One From the Vaults: What It’s Like to Be a Movie Critic (Circa 1997)
Someone was asking me what it was like to have been a full-time movie critic back in the day, and I was going to go off and do a long blather about it, but then I remembered: I had already done a long blather about it! In 1997 or so! So I tracked down that piece I wrote and am posting it here, behind the cut, because it is long (sorry, RSS readers).
Some context: In 1997, I was working for AOL as its in-house writer and editor, so this piece was written before a) getting the gig as a DVD reviewer at the Official US Playstation Magazine or my current gig with FilmCritic.com, b) before I started writing science fiction. So some of the information here about me is now dated, by, oh, almost 15 years. Yikes. Nevertheless, an interesting overview of a really fun time in my life. Enjoy.
So, what’s it REALLY like to be a movie critic?
A FAQ about an interesting part of my life.
From September of 1991 to March of 1996, I was the full-time movie critic for the Fresno Bee newspaper. Not surprisingly, this is the period in my life that most people are interested in; what I do right now is interesting in its own right, to be sure, but only if you’re living it — primarily because what I do there is not easy to describe in ten words or less. Being a movie critic, however, is a job everyone can grasp — go to movies, meet stars, tell people what to think (10 words!). It’s also a job that nearly everybody agrees is just plain cool — certainly better than, say, data entry, or stock shelving at the local Wal-Mart.
What follows here are some of the most common questions I get about my past life as a movie critic. I’m basically writing them as the come to my brain, so there’s not likely to be any overarching structure. Just go with it.
Q: Did you go to school to be a movie critic?
A: Not I — I have a degree in Philosophy, of all things. And at no point during my formal education did I study film — frankly, studying film seemed sort of frivolous, something you did when you have no real academic ambitions but want to have a major that just might help you get chicks. And anyway, the University of Chicago didn’t have a film department — a few film classes, yes, but you couldn’t construct a major out of it. As an aside, I think that trying to get that sort of extremely specialized education as an undergraduate is a truly bad idea to begin with; you might come away knowing all about the Lumiere brothers and DW Griffith, but not a whole lot of much of anything else. Which is a bad thing.
When I was in school, I did do a few movie reviews (Crybaby, The Abyss, and a truly bad Nick Nolte film called Farewell to the King stick out in my mind), but I mostly concentrated on music, since I could get free CDs out of that. In 1990, I interned at the San Diego Tribune (now folded into the San Diego Union-Tribune), and did a couple of movie features there (on Darkman and Young Guns II), but again, my main focus was music.
Q: Well then, how did you manage to become a movie critic?
A: Mostly blind, dumb luck. In my senior year at the U of C, I blithely assumed that newspapers would be clawing through each other for a chance to snap me up as a writer, so I only sent out my resume and clippings out to papers in California with a circulation over 100,000, or which were five miles or less from a beach. And, of course, I wanted to be assigned the music beat. What I didn’t realize at the time was that, thanks to the recession in the early 90s, nobody was hiring anyone for anything in newspapers. Also (of course), there were also roughly 40 zillion graduating college students who also thought it would be sorta cool to be a music critic or something.
So I got slammed — 24 out of the 25 newspapers I sent resumes to dinged me right out. Which brought me right up to the end of my college existence without a job, or (frankly) any sort of marketable job skills. I was this close to a full-blown, neurotic panic when Diane Webster, Features Editor of the Bee, rang me up. We already have a music critic, she said, but we’re thinking of hiring a movie critic. Think you could write movie reviews?
I wrote her up some samples, and they flew me out and liked what they saw, which was: a young, eager kid who could write well and who they could hire cheap. Real cheap. I was hired in May, and would start in September. That gave me the summer to give myself an intense crash course in film and film history — I didn’t know squat about film when I was hired, but I would be damned if I would actually start my job in that same stage of ignorance. My roommates loved it; every night I’d come in with a couple old movies and stuff them in the VCR. It was Cinema Scalzi. When I began, I was still playing catch-up, but at least I was closer to where I wanted to be.
Q: Do you think it’s fair that right out of college and with no qualifications you got the sort of job that some people work towards for years?
A: Nope. But I don’t particularly care, either: it was a job I wanted, and one I was pretty sure I could do, and it’s not as if I had anything else to do with my life at the time other than devolve into the stereotypical Gen-X slacker. What was I going to do, say no? “Uh, sorry, I don’t deserve this job. I’ll just work in this convenience store for a couple of years.” Screw that.
