What's that you say? You want to become a movie critic?

Ah, a familiar question. In fact, during the three decades that I wrote about movies for some of the country's largest newspapers, it ranked right up there with "What's your favorite movie?" among the questions I was most often asked.

What's that you say? You want to become a movie critic?

Ah, a familiar question. In fact, during the three decades that I wrote about movies for some of the country's largest newspapers, it ranked right up there with "What's your favorite movie?" among the questions I was most often asked.

Until recently, my answer to the career question was as simple as it was discouraging: Get a liberal arts education, take whatever job you can get on a newspaper, work your tail off and then hope (prayer might help) that you're in the right place at the right time to claim the prize.

That's how Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel became critics for rival Chicago dailies in the 1960s, it's how I got my first critic's gig at the Detroit Free Press in the late 1970s and it's the route taken by most of the people holding that job for newspapers today.

In my case, I got a bachelor's degree in psychology and a masters in journalism and went to work for the Riverside (Calif.) Press-Enterprise as a police reporter. Working for a small paper 60 miles east of Hollywood, I was able to talk my editor into letting me review movies occasionally. That was fun until I came out of a screening of Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey' not knowing what the hell I had just seen. Great movie, but I didn't immediately know why.

A decade later, after newspaper stints in Rochester and Detroit, I was back in L.A. working as a one-man entertainment bureau for the Free Press. I had been covering all types of entertainment -- as well as the occasional West Coast news story (the eruption of Mt. St. Helens anyone?) -- when our film critic resigned to become a programmer for the American Film Institute in Washington.

My editor, knowing that movies were my first passion, wondered if it would be feasible to review movies in Hollywood for a paper in Detroit. I called a few critics and industry people and led my answer this way:

"It makes a lot of sense to me." -- Charles Champlin, critic Los Angeles Times.

"The studios would be very open to that. You'd have all the cooperation you'd need." -- Ed Roginski, press relations, Universal Pictures.

"If you get that job, I'll break your leg." -- Tom Green, columnist, fellow movie lover and envious friend.

A day later, I had the job and began my official life as a full-time movie critic by sitting through and then slamming the Richard Gere sheen-and-sleaze-fest 'American Gigolo,' followed by an unqualified rave for Bob Fosse's 'All that Jazz.' Over the next 30 years, working for the Free Press, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the New York Daily News, I reviewed more than 5,000 movies, interviewed hundreds of stars and filmmakers and visited movie sets all over the world.

Nice work if you can get it, and I never forgot how lucky I was to have gotten it. But the opportunities for people to make that kind of luck are rapidly disappearing, at least in the print media. Newspapers have been dropping their film critics almost as fast as readers have been dropping their subscriptions.

About four years ago, it began occurring to newspaper publishers that their highly-paid critics were a luxury they could no longer afford. Since 2006, more than 60 established, full-time critics have been fired, laid off, bought out or reassigned (moved to other, lower paying beats). On that list, dutifully kept by Salt Lake Tribune critic Sean Means, you'll find my name at No. 22, noting my retirement and the fact that I currently contribute to Moviefone.com.

Though I was given a buy-out by the Daily News, my retirement was planned. Years before, I'd bought an Oregon beach house where I intended to write books and enjoy the view. I had planned to work a year longer, but the paper's apparent decision to elevate gossip, fashion and celebrity over culture coverage wasn't to my old-school tastes. Anyway, that's the ocean you hear in the background.

As Roger Ebert has pointed out in his vibrant blog, some of the best perspective on film is now appearing on the Internet, in personal blogs, online magazines or movie websites like this one. Even an old-schooler can see the light when it's shined in his face.

All of which brings me back to the original question, and some qualified good news. Anybody who wants to become a movie critic can become one, almost instantly. Simply create a website and post your reviews. Hundreds of self-accredited critics have done just that. The best and most persistent of them have earned their way onto aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes and gained a broader readership.

True, only a handful of them are making a living at it, but that will change as newspapers and magazines continue their metamorphoses to digital, and as more ad-carrying movie websites are established. The era of the icon critic, epitomized by Ebert, the late Pauline Kael and the great Andy Sarris, may never return, however. The Internet has created a democratic forum where the views expressed are more important than the person expressing them.

There will never be a shortage of sound, provocative and entertaining criticism. I just wish I were as confident in the future of movies themselves. But that's another story.
CATEGORIES Features, Columns