So, you’re a young, fresh faced movie geek. You’ve just watched your first Kurosawa or Hitchcock film; you’ve memorised all sorts of random facts about your favourite franchise (Star Wars, Marvel, DC, Jem and the Holograms, etc.), from the names of the production staff to what kind of tape the gaffers used on the set; And, the biggest one of all, you don’t have an immediate circle of people with which to share your passion. For them, cinema is just for big explosion fests, cartoons and maybe the odd ‘serious’ movie around Oscar time.
So, what do you do?
Jump onto social media and become a film critic (or reviewer, depending on your influences and how you view your craft and dedication) of course! Maybe a Youtube channel, popping out a couple of 5-10 minute videos a month, or perhaps a blog that you update every few days. You might even go to Wix or WordPress and start up your own website. Either way, you want to start talking about and dissecting movies.
But how? What are some of the fundamentals you need to get right? Well, as someone with seven years of experience in the field, spanning written and video content, I have a few possible suggestions:
1. KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT!
Do you know a thing about what the process of, say, directing or screenwriting or producing or cinematography is? Do you know your mise-en-scene from your Inciting Incident? Do you understand how dialogue works within the confines of ‘show, don’t tell’, or the importance of three point lighting?
If the answer is no, even to just one of these, then congratulations: you’re already lagging. It’s shocking how many people make movie reviews without understanding the basics (just like people who try to write and/or direct shorts without knowing about the craft). You don’t need to have made a film to talk about film, but you ought to get informed on the how and why if you want to present the best and most thorough review possible. After all, would you trust a doctor who didn’t go to med school, or a firefighter with no training?
There’s a veritable wealth of videos and literature that will greatly expand your knowledge of the medium, as well as make for stimulating reads. Added bonus? If you ever do decide to dip your toe into filmmaking, as study or hobby, you’ll have a heads-up with these.
Some of the usual suspects include, but are not limited to:
- Film Art: An Introduction by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson. This is like a great sample platter of everything that film study has to offer: the medium’s history, evolution, roles, techniques, as well as how to analyse material.
- Save The Cat! The Last Book On Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder. An informative but simple guide to screenplay structure and construction. Also, you can throw in Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, John Yorke’s Into The Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey (which covers the old chestnut of ‘The Hero’s Journey’, first coined by anthropologist Joseph Campbell and then popularised by George Lucas via Star Wars).
- Producer to Producer: A Step-by-Step Guide to Low Budget Independent Film Producing by Maureen A. Ryan. Want to know how movies get put together after a script has been written? Well, industry veteran Ryan has all your answers: from selling the idea, to the realities of getting a cast and crew, to even the pain of getting interest in the finished product.
- In The Blink Of An Eye by Walter Murch. Essentially Save The Cat but for editors, editing legend Murch (Apocalypse Now, The English Patient and too many more to count) gives you everything you could want to know about the art and science of editing and how it affects the audience. It should also finally enable you to properly articulate why you hate jumpcut-fest action sequences so much.
- Biographies of famous artists can be handy for both understanding different crafts, as well as learn film history, such as On Directing Film by David Mamet, Making Movies by Sidney Lumet and Rebel Without A Crew by Robert Rodriguez. As their titles imply, these take you through the much exhaulted yet not-commonly-well-understood process of actually directing a film. Also, William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade is a great read for wannabe writers and those curious about the movie business during ’70s ‘New Hollywood’.
Now, in terms of video/audio content:
- Film Courage: a Youtube smorgasbord of film professionals at every level of the industry, offering tips, advice and inside stories, on the hows and why of the movie and TV business. Among their interviewees are John Truby, Bill Duke, Ric Roman, Corey Mandell, Scott Kitzpatrick, Larry Wilson and even Mark Hamill.
- Every Frame A Painting: Terrific video analysis of why movies work, from the styles of auteurs like Edgar Wright, to the soundtrack of movie titans like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Also recommended: Nerdwriter1 and Lessonsfromthescreenplay.
- The Movie Crypt Podcast: Joe Lynch (Everly) and Adam Green (the Hatchet trilogy) talk about and to filmmakers and their staff about the highs and lows of making movies and TV for a living. The hosts have great chemistry but also great wisdom and respect, allowing their guests to be relaxed and talk freely of the harder times in their careers, which can be a real eye opener. Guests have included Chris Columbus, Adam Wingard, Jordan Peele, John Landis, Seth Grahame-Smith and many, many more.
- Listening to commentaries and watching making of featurettes? Good, keep at it: right from the horse’s mouth is always best. Stephen Sommers may not be one of the medium’s giants, but his commentaries for The Mummy films and Van Helsing gave me my first education in film.
2. Know about other critics
While this may seem obvious, if you’re getting into movie reviews because you’re a fan of maybe, tops, three or four people on Youtube, then you’re limiting your knowledge base as well as inspirations. Nothing wrong with the likes of James Rolfe, Doug Walker, Chris Stuckmann, theFLICKPick, JeremyJahns, schmoesknow and Screen Junkies: I enjoy all of these people too, but like with my next point, the more you know, the better your own work will be.
Watch and read a variety of reviews, reviewers and critics. Some immediate names, past and present, include Roger Ebert, Richard Roeper, Mark Kermode, Robbie Collin, Janet Maslin, Pauline Kael, A.O. Scott, Peter Travers, Owen Gleiberman, Todd McCarthy and even the anti-christ of film criticism himself, Armond White, all have distinct ways of breaking down films. Some favour a more general deconstruction, step by step, while others will focus on specific elements like say, plot or character or pacing.
3. Have a broad palette
If you want to be a film reviewer, and your only frame of reference is superhero movies, the odd Tarantino flick and some cheap fart comedies, then we might be in trouble. Not saying anything is wrong with these, but to properly discuss and analyse film, you need to be aware of what types of movie there are (same if you were writing about television or video games), how they work, when they were made and how they succeed.
