How to Be a Film or Movie Critic
Do you want to be a film critic? Do you think writing movie reviews sounds like the best job in the world? Then you've come to the right place.
Before you read through this article, know that if you want to be a movie critic, the road there will not be an easy task. While I was employed as a film critic, many people came up and asked me: "how can a be a film critic?" My perception has always been that most people have no idea how little film critics make. Most simply write film reviews as a hobby and have a real job on the side. To be a film critic, you will need to realize that writing film reviews is not usually a sustainable means of employment. That being said, if you love movies and love writing about movies, read on.
In 1995, I started one of the more famous Internet movie sites with my friend, Hans Bjordahl: Mr. Cranky Rates the Movies. Although we sold it in 2008, it still exists today, and if I may say so, set certain odd standards in film criticism. Prior to starting Mr. Cranky, I was the film critic for The Colorado Daily, a small paper in Boulder, Colorado.
Being a movie critic is a job many people consider to be a dream job. "How do I become a movie critic?" is a question I've been asked over and over again during the last twenty years. Unfortunately, few people understand what it means to be a movie critic, how one becomes a movie critic, and what the career prospects are for movie critics. I'll try to answer some of these questions here.
A Short History of Movie Critic Employment Opportunities
When I first became a paid, professional film critic in 1990, I made $25/column. I wrote for a small, daily newspaper that used a combination of articles by full-time staffers and freelance writers. For the approximately 10 years I worked there, I was always a freelancer. There was a larger daily newspaper in our town of approximatey 125,000 that employed a full-time movie critic. In metro Denver, nearby, there were an assortment of film critics for small publications. The two major newspapers each employed a film critic.
Today, with the exception of major daily newspapers in major metropolitan areas, few newspapers employ a full-time film critic. Most newspapers in smaller urban and rural areas use wire pieces, which are articles that they pay for from a subscription service. So, no matter where in the country you live, you may see movie reviews from the same critic. Thus, the opportunity to find a full-time job as a film critic are few and far between.
The Explosion of Opportunities on the Internet
If you accept that being a film critic is going to involve generating little or no revenue, then the opportunities for becoming a film critic are actually quite vast since anybody can publish a film review on the Internet. Assuming you can parlay a particularly engaging style into Internet traffic, it's not inconceivable that you might make some extra money writing movie reviews. Just don't quit your day job.
What Does it Take to Attract Readers?
Separating yourself from the vast pack of Internet film critics is not easy. Most film reviews are pretty much the same and few movie critics on the Internet stand out from the others. However, there are some that do, so if you're lucky enough to be one of those, it's conceivable that you could turn a hobby into something that pays you a little more. Many online publications pay actual money for good articles, movie reviews among them. For instance, I was able to turn my popularity writing Mr. Cranky into jobs with MSNBC and The Chicago Tribune for short periods of time. If nothing else, writing movie reviews can allow you to see films for free.
So, I'm not really answering the header question of how to attract readers. Not surprisingly, attracting readers to your movie reviews is no different than attracting readers to any other article. If you write well and have a unique voice, then people will want to read your reviews. You should aim for a particular voice. In the case of Mr. Cranky, I was skilled at coming up with funny barbs and humorous criticism, which I directed at all the movies I reviewed. Other reviewers are so knowledgeable that their reviews are almost always insightful. Mr. Cranky had an alter-ego named Mr. Smiley who wrote endlessly positive reviews. My point is that you'll need to have an opinion and know how to express it. If you can't write well, then movie criticism probably isn't going to be successful for you.
So You Want to Get Started Being a Movie Critic
One of the attractions of being a movie critic is seeing free movies. Most movies, unless they are really bad, usually have advance screenings to which movie critics are usually invited. So how do you get invited to these screenings? Odds are you'll need to be writing for an established publication or have a large body of work with a proven record of traffic before you'll be invited, but it doesn't hurt to introduce yourself to the proper people and simply ask about invitations. In almost all cases, if you don't live in a major metropolitan area, there aren't going to be advance screenings. If you do, you'll need to contact the advertising agency that handles these screenings. The best way to find out that information is to call the film critic at your local newspaper and ask. Don't forget to be nice, particularly when you finally get the contact information for the advertising agency. If that doesn't work, keep an eye out for advance screening invitations in local newspapers and on the radio (most are usually sponsored by a radio station). If you can't get a ticket, just show up and ask around who's hosting the screening. You'll be able to find the name of the advertising agency that way.
In my experience, the people who work for the ad agencies are overworked and underpaid and don't take kindly to abuse. Being kind in a genuine way will go a long way to getting screening invitations, but you have to do so without being obsessive. There was a fellow critic from a small Internet site who hounded the ad reps and they universally hated him, some going so far as to ban him from their screenings. So, asking nicely and being persistent is a balancing act.
It's going to help to have established traffic because you're likely to be asked about proving your popularity in some way. If you write for a print publication, you're going to be asked your circulation. If you write for an online publication, you're probably going to be asked how many hits or unique visits your web site gets. Thus, you may have to establish yourself by paying for movies and reviewing them as quickly as possible to take advantage of the early interest in a movie and building your film writing resume.
Another Avenue for Movie Critics
While reviewing first-run movies is certainly fun, I also got into reviewing DVDs for exactly the reasons you might think: free DVDs. If you can establish good traffic and write compelling reviews, the home video divisions of most major studios will send you free DVDs for review. The way to get into this particular branch of film criticism is to start with smaller films from smaller studios because they're often giddy about sending anyone their DVD if there's a promise of some kind of coverage.
As for the major studios, simply search their home video division online. Most will have some kind of press contact information that will either be a phone number or an email address. It doesn't hurt if you can talk to a real person and chat them up a little bit. Don't be insincere. Instead, ask them what you need to do in order to get on the request list and begin receiving materials. There's one crucial thing to remember about receiving free DVDs: the studios expect you to review what you get and they expect you to get back to them with proof. If you do not get back to them with that proof (either a link or a printed copy), you will quickly stop receiving materials.
No Experience Necessary
Though there is no experience necessary to become a film critic, it is helpful to have a good working knowledge of cinema and its conventions. Above all, you must be a good writer. Combine these two things and you have the potential to be a paid film critic. Like any other job, experience counts if you want somebody to hire you to write film reviews for them. However, if you just want to get started and claim a little corner of the web for your film reviews, the above information will get you started.
Writing film reviews can be a fun and rewarding experience, either as a hobby, part-time job, or full-time employment. If you're determined, you can make it happen.
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