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Profiles in Criticism: Thelma Adams

Profiles in Criticism: Thelma Adams

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.

I first met Thelma Adams on Park City’s Main Street, one cold, sunny Sundance afternoon. After navigating the crowds I found her with some friends, and when I introduced myself as her fellowship critic mentee, one of them assured me I was in good hands — “the best hands!”

Adams certainly does know her way around Sundance, which she’s been attending since 1986. When asked about the early days of the festival, she said she remembers “the birth of a small, intimate, crunchy independent cinema on Main Street. And out of the passion that people had — a small group of people had — to tell different kinds of stories, a much larger festival emerged.” 

That much larger festival whisked us in different directions shortly into our first meeting, but we spoke on the phone later in the week, and she shared three decades’ worth of insight on the world of film criticism with me. Currently a contributing editor for Yahoo! Movies, Adams wrote for the New York Post for six years and was the film critic at Us Weekly from 2000 to 2011. She has contributed to countless other publications, as well as having written a novel, Playdate, which was published in 2011. Her first published article was a review of the 1978 thriller Remember My Name in The Daily Californian at UC Berkeley, and she cites critics Andrew Sarris and Armond White as having inspired her writing. 

Not one to waste time, she greeted me warmly over the phone, “Without preliminaries, what do you need to know?” When I asked her what advice she would give to aspiring film critics, she said to write as much as possible, especially before you have to start making a living by it. On writing itself, she stressed, “You have to be very empathetic to the filmmakers, and understand that what they’re doing is a creative art.” She also mentioned the enormous impact that social media — “something that we didn’t have when we were writing for the Daily Cal!” — has had on film criticism, and advised that aspiring critics should take advantage of it, as it enables writers to create their own platforms by which to share their opinions and get their writing out into the world. 

It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in the film industry (we’ve all seen the infamous infographic by now), and when asked whether there are any challenges to being a woman in film criticism specifically, Adams replied emphatically, “Yes — unequivocally, yes.” In fact, she linked the low number of female filmmakers to the low number of female film critics, noting that critics are the gatekeepers of cinema — and when all of them are men, fewer women are likely to make it through. “So not only is it hard to make your film,” she explained, “and to make your film relevant, to tell the independent story that you want to tell, but at the far end, the gatekeepers are predominantly men, or women who have had to come through a male system.” 

When I expressed regret at hearing these discouraging statistics, she responded in her typically no-nonsense fashion with a lettered list: “I think you have to kind of say, A: it’s just difficult to be in the industry,” female or not. “B: it’s difficult to monetize being a film critic, and C: it is a challenge to be a female in the industry, whether you’re a critic or a filmmaker.” She emphasized the importance that women in film — critics and filmmakers alike — support each other, and finally, added, “D) Do I want to change it? Yes. E) Have I done everything in my power to change it? Yes.” 

Adams’s deep love of movies, and of writing about them, is clearly what inspires her to fight for that change. Before hanging up, she said, “I think that being a film critic is a really great way to spend your life, particularly for people who love movies like I do, and continue to love movies, and continue to expand the kind of movies that I like to watch…I think one of the things I would say to critics, once you have your niche, once you have some kind of security, is: enjoy it. It’s not a Sisyphean task. You’re not rolling rocks up a hill. That’s what I would say.”

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