Each participant in the Indiewire | Sundance Institute Fellowship for Film Criticism was paired with an experienced mentor who shared her or his insight during the course of the Sundance Film Festival. Their profiles will run this week on Criticwire. The Fellows’ complete contributions can be found here.
Scott Foundas and I first became acquainted at a coffee shop a few blocks down from the Egyptian Theater on the second day of the Sundance Film Festival. It’s always daunting meeting someone with such an accomplished career, his having reached a new echelon last year when he joined Variety as co-chief film critic. However, as our conversation began, my nerves were assuaged immediately by his sheer amiability. Lively, cordial and effortlessly drawing from his vast knowledge of film, Scott is a seriously cool guy and a perfect companion for Park City.
We hunkered down, coffees in hand, and discussed our favorite movies for over an hour. He told me he loved American Hustle and Her, describing layers to those films that I hadn’t even perceived before. You realize the limitations of how well you can articulate your opinions when stacking them up against a pro, but Scott never condescended, even when we disagreed over a film. He’s that rare critical mind that can undeniably impress while always maintaining respectfulness.
Scott Foundas got his start in film criticism while he was still in high school. The Florida native entered and won an annual contest held by the Tampa Bay Times called “Teens on Screen,” becoming one of six teenage freelancers who would alternately write film reviews for the publication. “I had written for both my junior high and high school papers, but that was my first byline for a professional newspaper,” he recalls. “I can’t remember being paid for any of it, but it was just exciting to be writing.”
He served as the editor of the film section of the college paper while attending the University of Southern California, writing at a prodigious output. Despite how comfortably he slipped into the world of film criticism, he hadn’t planned on it becoming his career. “I was still entertaining the notion of making films, that’s what I thought I wanted to do,” he says. However, whenever he took a break from writing to try and get his foot in the door in the film industry, he would always be drawn back to the craft.
His work as an assistant during his filmmaking pursuits would pay dividends though, accruing him contacts that would open the doors he needed to freelance with Variety as well as land a position as film editor of the LA Weekly, eventually becoming chief critic for the Village Voice. After a three-year stint as a film programmer for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, he would return to his job at the Voice in late 2012, only to be offered his current gig at Variety a few months later. “It’s been very exciting, because [Variety] has changed a lot,” he says. “Now there is almost no distinction between a general publication and a trade publication…. Variety has allowed itself to become more accessible to a general audience.”
He had several mentors he credits with helping broaden his appreciation of cinema. One was Dick Morris (not that one), founder of the Sarasota Film Society, a nonprofit organization that brought foreign and independent films to the state of Florida. “All of the exposure I had to non-Hollywood movies was because of the programming Dick Morris was doing,” Scott says. “He cultivated an audience for foreign and independent film, like tilling soil.” Scott would also find an indirect mentor in the late Roger Ebert, the two writing as pen pals for years. He also lists former Variety writer Todd McCarthy and The New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis as other important figures on his way to success.
Scott attests that the best advice he was given was from critic and film historian David Thomson, who told him to “Read as much as you can, by which I mean not only books about movies.” The words stuck with him and he went on to always make a point to read up on as many diverse topics as possible. “I can probably name as many writers outside of the world of film criticism that have made me a better writer as I could from inside,” he says.
When I asked him what advice he would have for aspiring writers on film, he answered “See as much as you can and be open to new types of criticism,” adding that it is better to be able to dissect film as whole than focus on hyper-specialization. “I think if your ambition is to write for a general interest publication, you want to have a broad knowledge base, to be able to write as well about blockbusters as the avant-garde.” He admits that it’s hard not to sound pessimistic to young freelancers, citing that the saturation of the market has made it much harder to make a living off criticism. The sheer flood of information online has made it difficult to become distinguished he says, the volume forcing readers to struggle to “Sort through the malaise of the Internet.”
Hanging out with Scott was some of the most relaxed conversation I had throughout the Sundance Festival. His enthusiasm for film is contagious and his openness to new opinions insatiable. I appreciated his generosity and how adept he was at discussing both big Hollywood releases as well as art house entries with equal thoughtfulness. It’s what makes him an ideal fit for the trades. It also makes dialogue with him about the movies always genial, insightful and just plain fun.