films that fail, and shitty films that succeed. Be interested in the audience. Be interested in the crews that work on movies, and the students who want to make them. Be interested in your reader and let your curiosity be a nourishment to them.”
“If your goal is to make money, then don’t do it.”
“Practice vigorous self-flagellation until the urge passes.”
“First off, this job is not nearly as glamorous for most of us as you probably think it is. That’s not a complaint because I love what I do and count myself lucky to make my living doing it. But the only real reason to dedicate yourself to film criticism is because you love, love, love movies and want to spend your days and nights watching and discussing them, sometimes with a public that will be downright outraged by what you have to say. If you’re still interested, my advice is write everyday whether someone is paying you to or not, and as Conan O’Brien said in his farewell speech on ‘The Tonight Show,’ ‘If you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.'”
“This is probably generic, but it’s generic because it’s true, dammit: watch everything, read everyone, and then get out of the house and live a full life. The finest criticism isn’t written in a bubble where the critic can only compare Movie A to Movies B and C. You have to step away from the screen and learn about sports, politics, science and sociology — and, most importantly, yourself. Want a more practical pro-tip? ‘Strunk & White.'”
“You want to be a critic? Everyone can be a critic now so write. Stop talking about writing and plunge in and write. Start a blog and write about each film that you’ve seen. Just like I hear many people talk about wanting to learn a dance like the Argentine tango, too often they are all talk. There is nothing really stopping them from taking an Argentine tango class, at least not in Los Angeles. Likewise, in today’s Internet age, there’s nothing to prevent someone from writing and getting people to read your commentary. Don’t do write for fame or money. Write because you have something to say and you love movies.
Read. You aren’t an island. You don’t exist in a vacuum. Read what other people write. Find an established film critic whose writing interests you and read that person’s reviews regularly. You don’t necessarily want to find someone with whom you always agree with.
Don’t be mean or unnecessarily snarky. While I did at one point admire the queen of mean, Dorothy Parker, I rethought that when I considered her life and wondered if it would be wise to model mine after hers. Likewise, many of the critics I knew at one point were single, bitter, or argumentative and lived unhealthy lifestyles. So lastly, I would advise: Get out of your house, get out of the dark of the theater, and experience life. Don’t use movies, video games, or theater to live life vicariously. Movies should not be a substitute for participating in the world around you. You never know where life will take you or the opportunities that might open up, so write every week but also don’t forget to be an actor on the stage of life every day.”
“1. Don’t. Just kidding. Or not! Run for the hills!
2. Read as much as you can by critics that have come before you. Lay the groundwork. Educate yourself.
3. Develop your own voice, and don’t be afraid to express your opinions. If they’re fully developed and thought out, it doesn’t matter if you’re the only person who liked a movie. Stand your ground.
4. Be willing to revisit your opinions on movies at a later date. Don’t be afraid to say you were wrong.
5. Don’t feel pressured to write in a certain way to be taken seriously.
6. Develop a thick skin.
7. It’s easy to write off bad movies before you even go in, but you may be surprised. Try and be open.
8. Avoid trailers.
9. Work with editors whom you trust. A great editor — especially one who is kind enough to take the time to offer feedback — is invaluable. Everyone needs to be edited.
10. You need new and different stimuli or you will get burned out. Talk a walk around the park, read a book, have conversations about things other than movies, and find other things to do that don’t include sitting in the dark staring at a screen.
(This is all advice I can certainly use myself. As most advice is.)“
“Much of the advice I’d give is pretty standard. Develop your writing style. Learn as much about films — all genres, from all eras — as possible. Perform your job as ethically and professionally as possible. There are, however, a few nuggets of wisdom I could offer that are perhaps less obvious. The first is, prepare to have another part-time job to supplement whatever you make from film writing. Most critics don’t earn very much, so if you want a comfortable lifestyle, you best not put all your eggs in this basket. Second, figure out what you can offer that’s special. There are hundreds of ‘Man of Steel’ reviews online. Why should someone read yours? You need to provide something unique that draws readers to you, then keeps them there for the reviews they could find in dozens of other places. Really, though, the most important advice, which I’m sure will be oft-repeated this week, is to do this job simply because you can’t imagine not doing it. That, more than anything, will point you toward success.”