Now, when I did get to the Bee, I was aware of some resentment and skepticism — I had gotten the job over some folks who were already on staff and who were also very good writers — the going line when I arrived was simply that they hired me because I would be cheap, and they could work me like a dog (and, as I mentioned earlier, this was at least partially true). On the other hand, once I actually did start writing, most folks realized I could do the job, so they let me do it, and the smirky references to “Doogie Howser, Movie Critic” died away. The folks at the Bee are good folks — it was my opinion then as now.
Q: What was the very first movie you reviewed?
A: Betrayed, a forgettable suspense thriller starring Goldie Hawn. It was pretty mediocre. The second movie I reviewed, however, was The Fisher King, which rocked. I gave it four stars, and it made my Ten Best list for the year.
Q: How did you usually see movies?
A: In order to have the reviews of the movies in for the Friday edition of the paper, I had to see them by Wednesday evening. I usually saw them in one of four ways:
1. I’d be sent a copy of the tape on videotape. This was rare, since most movie studios want you to have the whole cinematic experience. Usually this was reserved for art films or smaller films where they didn’t want to set up a full blown screening. This method came in handy once, when I was sent The Crying Game on videotape — when Jaye Davidson revealed his genitalia, was I was able to rewind to make sure I was really seeing what I thought I was seeing. Yow!
2. The movie company would set up a promoted screening. You’re probably aware of these if you listen to a radio station where they give away free tickets to special screenings. As a critic, movie companies generally prefer you to go to these — this way, they presume, you’ll be influenced by the reaction of the crowd. To which my response always, yeah, but what if the crowd thinks it sucks? This was generally my least favorite way to see a movie — I really do want to pay attention to the movie, not the crowd, and the stupid little tricks that the radio DJs do right before the movie starts (“Check under your seat to see if you won!”) made me want to go on a murderous rampage. Ultimately, I took using the “assisted hearing” headphones when I went to radio screenings (when they weren’t being used by others), so I could hear the movie and zone out the rabble.
3. The movie company would set up a critics’ screening. These were my favorite, because, as I was the only critic in Fresno, I had the whole movie theater to myself, and could enjoy the movie without distraction. This is the thing I miss the most about not being a movie critic anymore — the whole theater, all mine.
4. The movie company would set up a press junket. This would be when you’d go to Los Angeles (or sometimes San Francisco or New York, though I never went to a New York junket) with a bunch of other movie critics, watch the movie one night, and interview the stars the next day. More often than not, a movie companies would “piggyback” two or three movies into one junket, so you’d spend three or four days in a cycle of movie watching and star interviewing. It could be tiring, but generally I enjoyed the junkets, since I grew up in Los Angeles and could use them as an excuse to visit with friends and take them to see movies (my friends loved my job).
Q: You’ve interviewed movie stars? Which ones?
A: Most of everyone who was big between 1991 and 1996. But to name some names: Harrison Ford, Demi Moore, Quentin Tarantino, Johnny Depp, Kevin Costner, Richard Gere, John Travolta, Christian Slater, Christopher Walken, Jodie Foster, Dennis Hopper, Nick Cage, Will Smith, Whoopi Goldberg, Uma Thurman, Woody Harrelson, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, Annette Bening, Michael Douglas, Laura Dern (whom I proposed to — more on that later), Jeff Goldblum, Jim Carrey, Pierce Brosnan, and so on and so on. Also, Kevin Bacon, which means I’m in the first circle in the Kevin Bacon Game. Famous people I didn’t interview: Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Hugh Grant, Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline, Steven Spielberg. I’ve also interviewed tons of directors, producers and screenwriters.
Q: Wow. What are movie stars really like?
A: Got me. We didn’t bond, you know. When you’re at a movie junket, it means you’re basically a mid-level critic — important enough that they want you to get some exposure to the stars, but not so important that you get an hour or two with them, one-on-one. My exposure to the stars usually came in 15 to 20 minute bursts, and I interviewed in a room with 5 to 10 other writers in it; it’s called a “round robin” type of interview, presumably because everyone is supposed to ask questions in a sequential manner (ha!). These sorts of interviews are efficient, in that the most amount of reporters get exposure to the star, but it’s also draining, particularly on the talent: you have to assume that nearly all the reporters are going to ask more or less the same questions. So the star winds up answering more or less the same question 5 or 6 times in the space of two hours. Sooner or later they go on autopilot. It’s work, for them and for the critics — there’s not much time for special moments where the stars bare their souls to you.
