"I believe that children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way..."
-Randy Watson (Eddie Murphy), Coming to America
It might be presumptuous for someone as young as I am to offer up words of wisdom to any fledgling film critics out there, but in an age where print critics are only dwindling in number and online reviewers are subjected to constantly shifting standards of the industry, the prospect of constructive advice is my effort to provide something that wasn't necessarily there when I started in the field. Just because anyone can start their own review site doesn't mean that they should, but hopefully, some of the following tips will help encourage those of you still determined to give this a go to hold yourself and your work to a higher standard.
1. Know your stuff - Your list of favorite films doesn't have to be AFI-approved, but even if you don't instantly eat up Casablanca or Citizen Kane, at least be smart enough to acknowledge their worth and influence on the films we watch today. There's something to be said for admiring or respecting a film without particularly enjoying it, but furthermore, be aware of what exactly it is that you're admiring or respecting about it. Oh, and some of these classics are held in high esteem because they still hold up as wonderful movies -- don't be scared off by black-and-white cinematography or subtitles or the modest selection of titles at Ye Local Publick Library, or you're just robbing yourself and your readers of credibility.
2. Expand your comfort zone - Even if you don't watch everything, do make an effort to watch anything. While some purists might argue for watching everything in widescreen and sans commercials, I doubt that any harm will come of flipping on The Wedding Planner when nothing else is on cable and chalking another one up on your IMDb vote history. Keeping track of what you've seen does help in a purely quantitative sense; star ratings and letter grades might not be everything (scratch that: they aren't), but they do help make your internal barometer more and more accurate as the years go on, which should in turn show in your reviews.
3. Read other reviews - Now I'm not saying you need to be knee deep in Kael before ever touching a keyboard, but along the same lines of the classic films, there's a reason some classic reviews hold up, and there are also some modern critics that are well worth keeping up with, though that's something you may need to decide for yourself. Every time you see a movie, dig up some reviews and see if someone didn't bring something new to the film that you missed. That should be your goal, to supplement the appreciation and enjoyment of a film by others (which isn't to say that you have to like everything). More important than finding someone whose tastes you align with is finding someone who makes a convincing and tactful argument for an opposing view point, and make your case as they make theirs.
4. Write more reviews - An exception to #3: when you're set to review something yourself, try and avoid other reviews beforehand. You might work your way to occasional skimming, but for the most part, you want your viewing experience to be as objective as possible and your writing experience as subjective as possible, so don't let your opinion get tainted or swayed either way. And beyond reviews, just write more. Keep up a blog. Take on additional articles and posts at your current outlet. The experience helps make the process come more naturally, not the least benefit of which might be improved grammar, a quality that quietly damns sites lacking in it. The sooner you make those mistakes, though, the sooner you can learn from them.
5. It's not a race - While timeliness in your work is often appreciated, a new look on an old film deserves its place, and more importantly, getting a review for a film up first isn't as important as making it a worthwhile read. If you say something's a masterpiece just to get traffic and can't be bothered to explain why, it doesn't mean as much as a more considered critique that'll get plenty of attention itself on opening day. You're not in this to brag or boast (or rather, you shouldn't be), and besides, most studios won't be happy with you posting something willy-nilly, so extend respect to their policies and, believe it or not, it'll be reciprocated later on.
6. Play well with others - Mutual respect also extends to relationships with fellow writers and their outlets. Some may hog the questions during interviews. Others may post earlier and suffer little. Plenty will display a thorough and proud lack of context in their work and dish out hollow hyperbole, but if they don't know better by now, you're not going to set them straight. Being on good working terms with people you actually respect is more critical to helping you step up your own game, and your reviews should themselves raise the bar further and further away from those who specialize in exclamation points.
7. Do other s**t - In an interview last year, former Village Voice film critic Nathan Lee emphasized a need for young critics to be well-versed in a range of culture, not just constant movies and snark: "You need to know what's going on in painting, you need to know what's going on in music, you need to read books, and get laid, and go to restaurants, you know what I mean? A lot of movie writing is very impassioned but it's very limited, very narrow. And I think good critics can put movies into a larger cultural and social perspective." Going on my fourth year as an online film critic, I can attest to the beneficial nature of this particular criteria and yet perhaps haven't embraced enough. Know a lot about movies, sure, but try and know a bit more about the world. (Yes, outside.)
But don't take my word for it! Here's what some of my more experienced colleagues suggest...
Erik Childress: "I think that one of the more important things for newcomers to the criticism industry to remember is to develop a level of trust with not just your readers but also the studio representatives who allow you to attend their screenings. Don't play the ignorance game when it comes to embargoes or what constitutes an actual review from a blog entry with everything but a star rating. There's no sense in scooping or writing up something early if it sacrifices a potentially well-thought out probing piece of criticism. Be a film critic and not just another cog in the publicity machine."
Devin Faraci: "Watch more movies. Learn more about filmmaking. The world doesn't need film critics who run on enthusiasm and ignorance - that's why message boards, LiveJournal and 90% of the rest of the internet exists. Critics should have enthusiasm, but they should also have knowledge. They should understand the history of movies, they should have more context for the new movies they watch, and they should have some insight into how movies are made so that their critiques are based on knowledge, not uneducated assumptions."
Neil Miller: "A good film review (or opinion, for that matter) should always place a film in context with other films that the reader may have already seen. This allows those of us with limited language skills to survive among the wordsmiths that already exist on the web. You don't have to be a poet, you just have to be able to show your audience that you know something about movies."
James Rocchi: "Write abut everything. Don't cherry-pick the stuff you love, the stuff you know; that's not writing, it's blogging, which is a step above typing. Your readers aren't just going to see what you love, and the industry isn't just putting out what you love. And when you write a bad review, it'll be tempting to just be funny. Don't. Actually get under the hood of it, write about why the film's bad, what went wrong, where the mistakes are. It's harder, but it's worth more."
Scott Weinberg: "Read, read, read. Reviews, books about reviews, books about structure and film theory, articles about production, interviews with screenwriters, blog posts about film noir. Listen to audio commentaries and watch retrospective pieces that explain WHY classic films are classic. Ask questions, solicit advice, pick the brains of writers you respect. If you want to be a film critic, you're going to get films assigned that are outside of your comfort zone. Be prepared or look foolish. Also, be humble: Everyone already thinks we have a meaningless job that ANYONE could do, so don't be one of those smug jerks who boast and gloat about the fringe benefits of your chosen profession."