“I actually was in this very position once upon a time and sought out the advice of none other than Matt Singer (via Myspace, no less) in the days before I started actually attempting to make a living at this while a student at Stony Brook University. He told me to basically keep doing what I was doing, so my advice to aspiring writers would be simply to write, and then write some more. And then guess what? Write more.”
“Make sure you watch as many different films as possible. To have any proper authority, you need to be well-versed in all aspects of cinema: foreign, (some) experimental, art house, classic Hollywood. Learning the grammar of film will also be of immense use, particularly when singling out directorial styles and themes.”
“‘Seeing movies early is great and all, but the real good part is when you get a free meal.’ — a New York-based junket reporter. My advice is simple for all future kid criticz. Don’t be that guy.”
“Read good writers. Watch good movies. Read more good writers. Watch more good movies. And continue to infinity. Film criticism isn’t a job about being first, being loudest or being right. It’s a job about conveying something about the cinema to a readership. And if you don’t know from good prose, and if you don’t know the cinema — its history, its nuts-and-bolts — then you can have ‘perfect’ taste and still be a lousy critic. The best critics illuminate and make us wish we’d thought of that. They make us want more — of the movies, of their prose, of our experience of both. So: Be a good writer and a ceaseless student of cinema. That’ll do.”
“Do something other than watch movies. One of the common threads of some of the first film critics, whose work is conveniently gathered in Phillip Lopate’s ‘American Movie Critics’ anthology, is that many of them had other backgrounds or experiences (literature, yes, but also in fields such as psychology). There’s nothing wrong with being specialized — and to carry the authority that such focus brings — but being able to draw on other things can help to enrich (and distinguish) your criticism.”
“The jokey-hard truth answer I’m sure many will give will be, ‘Don’t.’ But here’s my variation on that advice: don’t try and be a film critic in the ‘paid staff position’ model. Become a programmer: find venues and see if they can prepare repertory screenings. If there isn’t one near you, start your own. Study to become an archivist and help preserve the history of cinema, making sure it exists for generations to come. Work for a distributor or become a producer. If you have an eye for recognizing talent in cinema, why not help make sure that director or writer can make another masterpiece? Also, being a publicist doesn’t necessarily mean shelling out for corporations if your job is supporting important works of world cinema. Help out with foundations or companies that are searching out lost classics that will broaden the history of cinema. Become an academic — teach cinema history and theory, or even filmmaking based on your knowledge. Blog and write outside traditional networks — make a dossier on something no one else is writing about. I’m sure there are interesting things to say about ‘Man of Steel,’ but there’s so much more out there that makes cinema a wonderful experience.”
“Watch movies. Watch as many movies as you can. Read about movies. Read other critics. Watch movies. Watch movies you don’t want to watch. If you’ve never seen a film made before 1997 you need to fix that. That shouldn’t be too hard because you love movies so much you want to know as much about them as possible. You love them so much that the idea of a watching a particular movie from a particular era from halfway around the globe sounds fantastic to you. Because you love movies so much. So love movies then write about them. Write hard and love hard.”
“Watch a lot, write a lot, and read a lot. And be nice to people, online and in real life.”
“Three things I tell rookie film critics who seek advice:
(1) Be fair: Judge films for what they are rather than what they’re not. For example, don’t review an Adam Sandler movie by complaining it’s not ‘Citizen Kane.’
(2) Be honest: Write what you truly think about the movie, not what you think might impress other movie critics (who are never impressed anyway).
(3) Be open: If a movie isn’t working for you, ask yourself if the problem is the film or your perception of it. If it’s the latter, perhaps a second screening or some remedial film scholarship would help.”