As an interviewer, I tried to make it interesting by asking the unexpected question — not a stupid “if you were a tree, what tree would you be” sort of question, but just one that they haven’t gotten yet, that might jar them out of their own rut and hopefully give them something new to think about.
Having said that, some stars play this sort of game better than others. Harrison Ford was consistently an excellent, thoughtful interviewee, for example — a real pleasure to chat to (this in spite of the fact that he’s obviously not enamored of the process — but he knows he has to press the flesh to sell the movie). The worst interviewees are pretty much who you’d expect them to be: the men actors in their mid 20s to early 30s, who feel that they’re artists, damn it, and whose attempts at depth are pretty much doomed to inarticulate mumblings, and who resent that they have to, you know, do publicity or anything.
Q: Did you ever get to interview someone one-on-one?
A: Sure, now and then, and more often near the end of my career, after I had gotten chummy with the publicists, and also more often when folks are just starting out. For example, when “Reservoir Dogs” came out, I got an entire hour of Quentin Tarantino to myself. Talking to him is like drinking from the fire hose, by the way — he just goes off, and it’s all you can do to keep up. But in general, I wasn’t high on the list of people to get one-on-ones. My market was Fresno, which is solidly mid-sized (it’s the 57th largest market in the US!). If you’re going to coop your star up with someone for a half hour or an hour, you need to get them with someone who had a larger reach then I did. I never resented this, since it’s just business. And anyway, with a few exceptions, movie stars really aren’t all that interesting. Honestly, talking to most of them is a lot like talking to anyone — it’s just that they know more famous people, have an odder job, and make more money than most of the people you’re likely to meet. At the end of the day, though, they’re just people. One of the good things about being a movie critic is that it demystifies stardom to a great extent.
Q: So are you saying you don’t get star-struck?
A: Mostly not, though there have been moments: When I interviewed Andie McDowell, I barely paid attention to what I was doing, because I was busily sending her psychic messages that read: I yearn for you. Leave your husband and let’s fly to Labrador, where I will show you the ways of love (it didn’t work). And of course there are people in film whose work I admire greatly. When I had a chance for a one-on-one interview with John Woo, I leapt at it, because he’s one of the most exciting filmmakers around, and it was an honor to be able to talk with him (I told him –after the interview, of course– that I thought he was a great filmmaker, and he seemed genuinely honored. Great guy). But I think there’s a difference between admiring someone’s work, and being star-struck. When you’re star-stuck you admire people simply because they’re famous, which is something I don’t have much time for.
Q: So what’s this about proposing to Laura Dern?
A: Well, she was there, I was there, I like her work, and she’s a babe. So I figured, why not. Here’s how it went.
Me: Hi, Ms. Dern. I just wanted you to know that I really admire your work, and I thought that if you weren’t real busy at the moment, that you might want to marry me.
Laura Dern: Well, sure. Did you bring a ring?
Me: No, this was a kind of spur-of-the-moment kind of thing.
Laura Dern: Sorry, then. I just gotta have that ring.
Later on I saw her in the corridor with Jeff Goldblum. Bet you he didn’t have a ring, either. Hmmph.
Q: I hear that on junkets, the publicists will try to buy off the critics. Is that true?
A: Not that I could see. Now, on junkets, the movie companies do give away a lot of odd freebies — mostly t-shirts and CDs and stuff of that nature, and the folks who go to junkets do tend to eat that stuff up — they come wearing those shirts and hauling bags with movie names on them (I myself stand accused of this — I have a backpack I got on the Young Guns II press junket that I still use. I’m cheap). But I don’t think that $30 of merchandise can really serve to buy of a critic, and if it can, it’s the media outlet that oughta fire that critic and put him out on his ass.
And anyway, why pay someone off when there are dozens of “critics” who willingly slut themselves for free? Come on, this isn’t any big secret — every time a truly terrible movie comes out, it’s still packed with quotes saying “The (whatever genre) Film of the Year!” You should notice that the most egregious of these come from radio and tv “critics,” most of whom basically trade quotes for access at the junkets. They need the access so they can continue to sell their stuff to radio and tv. There’s no money involved, as far as I can tell — the publicists just eventually figure out which people need the movies studios more than the movie studios need them, and will be willing to spew platitudes without prompting.
In any event, here’s a good rule for you when you’re looking at movie blurbs: if all the movie blurbs come from folks who work for radio and television, it’s almost certainly a bad film. If it actually has quotes from a fairly large-circulation newspaper or magazine (Time, Newsweek, LA or New York Times, Chicago Trib or Sun-Times, etc), you run a much better chance of it being good.