You don’t have to like everything, but you need to at least be aware of all the genres: action, horror, adventure, thriller, comedy, sci-fi, western, biographical, documentary, parody etc. There are plenty of ‘Top 100’ lists out there from both critics as well as film establishments like the American Film Institute or the British Film Institute to help you, but some of the immediate suspects you should have crossed off before even thinking about writing your first review are:
- Citizen Kane (Yes, really. They’re still ripping off its tricks, even today)
- The Good, the Bad and The Ugly
- Gone with the Wind (Yes, really, there’s a movie before damns aren’t given)
- The Godfather (Yes, really, there’s a movie beyond Brando’s wheezes)
- Taxi Driver
- Seven Samurai (Any movie about teams owes something to this)
- Psycho (Yes really, there’s a movie beyond the shower scene)
- Bicycle Thieves (this is where the whole ‘realism’ schtick came from)
- Chinatown (a holy grail among screenwriting teachers, too)
- Raiders of the Lost Ark (really, there’s a movie beyond the boulder scene)
- Die Hard
And that’s just a quick skim! I could’ve done an entire article on the must-see movies for any young film enthusiast. Variety and perspective in your film diet counts for a lot when you want to really get stuck in with cinema and discuss the medium in all its strange quirks and habits.
4. This versus that, comparisons versus futility
Unless they are very similar films (like say, Friday the 13th vs My Bloody Valentine), comparisons in a review are a silly and fruitless exercise: why would you dismiss a film because, say, it’s not Citizen Kane, when it’s obviously not trying to be Kane? There are many reasons why, say Transformers: Age of Extinction is bad, but it sure isn’t because it’s not Gone with the Wind or Schindler’s List. Likewise, obviously trashy fare like Killer Klowns From Outer Space or the 80s Hercules movies with Lou Ferrignou make no pretenses about being anything other than what they are, and have enjoyable merits of their own if you are willing to try.
These types of sweeping statements stink of amateur and show you haven’t developed a great love or understanding of the medium, yet, if you have to resort to quick name-drops. It doesn’t prove your street cred to fellow film geeks, it’s just hackneyed. Plus, we’re reading or watching to hear what YOU have to say about the film in question, not what you think you’re meant to say and compare it to. Saying the flavour-of-the-month lame blockbuster is not like (insert famous work here) doesn’t actually mean anything because it tells us nothing about this specific film, which is why we’re reading or watching YOUR review in the first place!
5. Don’t know it? Don’t use it!
Again, another way to avoid looking like a dumb kid on the internet: if you’re not sure what something means, don’t try and sound clever by using said word in your reviews. The people who don’t know it will be confused, and those who do will laugh at you for using it wrong. It’s laughable how often people will say ‘cinematography’ to talk just about camera when, if you actually know what the word mean, you’ll realize it covers more than that. Same with how often tone or theme are misused as well.
In this day and age, you have plenty of resources to be able to check if you want to talk about certain ideas or subjects (like the reading list above) but aren’t entirely sure. There is absolutely NO excuse not to be informed, and especially if you want to be in with a chance of gaining a decent audience in such an oversaturated market. If you don’t put in the effort to get your facts and definitions right, then why on Earth should anyone give you their time? Would you do the same if the roles were reversed, and they were getting things wrong?
6. Read it, then read it again!
Proof reading is one of the most overlooked yet important elements to any kind of creative enterprise, including film criticism. Not just basic tidbits like minding Ps and Qs, there and their, its and it’s etc. but also the structure and flow of your piece. Is your focus clear? Is your argument on the film, positive or negative, detailed and well supported? Do you adequately explain why you thought, say, the musical score was off-putting or the cinematography was intoxicating and immersive?
Detail is everything to a film review (or indeed, piece of media criticism period): it’s the eggs and sugar of a cake, or the yipee-kay-ay to McClane. Bad articulation of points, poor use of terminology, bad structure and a conclusion/verdict that doesn’t match the preceding points, whether it’s written or a video review, is what undoes countless newcomers. Taking that little extra step in rereading and evaluating your work will make all the difference.
7. Do it because you want to
If you think writing movie reviews is the shortcut to fame and fortune, then you might as well stop right there and instead, put that time and effort into something more practical, like engineering or computer coding. The truth is that there’s very little money in online content nowadays (ad rates have crashed and burned over the last decade), save for those who prove themselves worthy of getting partnership, sponsors or having people willing to pay for a Patreon.
You create your channel or page because you actually want to talk about and share your views on film. You do it because the magic of the silver screen, whether it’s in 2017 or 1937, compels you, entices you, baffles you, intrigues you. You do it because you find merit in the hard work of dedicated artists and craftsmen: the emotional gravity of a great actor’s performance, the visual richness and meaning of great cinematography, the heightening of emotion and mood from a wonderful score or even just crisp, clean and truthful dialogue. The reasons why are legion, but what counts is what you add to the discourse as a unique individual with a unique worldview.
Whew! That was a mouthful.
I hope you’ve found these guidelines a useful tool in developing your craft as an online critic of cinema. Remember, no one expects you to get everything right on your first try: reviews, like any creative form, take time to perfect and hone. It may not be till your tenth or fortieth review that you find your particular, unique ‘voice’, but that doesn’t mean you ever stop practising, reading and, most importantly, learning. Cinema is such a wonderful thing, and if you are willing to put in the time and effort, as well as open your mind nice and wide, you’ll discover its deeper pleasures too.
Bonus tip: be respectful to your audience. Just because you’re the one at the keyboard or mic is not an excuse to behave like a condescending elitist. People will gravitate more towards someone they could actually talk to, and don’t appreciate being yelled at.