“Know your shit, be nice to publicists, and never say no to an assignment unless the editor is actually a friend.”
“Watch as many movies as you can, write as often as you can, read other critics as much as you can, and find as many leads to a ‘day job’ as you can.”
“Don’t limit yourself to writing either love letters or autopsies.”
“The cynical response, which has seemingly grown into the natural and pragmatic response, is don’t. After all the pay (if you can even find it) is low, job security is essentially non-existent, and the paucity of jobs available means competition is at an all-time high. And yet here I am, about to inform all those inquiring minds that if you’d like to be a film critic, you should pursue it with every fiber of your body. My advice? Write, write, and then write some more. Consume as much film criticism as you can. Seek out writers who challenge you, emotionally and intellectually, and not just the ones whose opinions align with your own.
Aside from the craft of writing, I would urge all of those interested in making film criticism not merely a hobby, but a profession to constantly make new connections. I’ve seen many gifted wordsmiths not find paying work because they lacked the ability to converse and be sociable with people. Most importantly though, be genuine and kind to your film critic counterparts. As with any profession, backstabbing and badmouthing occurs in this field of work — but that doesn’t have to be you. Just remember, you never know who may be in the position to employ you one day. Burning bridges is a surefire way to ensure you won’t thrive in this business. Lastly, I’ll quote a bit of advice Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune gave me when I posed this same question to him a couple of years ago: ‘Go get ‘em. Just find a way to keep at it, and remember to be smarter than the jackass writing somewhere else on the same film.’ Keep at it indeed.”
“I’ve got two pieces of advice. The first one is to work out a plan where your main source of income is from something else but writing about film. It’s getting harder and harder, journalists are being laid off every week and film critics are not the last one to go when they need to cut the costs. If you want to be a film critic, become one. But be realistic about it and count on that it will be a hobby. My second is a request: please don’t let your readers and viewers suffer from your own fatigue and bitterness. I’ve seen too many critics getting less and less enthusiastic about movies overall as they get older. And I can’t help thinking that it’s not an effect of movies getting worse as much as it is a sign of that they’ve grown tired of their job and need to move on to something that still can spark their interest — or at least have a long break. Think about the readers, listeners and viewers! They are not there to be your therapists. They’re there to be enlightened, provoked, and entertained. Keep an eye open for any sign of bitterness and deal with it before it grows out of proportion.”
“People have actually asked me this question a few times, and here are my stock answers: 1) ‘Don’t.’ 2) ‘Learn HTML, learn how to create, update and maintain a website, and learn how to sell ads and make it into a money-making enterprise, because the paradigm where people actually get paid to review movies, no matter how qualified they are to do it, is shrinking rapidly from year to year. Thanks a lot to Arianna Huffington and everyone else on the web who thinks ‘content’ isn’t worth paying for, the odds of turning film criticism into a full-time paid position are more and more resembling the odds of becoming an astronaut.”
“As someone who’s hired many film critics and commentators over the years, my best advice is this:
1. Put together a strong sampling of your work. Not just all movie reviews, but also editorials, interviews, discussion pieces and stuff that basically shows you’re versatile. You want to show people that you can do everything and write about anything.
2. Follow all your favorite film critics, commentators and most importantly editors (managing editors, people in charge of hiring) on Twitter. Engage with them, learn from them, study them and keep an eye out for job openings they frequently post.
3. Visit all of the websites (newspapers, magazines) you’d love to write for and inquire about openings, but do this only after you have samples to show them.
4. Read Criticwire every day to keep up on the industry and its leading voices.”
“Be honest, keep watching and keep writing. Honesty is something I value highly in people and particularly in criticism. The best reviews are the ones that are honest and true to the critics opinions and emotions. Expanding your film knowledge is also of immense importance and watching as many, diverse, films as you can does not only achieve this, but will also improve reviews. Finally, writing as many reviews as you can and creating a body of work for yourself is the direct step that puts to practice the prior two elements. As somebody who is 17 years old and wants to be a film critic, these three things are what I have found to be important in my pursuit so far. Whether I am truly considered a ‘critic’ or not is another question, however perhaps once I have further mastered this craft and raised my profile, I will be able to return to this question with a more refined response.”