Q: Have you ever had a quote used in a blurb? Was it actually what you had said about the movie?
A: Yes, I have, and no it wasn’t — all the qualifiers were removed and exclamation points were added, making it appear that I had liked the film a great deal more than I had (The film was called Breaking the Rules, and it was very mildly interesting. They made it look like I was really nuts for it). Ultimately it didn’t matter, since the film tanked very badly. But I chided the Miramax publicist at the time about it, and she basically pleaded guilty as charged. I’d been blurbed a couple of other times as well, but those were end of year laundry list things, where the ad’s intent is to show just how many critics put the film on their Top Ten list for that year.
My relative dearth of blurbness is partially due to my writing style, which was intentionally blurb-resistant (call me crazy, but I don’t do a lot of critical thinking in blurb form), and also because the publicists eventually learned not to ask me for them. I remember at a Disney junket, one of the publicists asked me if I might have a blurb for the live-action version of The Jungle Book, to which I responded “Sure. ‘It’s the best film, featuring animals, based on the sub-continent, featuring a non-Indian in an Indian part, this year!'” They left me alone after that.
More to the point, however, was the fact that I worked in Fresno, which is not a well-known city, except in California, where it’s basically a joke. A publicist worth his or salt is not going to use a quote from Fresno if they can avoid it — and if they can’t avoid it, it says that some 200 critics in markets bigger than Fresno liked it less than I did. Which says something right there. In any event, the way I figured it, my job was to tell the folks in Fresno if a movie was any damned good, not to make friends with movie publicists by providing them blurbs.
Q: It sounds like movie publicists are kind of scumbags.
A: Well, no. They just have a job to do, which is to do all they can to make their film successful. The vast majority of the movie publicists I knew were decent people, largely overworked. They knew what stuff of theirs was good, and what wasn’t, and privately, they’d give you their opinions like anyone else. I know of several critics who held publicists in disdain, but I never did, and in fact went out of my way to be helpful to them when it came to things that involved me (scheduling interviews, for example) because I know that what comes around, goes around. As the publicists came to know me, they knew that I couldn’t be influenced critically, but that otherwise I could be very accommodating. As a result, I think I was provided with some access that I would not have otherwise gotten, given the size of my market. Which helped me to do my job. Moral here: be nice to people you work with. It helps.
Q: How many movies did you see a year?
A: Between 250 and 300. Of which, ten percent were truly bad, ten percent were really good, and the rest were somewhere in the middle. It’s the ones in the middle that were the problem — reviews for really good and really bad movies pretty much write themselves, since you have strong opinions about them. It’s the 240 movies you don’t give a damn about that you have to worry about — you still want to make the review interesting to read.
Q: Did you have any particular critical philosophy?
A: Not really. I just usually tried to figure out what the film was trying to do, and then assess how well it was doing it. I tried to take each film on its own merits (or lack thereof), and not do a lot of comparing with other films (unless it’s so obviously derivative of some film or another that you can’t avoid it). Since what I was doing was also consumer reporting, in a very elemental sense, I would also try to figure out who might enjoy it, and how it works for that crowd. For example, Waiting to Exhale really didn’t do anything for me at all, but it was a well-made movie, and I could tell that was going to hit a nerve in women, and black women in particular. So I mentioned that (and I was right).
Q: Any biases you were aware of?
A: Yup. I was fairly well convinced that most horror films were just not worth watching, and that assumption was borne out again and again. There were fewer good films in that genre while I was a critic than in any other. Which is a shame, as a good horror film truly rocks. I’m also willing to put up with a lot of crap in a science-fiction film, because I am a geek. Finally, I never understood why anyone thought that Oliver Stone was all that as a director — he mostly drove me nuts. When I knew I had a strong bias one way or another, I’d generally mention it right off — no point trying to hide what’s going to become fairly obvious, anyway.
Q: What did you do if someone came up and said that they had a completely different opinion about a film?
A: Nothing. What would I do? When I write a review, it’s just my own opinion as well. As I used to tell people, “The only difference between my opinion and your opinion is that I get to tell my opinion to a couple hundred thousand people.” I don’t think you have to agree with a critic to be able to use him or her to judge whether you should go to see a film — the idea is to read enough of their reviews that you get a sense of where they’re coming from, relative from you, and then use that. I’ve had people come up to me and say “I only go to see films you don’t like.” To which I said, that’s great — my reviews work for you.
This is why I also feel it’s important for a movie critic (or any critic) to have a strong personal voice — after all, the critic IS a person, not some faceless, god-like entity. They’re fallible (some more often than not). Their readers should be able to get a sense of what sort of person that critic is, because obviously who the critic is as a person informs who the critic is as a critic. At the same time, of course, critics need to remember the review isn’t about them — it’s about the movie. The personality should come out of the writing about the movie.
Q: What do you hate when you read movie reviews?
A: Boring writing. Reviews that are actually nothing but plot synopses. Reviews that give away important plot points (the point is to interest folks in seeing a movie — not to ruin the movie for them). Reviewers who write as if they actually know what the director is trying to do at all points (it’s okay to say “It seems like….”). Reviews that talk over the heads of the intended audience — if a critics writing for a general interest newspaper, they should keep the reader in mind (which doesn’t mean you can’t express complicated ideas — just find good, colloquial ways to do it).
Q: What’s your opinion of most movie critics?
A: I’m indifferent to most critics. The problem from what I can see is that a lot of the folks that review films haven’t really mastered the concept of articulating a critical opinion: they might be able to express what they like or don’t like, but they can’t explain why — and it’s the why that’s important. This isn’t much of an issue with the really big newspapers and magazines, who basically get the cream of the critical crop, but it is a legitimate issue for mid-sized and small newspapers and magazines. These newspapers and magazines, while trying to provide a valuable service (or at the very least, something that will bring in readers), actually end up giving their readers something of questionable value — a review that doesn’t truly review. Now, the folks may be fine people as people, but as critics, they need work. I don’t know if there’s a solution, of course, but that’s the problem as I see it.
Q: Why should we listen to critics, anyway? How can they review something if they don’t create in the first place?
A: The is the biggest load of crap that gets bruited around by filmmakers (or indeed, anyone who has ever been subjected to a review). My response to this is: I can’t lay an egg, but I know when I’m eating a bad one. What filmmakers are saying here is that reviewers know nothing about the specific process of making a film, and don’t know what goes into it. All right. Fine. But as a critic, I’m not interested in the process to being with; I’m interested in the result — the movie. Yes, making a movie is hard. But I don’t care about that. What I care about is — is the movie, in my opinion, actually worth seeing? If it’s not, the most I can do is feel sorry for the people who poured so much of themselves into an inferior product. Again, a critic’s responsibility is not to the moviemakers — it’s to his or her readers, who are looking for some idea of whether they should spend their own money to see the film. My only responsibility to the filmmaker, as a critic, is to treat the movie fairly as possible. Which I always did. Whether or not I or any critic can create a film is immaterial, really. That’s not our job.
Q: Can a movie review actually make a difference?
A: Depends on the movie. It’s common knowledge that some movies are “critic-proof,” and The Lost World is a perfect example of this: it was pretty much panned by most respectable critics, but racked up a $70 million opening weekend and a $250 million total gross. It was Spielberg. It was dinosaurs. Do the math. But reviews can help some movies go to the next level. A good example of this is In & Out, which would have probably done about $40 million in business if its reviews were indifferent-to-good. But they were good-to-great, and as a result, it’ll probably end up at the $80 million level or so. L.A. Confidential is another example: no real stars and a no-name director — and blisteringly good reviews. It’s the reviews that got the butts in the seats.
When I was in Fresno, I was reasonably influential — a bad review from me would have an effect. The most obvious relation was with “art films”; the theater managers told me that a good review in the Bee of an art film could keep the film going in town for weeks; a bad review, however, and it was out in a week. In those specific cases, a review meant a lot.
Q: Did you ever get tired of watching movies?
A: From time to time, when I saw five mediocre movies in a row. Mostly, though, it was fun. I mean, I’m going to go to the movies, anyway. Having said that, when I gave up the job in March of 1996, I didn’t see another film in the movie theater until July, when my wife dragged me in to see Independence Day. During that time, I didn’t miss going to see films, although it was weird not being required to see them. When I walked away from the job, I was worried that I might feel like I was getting behind on film. But I didn’t — I had enough to do with my new job that I didn’t have time to dwell on it. These days, I’ll go to two or three movies a month and I don’t feel like I’m missing much.
Q: Would you ever want to review movies again?
A: Sure. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and I think I was pretty good. But I also enjoy what I’m doing now. You could make me an offer. But a warning — I won’t come cheap any more.