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Profiles in Criticism: Sean P. Means

Profiles in Criticism: Sean P. Means

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.

2014 marks the 30th anniversary of the Sundance Film Festival, an event that Sean P. Means, film critic for the Salt Lake Tribune, has followed closely for the past 23 years. An outspoken follower of Robert Redford’s work, Means’ extensive career in film criticism has been closely linked to the annual Mecca of independent cinema. This year he had the pleasure of moderating the Opening Day Press Conference with John Cooper, Kari Putnam, and Redford himself, a deserving honor for a film critic whose sense of wonder for cinema has not been tainted by the passing of time. 

A native of Spokane, Washington, Means recalls dearly his first trip to the movies without his parents to see George Roy Hill’s The Sting at the Fox Theater, and considers it as a crucial experience in the development of his passion for film. As a young boy he wrote his first film review on Star Wars as an 8th grade assignment for his journalism teacher Joyce Lykes, who first ignited the spark of curiosity for the informative written word. Further inspiration came from his uncle John Means, his father’s twin brother. Now a retired reporter, the elder Means worked for the Memphis Commercial Appeal during the ’60s covering Civil Rights movement landmarks such as the Memphis bus boycott, and even Martin Luther King’s assassination. 

Curiously, Means’ own first published article was a humor column for his 9th grade newspaper. Years later during his time at the University of Washington he would finally get paid to write a review for the school’s paper, an event which became his first brief, but significant encounter with professional criticism. Right after college Means moved to Idaho to work shortly covering local news and the state’s legislation, soon after he would work at the Idahonian, a small 10,000-circulation paper. There he would have the opportunity to meet the publisher who he would eventually follow to the Salt Lake Tribune in 1991. 

While Means was working the copy desk, the movie critic position became available. Means applied and after a short audition process he became the Tribune’s film critic in 1993, a title he holds to this day. He admits that in order to survive the increasingly challenging field of newspapers one must wear many hats and diversify. Besides reviewing new releases and attending film festivals, he is also in charge of covering Salt Lake’s visual arts scene and compiling the paper’s pop-music calendar. In recent years he has become an assiduous user of social media, as he is aware of the importance of modern technology in reaching his audience.  

Means is a loving fan and advocate of the The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a film, which he believes is the first time moviegoers of his generation got to see two males kissing on the screen — a very radical thing for the time. If there is a single movie I’ve seen more often than any other it would be The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and I will defend it till my dying day as an actually good movie,” declares Means. However, he clarifies that in terms of quality his all-time favorite movie is the classic Casablanca. 

In terms of advice for young critics, he is honest about he obstacles the field faces, yet offers some hopeful pointers for those who want to venture into the crowded field. “Write as much as you can, go see as many movies as you can and write the reviews. Money will be an issue because finding a full time gig is difficult. They are getting increasingly scarce as many papers are cutting out their film criticism positions. At the same time with the Internet there is such a proliferation of voices that it is possible to get your voice out there. Whether you want to get your voice out there and still have a dental plan is another question”. He urges new critics to work hard to create a following and to be clear about their objectives, and even more importantly about their niche audience. “Figure out your voice, figure your audience, build your audience and if you can do that and still figure out a way to eat, then you should be able to market yourself to a publication or get a job that actually pays money,” he says. 

On that same note, he has his own opinion on the ongoing debate about the longevity and relevance of film criticism as a legitimate profession. Means believes that the knowledgeable insight critics provide is still necessary for consumers, audiences, and artists “Everyone has an opinion but not everyone has an informed opinion. That’s where I think criticism and critics will maintain a role.”  When thinking about efficient and reliable criticism he remembers the late Roger Ebert as a standard to strive for. “I grew up watching Roger on TV,” he recalls. “As a professional I read his work on the Sun Times, and then met him [at Sundance]. He’s been sort of a mark for me to strive for, even now in the back of my head sometimes I think what would Roger do.” 

Warm and always open to discuss his impressive lifelong journey by the hand of movies, Sean P. Means is a professional who through the years has adapted to the constant changes in the trade. Still, it is clear that his passion for the eternally renewing sense of joy movies provide comes from a much more romanticized place. That kid that took a bus to town to see a Redford movie is still writing his reviews, with much more profound arguments now, but with the same capacity to love a movie without the cynicism of adulthood.  

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