“It’s going to take a long time to get noticed so try to find your voice as early as possible. Stand by your opinions but be open to criticism. Opinions are subjective, period. Don’t write in a vacuum and actively read reviews of established critics to see how they compose themselves; learn from the best. Never think that any opportunity (screening, interview, etc.) is beneath you. By the same token, take every opportunity within your means. A lot of things come from being in the right place at the right time so show up, have fun, introduce yourself, ask questions, and don’t be a wallflower at events, screenings or festivals. Other than that just know being a film critic, especially on the web, isn’t a short game. So get used to late nights but don’t overextend yourself. You’re not going to be able to see everything or be everywhere so be judicious in your choices/assignments and schedule things that are feasible. In the end it comes down to living as close as you can to something I call the 7 P’s: Patience, Passion, Practice, Perseverance, Preparedness, Punctuality, and Proofread!”
“Do it your way. If you fail at this, it will eat you up. It will eat you right up.”
“To take something from the playbook of ‘Almost Famous,’ be ‘honest and unmerciful.’ The worst thing you can do is to make your readers mistrust you in anyway. They can disagree with you all they want. Just be fair to every movie and never present the appearance that your opinion may be slanted below the surface. If you have a bias, present it as such. Don’t hyperbolize everything. Be consistent. No reason you cannot be enthusiastic about something you love, but not everything is a masterpiece and not everything is a disaster the minute you walk out of the theater. You have years to determine whether a movie is historical and a second viewing or a second hour thinking about it may alter your thought process. Think in terms of the film being presented to you and how it succeeds or fails. Not your relationship with the director on Twitter, your meeting at a film festival or anything you heard or saw behind-the-scenes. Aid the conversation about film by being a film critic. Not by being a part of the publicity machine.”
“Learn a trade.”
“Start a blog and start writing and keep writing. Maintain your voice and don’t try and be something you’re not. Honesty always wins out in the end.”
“The most important advice is that most advice sucks; there’s a tendency, when giving advice, for the giver to indulge in a bit of ego auto-fellatio (‘Hey, look at me, I’ve been asked to for advice, I’m important! nom nom nom’), but an even more crucial mistake when giving advice is to conflate personal idiosyncrasy with universal good. This is why I’d never advise an aspiring critic to do stuff like ‘always take notes’ or ‘read [my favorite famous tome of critical theory] before anything else,’ because everyone has their own process. Now, that caveat aside (and pardon any typos in the following, as I’ll be fellating myself for my eternal wisdom while I type), I *do* have a couple things I would advise someone who wants to become a film critic. The first is, see everything you can, and not just things you want to see; in fact, it’s really important to watch shit you don’t care about, not only because the detachment will make it easier to be objective about things like craft, but you’ll also be surprised what you’ll end up liking. The second piece of advice, though, is the most important: ask yourself, ‘Do I personally have anything to say? Do I have insight beyond ‘this is good/bad?” Whether you liked or disliked something is of far less importance than why you did. To be able to extrapolate this, you need to be self-aware enough to know when your aesthetic knee is simply jerking as a reflex and when you’re actually making a legitimate critical judgment, and you need to know enough not only about movies but the world in which they exist to form that critical judgment. What constitutes ‘enough?’ Well, keep learning. What might initially seem ‘boring’ might have a greater purpose. What might initially seem profound could be because you haven’t experienced enough in life to realize it’s commonplace. Or it may turn out that the boring thing really is boring, or the profundity really is profound. Finally, my third piece of advice is: be prepared to have civilians get really, really mad at you when you break it to them that ‘Forrest Gump’ is a piece of shit. They don’t take it well. Then this happens. But, all that being said, by all means, become a film critic. Just, y’know, do it right.”
