Film Critic  What They Do

Just the Facts

Insider Info

dotWe all have opinions about the movies we see. But to be paid for your opinion as a working film critic, you need to offer something more.

Film critics offer more than just an opinion -- they offer lively and engaging writing, an intelligent perspective and in-depth knowledge of film. The best ones make us want to read them even when we disagree with them, because they are thoughtful and insightful.

"One thing I always tell people about critics is that if I'm right most of the time, then I'm useful, and if I'm not right most of the time, I'm also useful," says Peter Howell. He's a full-time film critic for a newspaper. "It works either way."

dotSteve Biodrowski agrees. He's the administrator-editor of Cinefantastique Online.

"I think the ones that are cream of the crop are the ones who have skills as a writer so that they can express interesting ideas, so that it doesn't matter so much whether you agree or disagree with them, you want to read them anyway," says Biodrowski.

dotMany film critics do more than just review movies. They might also produce critical essays, trend pieces and interviews. Most critics work for newspapers, radio or television. The Internet provides a whole other world of opportunity for film critics, especially for those just getting their feet wet.

"People think of movie criticism as just sitting there with a giant bucket of popcorn and watching movie after movie," says Howell. "But if that's all it was it would get boring very quickly. When you make it a job it has to become 24-7 -- it's something that you can't ever leave behind."

dotThere are various stages in a film critic's writing process: taking notes, making an outline, finding and researching a topic, integrating technical details into the analysis and revising for sharper style. A critic must learn a great deal about film terminology, history, genres and ideology.

"I love the opportunity to be able to see so many films from all over the world, from established directors to first-time directors," says Marilyn Ferdinand. She's an independent film reviewer. "[I also enjoy] finding new talents and seeing the maturer work of people who've been around for a long time. And I love to write, so that helps, too."

The best film critics develop and present an argument and use concrete references to formal devices such as editing, acting and dialog. Opinion only prompts or motivates the criticism; it doesn't begin and end it.

Critics understand style and structure in writing, grammar and punctuation. They must also know how to write effectively. A good writer, regardless of the field, must also know the accepted format for things like acknowledging and documenting sources. This is particularly true for film critics who write for newspapers.

dotA very challenging aspect of the job is learning to take notes during a film and using visual memory and reflection to recall the movie.

"As a regular fan you might just go down to your local Cineplex and walk into any movie that's there and enjoy it, and then you go home and that's it," says Howell. "But when you're a critic you have to approach it as a more serious kind of thing. [You need] a professional kind of approach -- that requires a lot more effort."

Interviewing celebrities, directors and producers is part of the job of film critics who do film journalism. These people require good communication, interpersonal and listening skills. But some critics just review movies, and they might interact very little with others.

Many full-time film critics have been laid off in recent years. Those that remain are likely to hold onto their jobs as long as possible.

Aspiring film critics should therefore try to create their own opportunities. They can create their own film review website or submit freelance reviews to various print and online publications.

"It's impossible to make a living doing (only) film criticism," says Dan Kois. He's a freelance movie reviewer for Village Voice and the Washington Post, among other publications. "I certainly don't make a living doing only film criticism. I mean, there are a vanishingly small number of professional film critic jobs in the United States, and that number gets smaller every year.

"There are dozens and dozens of them (that have been laid off) just in the last five years," he adds. "Probably no one who will ever read this will make a living as a full-time film critic. What you can make a living as is as someone who writes about movies or more broadly writes about culture in an interesting way, with an interesting point of view. And criticism plays one part of that, but other things, other types of writing, have roles as well."

At a Glance

Review and critique movies

  • There's a difference between a review and a critique
  • Good communication, interpersonal and listening skills are important
  • A film studies or journalism background is preferred