I am sometimes asked to give advice about becoming a film critic/blogger or a screenwriter. My first bit of advice is always the same: don’t do it. Don’t become either of these two things. If you want to work in the movies, become a director or producer, as you’ll be paid better, will get to boss the screenwriter around and will be more respected. If you want to become a film critic or blogger, consider instead taking on a job that will be more helpful to society, like being a McDonald’s employee. That job probably pays better as well. Whole Foods has nice benefits, I understand.
The only people who should aspire to these jobs are the poor souls who are driven, who feel like this is their calling, who have the sense that the universe dealt them a bum hand and they’re stuck with it. If that’s you, I have five golden bits of advice that you should study and learn. But first, two things you must already have:
- An ability to communicate. Don’t learn how to communicate your thoughts on the job. Come prepared to write properly, to write with style and to write with verve. The end goal of writing is to be read; be prepared to be read.
- Something to prove. This is what drives you. Whether you want to write to impress a girl or you want to write to prove detractors wrong or you want to write because you think you’re the most correct person in the world and everybody else needs to hear your thoughts, you must have a reason to be writing.
With that out of the way, on to the Five Golden Tips:
Tip #1: FAIL.
Fail early, and fail often. Good writing is about sharing yourself - your thoughts, your opinions, your feelings - and that makes you very vulnerable. You cannot embark on a writing career if you’re not ready for rejection, dismissal, unkind internet comments and general failure. It's like boxing - you have to get punched in the face to get over your fear of being punched in the face.
Not only does failing early in life prepare you for future (inevitable) failures, it adds to your ‘Something to prove’ prerequisite. When I failed out of college and found myself unloading trucks at a department store at 5am every day, I knew I needed to take serious action to change my situation. Failure is an excellent motivator.
Tip #2: GET DUMPED, DO DRUGS, TRAVEL FAR.
Write what you know, they say, and most people don’t know shit. Experience is key for a writer; meeting people, getting to know their stories and points of view, having strange encounters and testing your own boundaries are exactly the things any serious writer MUST do.
You’re thinking, ‘But I just want to be a film critic. None of this applies to me.’ This applies to you, and almost doubly so. One of the cardinal sins I see committed by younger film critics is that they attempt to filter everything they watch through their own limited, boring experience. How can you really understand a love story if you’ve never been in love? How can you really feel for a character on the edge if you’ve never been on the edge? If your whole life experience is comfy, middle class, college-educated boringness, you’ll always be at a distance from the other experiences you find on film.
That doesn’t mean you can’t understand a movie about a drug dealer if you’ve never been a drug dealer. What it means is that the broader your personal experiences, the more you’ll be able to project yourself into what you’re watching. Obviously a good filmmaker should be able to make any character, however extreme, in some way understandable to an audience, but as a critic you will need to be doing heavier lifting. And that lifting will be easier if you have lots of human experiences under your belt. A nice side effect is that having lots of human experiences under your belt will also make a better, more interesting human.
Tip #3: WATCH LOTS OF MOVIES.
No duh, right? You’d be shocked at how many screenwriters and film critics disregard this. It’s especially bad for critics, but it’s just as dangerous for screenwriters.
As a film critic your job isn’t to give people a consumer report about a movie. You’re not managing their movie-going budget. You’re offering readers three things:
- Informed opinion
Every review should hit all three of those. Even if a reader has never heard of a movie/will never see a movie, they should be entertained by what you write. Even if a reader already has seen a movie, they should find your opinion interesting and well-argued. And even if a reader is deeply familiar with a movie, they should get deeper understanding of the movie after reading your review.
You’re on your own with entertainment value - that should be packaged in the ‘Ability to communicate’ prerequisite - but the other two can be earned by watching lots and lots of movies. If you see a tracking shot in a film and your only frame of reference for great tracking shots is Old Boy, you don’t have enough context. If your knowledge of film only extends back to the 80s, or is bounded by the limits of a specific genre, you won’t be able to really have an informed opinion.
As a film critic you should know more than the average reader*. There’s zero value in reviews written from a ‘Joe Six-Pack’ perspective, and I find the recent fad of reviews written by neophytes ("I'm watching black and white movies for the first time!" "I'm showing my cousin Star Wars for the first time!") to be tedious. I want to read something I didn’t know or find an opinion I didn’t have, not watch somebody learn how to walk. There’s a reason we watch professional sports on TV and not local pick-up games. This doesn’t mean you must have seen every movie ever made before writing about film - everybody is always playing catch-up with the long history of cinema - it just means you should be making a real effort to see as much as possible.
Screenwriters should be familiar with a broad swath of films because the answers you seek often lie in the past. While style and fashion has changed drastically since the first motion pictures, the basics of storytelling have not. Some screenwriter in the past has faced the same problems you face in your current script; knowing how it was solved (or how it was screwed up) previously will help inform you now. Don’t be afraid to stand on the great big pile of screenwriters who came before you. The movies that were already made are Hollywood’s greatest institutional memory.
Tip #4: READ LOTS OF STUFF, BUT NOT OTHER REVIEWS OR SCREENPLAYS.
Let me immediately contradict that by saying OF COURSE you should read other reviews and screenplays. But you need to read a lot more than that.
One of the prerequisites at the start of this article was ‘An ability to communicate,’ but being able to communicate doesn’t mean you ever stop getting better at communicating. As a writer you should be absorbing other writing as much as possible so that you can be exposed to new words, turns of phrase, thought and general knowledge.
As a film critic being well-rounded (see Tip #2) is key. You should have an understanding of history and art and politics if you hope to write intelligently about film. You should know something about different religions, because metaphors for them creep into movies all the time. You should know great literature, because that stuff gets referenced a lot. You should be familiar with philosophy, because that’s all going to feed into how you read films.
As a screenwriter inspiration waits on every page. One of the purest, and best ways to defeat writer’s block is to read. You’re filling up the mental gas tank in the simplest way possible, by absorbing other words and ideas.
Most of all reading makes you a better writer. There’s no impetus to improve your own writing like reading something exquisite and realizing how shitty you are. Don’t be discouraged by better writers, be inspired. At the very least get really competitive and vow to show them who’s boss (seriously, having a bone to pick will make you such a better writer).
One last thing: read a lot about the making of films. Truly great film critics will not just have seen lots of movies, will not just know lots about art and history and philosophy, they will also know about the technical aspects of making movies. They will understand what editing is and how it works. They will understand how different lenses change what we see. They will understand acting techniques and the concept of mise en scene.
In other words, being a film critic is more than watching a movie and saying whether or not you liked it.
Tip #5: HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY.
Everything that comes before this is useless if you don’t have something to say. You may have the ability to communicate, and you may have the drive to do the communicating, but if you have nothing to actually communicate, what’s the point?
The point, you might say, is to make money and to get access and to be involved in the Hollywood dream factory! If that’s your attitude, you might already be fucked. You’ll end up writing garbage for money and attention, but you’ll soon discover that even with all the money and attention you’re getting some jerk-off agent is making more money and getting more respect than you are. And you’ll find out that this is a pretty hollow and gross way to make a living, because you sold out for much less than you’re really worth.
But if you have something to say, and you say it in your writing, you’ll be much more fulfilled than the jerk-off agent. Much poorer, and getting laid way less, but much more personally fulfilled. And you’ll make more of a difference. A great film critic serves as a champion for great movies, and supporting art with your own art is a wonderful feeling. A great film critic also serves as a guide, leading readers places they might never otherwise go. The best responses I get from readers tell me that I turned them on to a movie that’s now their favorite. What’s more, and this is something I’ve only learned now that I’m old, is that great film critics can influence the next generations of filmmakers. There’s something weird but ultimately satisfying about meeting a filmmaker who tells you that your writing made an impact on him.
It’s may be even better for screenwriters. Yeah, directors get the respect and actors get the adulation, but it’s the imagination of the screenwriter that sparks it all. It’s the themes and ideas put on the page that blossom into movies. A screenwriter with a point of view and something to say about the world can easily impact the lives of millions of people who don’t even realize they’re being impacted. A terrific screenplay can entertain and also move people and also make them think differently, feel differently, see the world differently.
I don’t really have any tips for finding something to say. That’s got to come from within you. I saved it for last, though, because I think once you’ve taken all the other advice (vague as each tip is) you’ll figure it out for yourself.
* There will always be readers smarter/more experienced than you are. Get used to it.