“Getting a job as a film critic — that is to say, an actual, paying job — is a lot like getting any other job in the entertainment industry. Unless you ‘know someone,’ the only pattern you’re likely to find is that you will start off by losing money (paying for movies out of pocket, writing for free), and then once you get pretty good you will start to break even (getting paid, but very little, and starting to enjoy the perks like advance screenings and complimentary review products), and then when you’re VERY good you will eventually make a living at it. That process can take years, so step one is to embrace the fact that this is going to be hard. Step two is to watch every movie. You no longer have the luxury of picking and choosing, and you definitely don’t have the luxury of ignoring a genre or time period because it doesn’t appeal to you. You’re responsible for knowing this stuff and being better versed in the medium than your readers, so get cracking. Step three is to not fall into the trap of “only” studying film; make sure you keep reading novels, the newspaper, philosophy, comic books, playing video games, and socializing with friends. You can’t do this job in a vacuum, because your audience won’t be reading in one either.
Step four, speaking as an editor as well as a film critic, is to learn how to type. I can’t stress this enough. If you’re not at a minimum of 60 words per minute, your efficiency is dangerously low. Sometimes you need to pump out a review in very little time to hit a deadline, so being able to get your thoughts on paper quickly — and without typos — will make you far more appealing to potential employers than any competitors who would require handholding from on high. Step five is to develop your own style and opinions, which can only occur over time, so get started now, experiment with different ways to express yourself, allow yourself to mess up a little before you’re collecting paychecks (because by then it might be too late), and become a writer whose contributions to the art of film criticism will be unique and worth reading. Good luck! I look forward to welcoming you amongst our ranks.”
“Advice for a film critic: don’t call yourself a film critic. Call yourself a reviewer; unless you’ve made movies, you have no right to criticize the work of someone who does. Try and find at least one thing of merit in any film you watch and review. ALWAYS watch the whole movie if you are going to write about it. Don’t speak to a specific audience, since very few people watch as many films as reviewers and programmers. Keep your content aimed at the person who may or may not want to see a film or who might be reading your work for the first time. Don’t be a film snob, it doesn’t work. Most people don’t have any idea about the movies, so keep your work level. We’re not very valuable anymore, so tread gently.”
“I think the most important piece of advice I could give would be to think about contextualization. Read a lot. I know so many aspiring film critics who don’t read, as unfathomable as that sounds. An understanding of where cinema has been is valuable for any projection of where it might be going. Also; start a blog. Be honest. Ignore the PR circus. Don’t have a backup plan. Join Twitter. Converse with a wide array of fellow film critics. Seek out opportunities like the Criticwire Survey.”
“There are many things, but the most important: do some serious soul searching about why you want to do it and whether it can even give you the life you want to lead. It’s a world with little pay and no job security, where even reputable critics struggle to hold a gig for more than a year or two.”
“Becoming a film critic is about who you know *and* what you know, so watch movies whenever you can, write compelling, concise reviews, and make strong connections within the writing community.”
“Don’t. But seriously, folks. The biggest change in the media environment since I got my started is that, with increasingly rare exceptions, there is no longer such a thing as ‘a film critic.’ There are cultural critics who specialize in movies; there are film critics who also do interviews or analyze box office or write about how professional athletes dress (okay, so there’s only one of the latter, but he’s pretty great). The worst thing you can do as an aspiring writer is to limit yourself. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try to identify your strengths, but you should be willing to try anything, and ready to pounce on any idea that floats through your head. When someone asks you to do something you’ve never done — speak in front of a group, say, or appear on TV — say yes first, and then worry about how you’re going to do it. Above all, write. Write for yourself, write for other people, write for nothing or close to it, but just write. The only way to be a good writer is to start out as a bad one, and nothing will cure bad habits faster than having them displayed in front of an audience. In the immortal words of ‘Throw Momma From the Train:’ A writer writes, always.”
The Best Movie Currently In Theaters on June 24th, 2013: