I’m writing this article because I wish I could have found an article like it a few years back when I really started becoming interested in furthering my interest in writing about film. If you love movies and are curious about how to go about writing about them, then read on and I will share with you my experiences.
First off, a disclaimer – I currently make zero money as a film critic. Zilch. There are some nice perks that come up, such as seeing all sorts of movies for free before they hit the big screen, but that’s it at this point. So if you are hoping to see the dollars roll in while you sit in front of a movie screen, this is not the tutorial for you.
With that out of the way, let’s establish a simple rule for being a film critic – you must like movies (all sorts) and watch a lot of them. There is an exception to the “all sorts” part if you are intent on tackling just a specific genre such as horror, but I would argue that it is still important to have exposure to all types of films even if that’s the case.
Unlike a lot of film critics, I didn’t grow up watching that many movies. It wasn’t until college that I started to really gain an interest in film. I happened to befriend some people whose regular routine was to watch at least a movie or two a day and my interest grew from there. I took a few film classes as they fit into my schedule and degree, but I didn’t have any big plans to get into film journalism.
Fast forward a few years and my film interests continued to be fueled by a Netflix subscription and regular updates from news sites like SlashFilm. Someone at my job started referring to me as Ebert because of how much I talked about movies. She said I should just become a film critic already. Eventually I took her advice to heart and started an experiment.
For one year, I wrote a review of every single movie I watched, be it old or new. I didn’t have more than a handful of readers at the very most, but I published them on a simple blog. I ended up with exactly one hundred reviews that year and it was a wonderful exercise. I highly recommend doing it, even if you don’t put the reviews out there for anyone else to read. It will give you a chance to work on establishing your tone and style, and just practice writing. It will also give you an idea of whether or not that type of volume of watching and writing is going to be something you can (or want to) keep up. If it becomes more of a chore than anything else and you stop enjoying the movies you’re watching, then maybe this isn’t for you.
Keeping up with all those movies was, in fact, a bit tiring. I actually took a bit of a break from writing movie reviews after that, though I did get involved in a few other projects that involved writing about films. Eventually though I realized what I really wanted to do was to start an honest to goodness film site where I could share my reviews of new releases and hopefully build a growing readership.
Of course, to write about new releases means that I need to watch them first. If you want to be a film critic with an audience you probably want to be review the latest flicks to hit the big screen too. That can get pretty expensive if you’re paying to see them in the theater. Not too mention, if you’re trying to see new films opening weekend, that could mean your whole weekend is going to be devoted to watching double and triple features and writing reviews as quickly as possible. How to regular film reviewers do it?
The answer is pre-screenings for press. Most films, from major blockbusters to indie art house flicks, are screened for press days or even weeks before they make their theatrical debut. This gives people time to write and publish their reviews ahead of time. Most important, these screenings are FREE, which means you aren’t going to go broke trying to see every single Adam Sandler movie that comes out this summer.
Now you’re asking how does that help if you’re not already a critic that can get on the press list. Luckily, you don’t have to be press to get into most of these screenings (in fact, sometimes there are screenings that members of the press are NOT allowed to attend). The studios are renting out a theater to screen these films and they want to make sure it’s worth their while, so they fill up all the non-press seats with other people who they hope will spread good vibes and word of mouth to their friends and family.
If you live in or around certain large cities, these types of screenings are held almost every day of the week. Passes to attend are given away on websites (like mine!), radio stations, newspapers, and at PR firm sponsored activities. You just have to learn where to look for them. It took me over a year to get on the press list and I relied on those passes to get in to movie screenings until then. If you decide to give it a go, just make sure to get to the theater early, especially for popular films. To ensure a full house, theaters are usually overbooked and seats are first come first served. A good place to start if you want to find these screenings is advancescreenings.com which will let you know what movies are being screened near you and who is giving away passes.
What if you’re not in a large city and there aren’t any special screenings near you? There are still other options. Studios will sometimes make physical copies or online streaming links available to members of the press by request. Unless you are already a very important member of the press, this is rare for big blockbusters with piracy concerns, but fairly common for lower budget indie fare. If there is an indie film coming out soon that interests you, try looking up the studio and figuring out what PR firm they use. Contact them with your information explaining who you are and that you would like the opportunity to review their film. Eventually, as you gain notice and get on a few people’s lists, it will pay off! It helps if you have something established already, of course, to show that you are worth their attention. Even if you want to begin by publishing DVD and Blu-Ray reviews, that can be a great way to build a portfolio. You might even find that is your niche and eventually have new home video releases sent to you for review!
A quick note – it should go without saying that whether you are viewing films at a press screening, from a screener sent to you, or a streaming link that piracy is a big no no! Studios are trusting that you will treat their property with respect and not sell or share it. Besides being illegal and unethical, if you’re ever caught pirating press materials, you can very well get banned from any press access again.
Once you have built a backlog of film reviews, you might want to look into joining a critics association. WAFCA (Washington DC Area Film Critics Association), of which I am a member, is currently accepting 2015 applications. Other cities and areas have their own recognized critics groups, and if there are none where you live, there’s the OFCS for online film critics all over the world. Each organization will have their own requirements for joining and you will need to have something to show for yourself before applying. It’s probably best to at least have a year’s worth of work under your belt.
Being a part of a critics organization not only lends credence to your claim of being a film critic and can help you get an “in” when it comes to getting on press lists, but it can come with another perk as well. Starting around October of each year, movies, soundtracks, and a few other goodies start showing up at my door. The studios are all gearing up for awards season, and if the critics group you are a part of gives out awards, the studios want your vote. I end up with more movies than I have time to watch, mostly made up of the most buzzed about contenders.
That, in a nutshell, has been my experience becoming a film critic – your results may vary. As I said before, I’m not in this for the money and currently make nothing from it (though I have begun trying to find some unobtrusive ways of monetizing my site). I know plenty of other critics in the same boat as I am. Others are freelance writers with film being only part of what they do. It’s increasingly rare that you will find people who’s sole job description is “film critic.” If you want to make a career out of this it is going to take a lot of persistence and being in the right place at the right time. It’s possible, but won’t happen overnight.
If you have any specific questions for me, feel free to ask them in the comments below and I will be glad to answer them!